CSotD: 1924 Part Two – The Strips

(Banner by Johnny Walbridge, who, as noted yesterday, went on to be a Disney writer and animator.)

We’ll start our look back at 1924 with a strip I didn’t know existed, possibly because it was only around for about three years. Ring Lardner was a popular writer and this was something of an extension of his classic book, but Wikipedia reports that he didn’t much like the writing gig and the strip ended in 1925.

BTW, I’ve put today’s strips up on the Embiggenator, since the dialogue seems so cramped here. You have to realize that a century ago, strips had much greater real estate to work on. The link will be at the end of today’s posting.

Point of Personal Privilege: Mother West Wind Stories author Thornton W. Burgess had a daily story in the papers, which I know because my grandfather used to tear it out of his paper on the train home from work and then read it aloud to my mother who was born in September, 1924, so obviously missed hearing this one.

This one came as a surprise to me, since I didn’t think classical literature ran as serial stories much after Dickens, unless you count Sherlock Holmes, whose tales ran in newspapers until 1927.

But radio was still in its infancy in 1924 and newspapers were most of the daily entertainment in the average household.

In fact, at month’s end, Dorman Smith drew this editorial cartoon about radio going from a geeky do-it-yourself electronics fad to a full-blown medium. And just before the end of 1923, David Sarnoff declared that he felt the licensing system — as had been initiated in Britain — was elitist and that people should not have to pay to listen. He doesn’t mention advertising, but that was the obvious alternative.

As Smith’s unhappy fellow suggests, one way or the other, the Good Old Days were over.

In case you thought the emergence of Apple and Windows and such developments were the first time that ever happened.

However, we should not suggest that reading newspapers was the only way to have fun a century ago:

In the meantime, Major Hoople and his housemates provided plenty of laughs and hot air at Our Boarding House.

There were any number of these slice-of-life panels and going through comics pages of the 20s and 30s often turns up several examples side-by-side on the page. The Old Home Town is one of the more successful examples, but there were many that came and went, and the busier the better.

Mutt and Jeff was among the giants of the time, and Bud Fisher himself appears in this strip, which takes advantage of Mexico’s unstable government to send the boys on a bit of an adventure.

(We don’t write headlines today the way we did in 1914)

It’s hard to declare this as the strip’s New Year’s Day episode because a perusal of newspapers for any date in that period is apt to reveal two or three different Mutt and Jeff strips, depending on which of the batch a particular editor reached for.

However, this is the start of a story arc, so we can at least hope, if not assume, that whenever it ran, the rest of the story would follow in sequence.

And if we’re going to give Bud Fisher a tip of the hat, it makes sense to feature Bringing Up Father, generally referred to as Maggie and Jiggs, next, because, like Fisher, George McManus was a rock star of a cartoonist.

The storyline was that Jiggs, a contractor, won the Irish Sweepstakes and became wealthy, to his frequent regret but the delight of his social-climbing wife, with much of the humor being in the contrast between shanty-Irish Jiggs and lace-curtain Irish Maggie, the definition of lace-curtain Irish being people who have fruit in the house when nobody is sick.

But Maggie was originally shanty-Irish herself, which made her pretentions that much more amusing to the audience and frustrating for Jiggs.

Note that their daughter, a later addition to the cast, is drawn quite differently, and the strip often featured pretty girls while everyone else is cartoonish.

Toots and Casper pioneered the combination of a cartoonish man and a gorgeous woman, which I would note was a trope that continued into television, from the Life of Riley and Make Room for Daddy on down to King of Queens, each featuring an unmade bed of a husband with a beautiful wife.

Polly and Her Pals featured a beautiful girl in the lead role, surrounded by a cartoonish cast, though you have to look carefully to spot that in this collection of silhouettes. As Don Markstein noted in that linked write-up, it was a highly creative strip that may have been, as the saying goes, too smart for the house.

Winnie Winkle was a looker, but hardly a flapper. Rather, she one of the first working women and spent a fair amount of energy trying to support her family in extended story arcs.

Her father was generally a screw-up, but I don’t recall him being a drunkard. It kind of surprises me to see a drunk joke in the paper, given that Prohibition was just around the corner, but it fits in with Ring Lardner’s hungover Al, as seen above, and, in fact, there seems to have been a lot of it going around.

Andy Gump also rang in the New Year with a never-again hangover and the utter lack of sympathy of his wife, Min. The Gumps were something of a family of schlimazels, but that was their appeal and they were extraordinarily popular.

Goodness gracious, even the Skipper of the Toonerville Trolley seems to have had a snoot full for New Year’s!

This was a brilliant feature, but it ended when I was five years old and I didn’t see it until, as an adult, I began going through old newspapers. What I did see as a kid, however, was a number of small amusement parks that included a Toonerville Trolley in their rides.

My father no doubt took them for granted, because he was not only an amateur cartoonist of some talent but, in his early years, bore the nickname “Skeezix.”

Walt Wallett found little Skeezix on his doorstep February 14, 1921, and Dad was born March 28, so you might say he and Skeezix grew up together, since Gasoline Alley was the first strip in which the characters aged in real time, and on New Year’s Day, 1924, they’d have both been on the cusp of turning three.

Merrill Blosser’s Freckles also aged, though he started as a little kid and only aged into his teen years. The strip was actually called “Freckles and His Friends,” with Freckles in the dotted shirt next to his father, his little brother Tagalong in the nightshirt next to him, with the rest being the aforementioned friends, plus his mother.

As a teenager, Freckles was more realistic than Archie or Harold Teen, and his continuing stories were both believable and engaging, somewhat like an Andy Hardy movie, though the strip began as a gag-a-day.

Even then, it was above the usual.

Case in point being that this was a time when corporal punishment was a normal part of kids’ lives, and those who never got a spanking were considered spoiled. Out Our Way was usually a much more sentimental look at childhood than today’s example, but use of a belt or, in this case, a razor strop, was not all that unusual.

Out Our Way was not quite two years old on January 1, 1924, and Williams’ mother became far less stern and far more frazzled in years to come. But whether or not Blosser saw this panel and reacted to it, Freckles took a very different view of corporal punishment just six weeks later:

When I was a kid in the ’50s, I still had friends who, if they did something seriously bad, would be told to “go cut a switch,” but, while spanking with hands remained common, switches and belts were fading fast, such that, when NFL player Adrian Peterson used a switch on his son in 2014, he ended up in court for abuse and was suspended by the league.

For Blosser to put the common practice in such sharp, sensible perspective a century ago must certainly have made a few parents rethink their reality.

This episode of the Doings of the Duffs reverses the cartoon guy and gorgeous girl trope, but Olivia Duff manages to get in a heartbreaking punchline at the end and we may assume she’s good-looking enough to get away with it.

While speaking of thoughtless people, Castor Oyl had five more self-involved years to go before he’d hire a certain sailor and lose control of the Thimble Theater. And much as I like that new guy, I kind of miss this old curmudgeon, who handed over the reins, and the name of the strip, then disappeared entirely.

And here’s a traditional New Year’s strip by a guy whose name is better known today than his actual work, and who, I would note, draws a girl a whole lot cuter than he does the fellas his cop is rousting.

Here’s the link to the Embiggenator.

And here’s something you didn’t know was about to turn 100:

9 thoughts on “CSotD: 1924 Part Two – The Strips

  1. Thanks for this, Mike. One for the archives.

    I had an older cousin named Skeezix. My grandmother raised him because his mother had died early on. I think I was in my fifties when I learned that it was precisely because of that, because for all practical purposes he was an orphan, that he was given the nickname “Skeezix.”

    And we had a little tin wind-up Toonerville trolley. In the manner of little kids everywhere keeping things local, I thought that “Toonerville” was a kind of abbreviation of “Altoona-ville.”


  2. Having read Freckles and His Friends in the ’60’s and ’70’s, I don’t remember Tagalong still being in the strip. He must have followed My Three Sons’s Mike Douglas off to wherever surplus kids go.

  3. The expression “the gypsy touch,” meaning stealing, in “Our Boarding House” is interesting.

    The “Out Our Way” strip is horrific by today’s standards. Beating a kid and his dog is funny???

    1. These days the very term “gypsy” is considered offensive.

      And yeah, the entirety of that joke is “Careful Ma, if you beat me the dog’ll bite you!” “Don’t worry, I’ll beat the dog too!” like YIKES

  4. Thanks, Mike, for all these articles. I’ll ‘toon’ in for more in 2024 (pitiful rhyme an pun, but, It’s all I could come with for now)
    Best wishes to you. (But, watch out for and try to avoid all the chaos likely to ensue.)

  5. That “Getting An Earful” comic is still relevant. I remember the days when the internet was largely the domain of nerds and techies, before corporate interests made AdBlock pretty much a requirement.

  6. It always surprised me that it took so long for cartooonists to realize that using a ruler to guide their lettering from size-changes and wandering all over the page. It makes re-experiencing the first several decades of newspaper strips a lot more difficult than it had to be. Some of these guys had figured it out by 1924, some had not.

    And speaking of THE GUMPS (in particular), I can’t help but reflect that, during my very short turn as a comic-book writer, I was given a very strict limit on my per-panel dialogue of 35 words. Of course, these guys realized that if they could fill a panel with dialogue, it would be that much less time and drawing to finish that day’s strip–probably something they thought about a lot, given the size of the printed strips–and the originals.

    Re: Thornton W. Burgess: the stories were still running as late as 1958-60 or so, as my mom cut each one out of the Milwaukee Journal’s Green Sheet comics section and pasted them into a scrapbook that I may still have in a box under my stairs. Though I had only recently learned to read, I soon figured out that I liked the animal drawings accompanying the stories more than I did the stories themselves. I never told my mom, who’d expended so much effort on the compilation.

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