First Families as an American Ideal

For this project I was initially looking into portraits and family photos from the late 1800s, and intended to explore what differences there were between how white and blacks were posed and portrayed. However, I soon realized that while this topic was interesting to me, I would be limited in the amount of documents there were. Furthermore, I was struggling to come up with questions to go along with these photographs. I knew that I wanted to do something with photos though, and that got me searching for a new topic. This new search led me to the photo below, which immediately captured my interest.

Bush family

The George Bush family in 1964 in Houston

Accompanying this photo were an assortment of other family photos of George H.W. Bush’s family, and diplomatic meetings that his wife Barbara conducted. From there I saw photos of other First Families and First Ladies, and I was hooked.

Potential Questions

  • How is the First Family used as an extension of the president’s image?
  • How does the way in which they are depicted show what the perception of the ideal American family was at that time?
  • What reasons might exist for the First Lady being photographed with someone? What message was the administration trying to get across?
  • How was the First Family used in the United States compared to the families of leaders in other leading power countries?

For example, we have the following photo of Barbara Bush and Raisa Gorbachev together in 1990. If someone did not know who these two women were, they likely would assume that they were two good friends, rather than the wives of the leaders of nations that were coming to the end of an unspoken war. Why were they both chosen to give this address? What was to be achieved by depicting the two as being so comfortable around each other? It should also be noted that the school at which they spoke, Wellesley, is an all-female college. What importance should be attached to this?

Bush and Gorbachev

Mrs. Bush and Raisa Gorbachev give the Commencement Address at Wellesley College

Looking Forward

I am not going to have any problem finding photographs that I could use for this project. If anything, I am going to struggle with narrowing down what era the photographs should cover, and which are the most important. I need to decide if I want to work with families that were in power back to back, or if I would prefer to have a gap, to show how things changed over the years. During our critique session in class, I got the suggestion to look into First Family equivalent photos from other countries, which is a great idea that I have not explored yet. Again, this will raise the problem of having too many potential documents to work with.

2 Replies to “First Families as an American Ideal”

  1. Emily, I think this will make for a great DBQ. I immediately think of the older (more formal) images from early 20th c compared to the Kennedys playing touch football. Talk to you more tomorrow.

  2. I think this topic is really interesting and definitely one I’ve never considered. It would be a really great topic to feed into modern day, comparing what the first family looked like fifty years ago to what it looks like today, and what implications that has for what happened over the past fifty years.

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