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Alan Dunn and Mary Petty Papers

An inventory of their papers at Syracuse University

Finding aid created by: -
Date: unknown

Biographical History

Alan Dunn (1900-1974) and his wife Mary Petty (1899-1976) were American cartoonists. They married in 1927, and for more than thirty years lived in a modest, three-bedroom apartment in Manhattan that also served as their studio. They rarely left the city and, although they were members of several professional organizations and clubs and attended social events, Mary Petty and Alan Dunn spent a great deal of time developing their art and a unique view of life.

Alan Dunn studied at Columbia University, the National Academy of Design and the American Academy in Rome, an experience which provided him with a particular insight about both European cultures and American tourists. When he returned to the United States, his mild satire was well-received by magazines such as the newly established New Yorker, who began publishing his cartoons in 1926. Thanks to Dunn’s expertise at drawing architecture (beginning in 1936 he contributed regularly to "Architectural Record") viewers can easily identify European settings in his cartoons such as the Roman Forum and the Basilica of Maxentius, and his social satires often illustrate American tourists’ provincial nature and myopic sense of superiority. He defined himself as a "social cartoonist, whose pen is no sword but a titillating feather that reminds us that we do not act as we speak or think."

Dunn eventually became the New Yorker's most prolific illustrator, creating 9 covers and nearly 2000 cartoons over 47 years. Several collections of his cartoons were published including Who's Paying for this Cab? (Simon & Schuster, 1945), A Portfolio of Social Cartoons (Simon & Schuster, 1968) and Architecture Observed (New York, 1970). His work has been exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Academy of Design, and Salons of America, and he was a member of the American Watercolor Society, the New York Watercolor Society, and Salons of America. According to a paper by Eric M. Jones of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, it was a 1950 cartoon of Dunn's featuring flying saucers stealing trash bins in Manhattan that led noted physicist Enrico Fermi to pose the question "Where is everybody?" This question later became known as the Fermi Paradox and, in conjunction with Drake's Equation, provides the mathematical starting point for much current debate on the possibility of extraterrestrials visiting earth.

Mary Petty graduated from the Horace Mann School in New York City in 1922, and five years later she and Dunn were married. Although Petty underwent no formal art training, she had the firm support of her husband who encouraged her originality and natural talent for drawing and provided artistic guidance. Soon she too was being published in The New Yorker, and over the next four decades created a singular style of illustration characterized by a gentle satirization of New York City's Victorian era society. In a series of 35 covers produced over 26 years, Mary Petty created and chronicled the lives of the Peabody family, including Mrs. Peabody, dowager of the family, and Fay, the whimsical, fragile maid who cared for the aging mistress and her family. These cover illustrations so successfully portrayed the personality quirks of New York's upper class that people would write to remark that they knew a family that must have been the model for these paintings.

Petty published over 200 cartoons in The New Yorker and painted more than 30 watercolors for the front cover of the magazine. Her work was exhibited nationally and internationally during her lifetime. Examples of her art are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of the City of New York and the Wichita Art Museum in Wichita, Kansas. The largest single collection of her work is owned by the Syracuse University Art Collections, a gift from the artist.

Mary Petty and Alan Dunn believed that gentle, pictorial satire could be as effective as political or editorial comment. Between them they created thousands of drawings that commented upon issues that are still important to us today, reminding us that a genteel manner of examining our culture can still be effective.

[Portions of this biographical sketch adapted from text for "Mary Petty Exhibit" at Syracuse University's Lubin House and from "American Satire: Humor in The New Yorker" at Syracuse University in Florence]

Scope and Contents of the Collection

This collection is partially processed only and remains in original order. Biographical material contains miscellaneous biographical material including a family history. Correspondence, most of which is incoming, includes letters from artists (Peggy Bacon, John Taylor Arms, Isabel Bishop, Felicia Marsh), museums (Cincinnati Art Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art, New York Metropolitan Museum, Museum of Modern Art), publications (Architural Record, Living Screen, Saturday Evening Post), publishers (Alfred Knopf, Bobbs Merrill, Doubleday, Simon & Schuster), and writers (Warren Chappell, Eric Hodgins, Alan Watts). Miscellaneous notes contains poems, cartoons, captions, exhibit catalogs, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, notebooks of ideas. Subject files comprise material on a variety of topics including alcoholism, architecture, human body, investing, New Yorker covers, war, and others.

Arrangement of the Collection

This collection is partially processed only and remains in its original order as received.


Access Restrictions:

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Use Restrictions:

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

Related Material

Special Collections Research Center has collections of more than eighty cartoonists. Please refer to the SCRC Subject Index for a complete listing.

Subject Headings


Arms, John Taylor, 1887-1953.
Bacon, Peggy, 1895-1987.
Bishop, Isabel, 1902-1988.
Chappell, Warren, 1904-
Dunn, Alan, 1900- Archives.
Hodgins, Eric, 1899-1971.
Petty, Mary Archives.
Watts, Alan, 1915-1973.

Associated Titles

New Yorker (New York, N.Y.: 1925)


American wit and humor, Pictorial.
Caricatures and cartoons, United States.
Cartoonists, United States.
Women cartoonists.

Genres and Forms

Cartoons (humorous images)
Clippings (information artifacts)
Drawings (visual works)
Exhibition catalogs.



Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

Alan Dunn and Mary Petty Papers,
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Table of Contents

Biographical material



Subject files