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Making Way for Ducklings in a Greenwich Village Bathtub

One day in 1939, famed writer and illustrator Robert McCloskey took a trip to a market near his Greenwich Village apartment and left with a group of live ducklings in tow. He brought them to his home at 280 West 12th Street, which he shared with his roommate, the illustrator Marc Simont, and placed them in his bathtub. He sketched the waddling creatures meticulously, developing the drawings for what has become one of the most beloved children’s books of all time: Make Way for Ducklings.

Make Way for Ducklings book cover.

Make Way for Ducklings was an immediate success, winning a Caldecott Medal in 1942, the year after it was published, and selling over two million copies. Who can forget Mr. and Mrs. Mallard, searching for a place to live, delighting in the swan boats at the Boston Public Garden, the people who feed them peanuts, and the nice policeman named Michael?

Standing before the audience giving his acceptance speech for the Caldecott Medal, McCloskey explained his inspiration for the story. In the early 1930s, he received a scholarship to study at the Vesper George Art School in Boston, which allowed him to leave his hometown of Hamilton, Ohio, despite the recent onset of the Depression. There he frequented the Boston Public Garden, where he loved to watch and feed the ducks. Though he moved to New York City in 1939 to study at the National Academy of Design, once he completed his studies he returned to Boston on a commission to design murals at the State House, the Charles River, and Louisburg Square. Again the ducks of Boston caught his attention, this time because of their capacity to cause traffic problems on the busy city streets. McCloskey was enraptured, and the story for Make Way for Ducklings was born.

Robert McCloskey. Photo courtesy of Show Me a Story!: Why Picture Books Matter: Conversations with 21 of the World’s Most Celebrated Illustrators by Leonard S. Marcus.

Back in New York City, McCloskey made hundreds of sketches of ducks at the Museum of Natural History. But still, he thought he could do better, and consulted with an ornithologist who suggested he purchase some living ducks. After bringing the ducks home, McCloskey said in his speech, “I spent the next weeks on my hands and knees, armed with a box of Kleenex and a sketch book, following the ducks around the studio and observing them in the bathtub.” Once the ducks had moved in, they woke up at the crack of dawn, squawking relentlessly, christening the names of the ducklings in the story: Jack, Cack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack. McCloskey ended up caring for sixteen ducks in total, which he fed with sacks of feed called “mash” as they grew into larger, messier living companions. One night, frustrated with how quickly the ducks moved, making them more difficult to draw, McCloskey apparently gave the ducks some of his red wine. This succeeded in slowed them down significantly, but McCloskey is said to have apologized for his decision. Life Magazine intended to feature McCloskey and the ducks, and even went so far as to send a photographer to complete a shoot at his apartment, but the story was never released to the public. Germany invaded Poland the day the issue was supposed to be released, causing international tragedy and turmoil.

Make Way for Ducklings illustration. Photo courtesy of WBUR via the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The best part of Make Way for Ducklings is the charming drawings, which McCloskey executed in soft charcoal on paper and then lithographed. The eight ducklings featured in the story – taught by their mother, Mrs. Mallard, to walk in a line, come when called, and stay away from things with wheels – are imbued with enormous personality. Standing behind Mrs. Mallard, some of the ducks walk proudly up front, looking straight ahead, while others gaze off to the side, and still others seem to be chatting with one another. On each of the detailed pages, which depict the family’s walk from the Charles River to the Boston Public Garden to meet Mr. Mallard, every one of the ducks’ expressions and actions are unique. The images alone do much of the work of raising the tension when the ducks face the chaotic city streets with loud squawks and quacks until Michael the policeman finds them, enlists more policemen for help, and protects the ducks as they make their way safely to their new home home at the Public Gardens. Beyond McCloskey’s thorough efforts to represent the ducks with accuracy, the imaginative leaps he takes in his illustrations make this book the wonder that it is.

After serving in World War II, McCloskey moved with his family to an island off the coast of Maine, inspiring his next books, including Blueberries for Sal (1948), One Morning in Maine (1952), and Time of Wonder (1958), the latter of which won him another Caldecott Award. In 1987, for the 150th Anniversary of the Boston Public Garden, a Make Way for Ducklings bronze sculpture was placed in the park, encouraging children to sit upon the sculpted creatures. McCloskey was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress in 2000, and died in 2003 at the age of 88.

To learn more about the great artists and writers who lived in Greenwich Village, check out the Great Writers and Artists’ Homes tour in our recently released interactive map, Greenwich Village Historic District, 1969-2019: Photos and Tours.

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