Cute kitsch or deeply depraved?


Henry Houghton, of the central Massachusetts town of Athol, advertised in the May and June 1949 issues of Popular Mechanics, apparently trying to establish a photography business.


This is the only record that Internet research could turn up on Houghton. But 67 years later, four of his snapshots turned up at the Walden Street Antiques, in Concord, Mass., at $1 apiece in a bin with other mostly unidentified family photos. Each of the prints is stamped on the reverse with an official looking "Henry Houghton's Athol, Mass.," along with the date, in this case, August 1950.


The doll Dorothy is photographed here at Long Lake, a park in Littleton, Mass.  Was Houghton on assignment, or was he just having fun, creating a little tableau?



In this and two other images, Dorothy is propped up with a Shmoo. The creation of L'il Abner cartoonist Al Capp, the Shmoo first appeared in Aug. 31, 1948, becoming a sensation in Dogpatch and around the world over the next few months; the spin-off toy Shmoo, like Dorothy, lasted longer.

Unusual critters, to say the least, Shmoon (yes, that's the plural) reproduced asexually, were always smiling and were happy to let you eat them. After dining on their flesh one could use their pelts for leather, but since they produced both milk and butter, it would be a mistake to kill off a Shmoo. In the cartoon strip, contented Shmoon have love hearts drawn are around their heads.



Of course, it's almost impossible to make out the Schmoo in the faded old photo above. Below see picture of a West Berlin child holding a Schmoo and sitting on a Care package in October 1948, during the Soviet blockade and the Western Allies' airlift to relieve the city.





As  adorable as a Shmoo is, there is something creepy about this one's friendship with Dorothy – or rather, while Shmoon are harmless, the doll appears somewhat supernatural. What were Henry Houghton's pictures meant to convey? Was he attempting a story for a child or children? Intentional or not, Dorothy is as menacing and as disturbing as a character by that other New Englander, Stephen King.


William Morgan,  a Providence-based architectural historian and essayist, taught the history of photography at Princeton University.