CARTOONING THE ROARING TWENTIES
Part Two: January 1923 - December 1925
TWENTIETH CENTURY AMERICA didn't begin in 1900 or 1901. Until World War I was over, the twentieth century in America was little more than an attic for the nineteenth— full of the dusty and slightly threadbare notions of a fading Victorian Age and the mouldy pioneering axioms of the westward movement. But in the 1920s, the salesman replaced the frontiersman in American culture, and with that, Twentieth Century America was born.
Mass production more than anything else created what we know as modern America. Goods produced in the vast quantities made possible by assembly-line methods demanded an entire nation of consumers, and in fomenting a nation of consumers, the salesman and his henchman, the advertising man, created also a national audience.
Advertisements concocted in New York to sell products manufactured in Detroit were read in periodicals published in Chicago that were sold from coast to coast. Everywhere, everyone read virtually the same things. Even local newspapers, fed by national wire services, press associations and feature syndicates, were disseminating the same news and ideas in every corner of the land.
And the nation's readers were bound even closer together as they became the nation's listeners when the newest marvel of the age swept across the country. The first radio station began by broadcasting the Cox-Harding Presidential election returns November 2, 1920, and was heard only by amateur wireless operators. By the close of the decade, radio had every citizen in its thrall: listeners from Maine to California stopped whatever they were doing every evening to listen for fifteen minutes to "Amos `n' Andy," one of the earliest radio serials.
During the 1920s, national radio networks and national magazines bound the nation together as nothing else could. Everyone was in the same audience. And as one writer of the day observed, "The national mind became as never before an instrument upon which a few men could play." An audience weary of war and the troubles of the world and with more leisure time than ever before seized eagerly upon whatever distractions mass communications offered. And because the audience was nation-wide, the distractions it seized upon became national crazes. Whenever a new toy or a fad or a scandal engaged the public's fancy, it was promptly and repeatedly on the front pages of every newspaper everywhere, in feature articles in national magazines, and broadcast over the air waves into every home in the land.
By this means, a Frenchman named Emil Coue made his fortune by getting the country to chant his “autosuggestions” formula for happiness and well-being: “Day after day in every way, I am getting better.” Next, everyone was singing “Yes, We Have No Bananas” and then doing cross-word puzzles and then marathon dancing or flag-pole sitting.
As for scandal, the decade soon had a lulu in the storied film colony on the West Coast. The U.S. was on a movie-going binge. Americans flocked to the country's 17,000 movie houses on the average of once a week to see their favorite screen personalities. Charlie Chaplin was at the peak of his powers. So were Mabel Normand, Douglas Fairbanks, Lillian Gish. Everyone may have been in love with Mary Pickford, the archetypal girl next door, but vast numbers of the audience lusted with equal devotion after Theda Bara, the industry's first sex queen. Or Rudolph Valentino, "the great lover."
If the movies titillated, the private lives of movie stars absolutely fascinated. In scores of tawdry movie magazines, film folk were depicted as engaged in madcap off-screen depravities— spending fabulous fortunes on wild parties, booze and drugs, ostentatious homes and flashy automobiles. Then, in the fall of 1921, came the sensation that topped all others: the popular comedian Roscoe Conklin "Fatty" Arbuckle was charged with murder when a starlet died after a bedroom interlude with him during one of his celebrated orgies.
Arbuckle was eventually found not guilty, but his career was over. And so was the long bacchanal in Hollywood. Movie moguls, fearing a public reaction that would hurt their box office receipts, decided to clean up the act: they drafted Will Hayes out of Warren Harding's cabinet (which, ironically, would prove as corrupt as Hollywood was debauched) to police the industry's morals, both on screen and off. But sin remained popular in spite of the Hayes Office— both with film stars and with their audience, which conducted itself through much of the decade as if it had just discovered sex.
Some scandals had little to do with the libido. In the summer of 1925, the nation was entertained with daily reports from Dayton, Tennessee, where a school teacher named John Scopes was being tried for teaching evolution. It was the ultimate struggle of the decade—the Modernists against the Fundamentalists. Famed Clarence Darrow offered a nobly intelligent defense, but the jury liked William Jennings Bryan's Bible-thumping prosecution better.
Intolerance of all sorts flourished in the twenties. Immigrants, radicals, and all minorities were subject to attack— blacks, Jews, and Catholics in particular. In this environment, the Ku Klux Klan flourished. Revived, some believe, by the popularity of D.W. Griffith's 1915 movie, “Birth of a Nation,” the KKK grew to a membership of over 4.5 million and dominated political life in the mid-twenties in seven states.
Meanwhile, Prohibition, the Anti-Saloon League's hope for national sainthood, was well on its way to becoming a colossal failure. By 1923, the year the cartoons at hand began to see print, the supply of illicit liquor was coming into the country in a torrent— across the Canadian border, from ships lying offshore just beyond the 3-mile limit (in "Rum Row"). Instead of being sainted, the nation was besotted.
Breaking liquor laws was commonplace. And almost universally condoned. Edward S. Martin, writing in the nation's venerable humor magazine Life, reminded his readers that lawbreakers historically were often heroes: "Among the people who did most for human liberty and human happiness is a splendid gallery of lawbreakers." The most profound result of Prohibition, Martin said on another occasion, "is that it has transferred discussion from the effects of alcohol on human beings to the effects of Prohibition on alcohol." The quality of illegal liquor could not be controlled, and some of the stuff was downright poison. Bad liquor killed 14 people during New Year's celebrations in New York in 1923.
Speakeasies were as much a part of urban life as the growing problem of streets congested by automobile traffic. Speaks were different than saloons: since admittance tended to be restricted to those who knew the password ("Joe sent me"), a clubby membership atmosphere prevailed. Hence, these establishments of the evening's entertainment became "night clubs." (And the admission fee charged to help the management maintain the hideaway was called, logically, a couvert charge.)
Each night club tended to develop a distinctive ambiance. A one-time movie actress named Texas Guinan made a career as a hostess enlivening a succession of New York's night spots: "Never give a sucker an even break," she advised. And she greeted her customers accordingly: "Hello, sucker," she'd bellow from across the room.
For a less boisterous evening, the crowds gathered at Helen Morgan's where the bad booze was made palatable by the torch singer's husky contralto. (Illustrator James Montgomery Flagg explained her appeal best: she was, he said, the composite of all the ruined women in the world.)
All bootleggers were criminals by definition, but they weren't all gangsters. Bootlegging, however, gave gangsters the impetus to organize, and by the end of the dry era, organized crime was an institution. Dapper Johnny Torrio did most of the organizing in Chicago, but when the business threatened to get bloody in 1925, he prudently retired to Italy, leaving his empire to Alphonse Capone. And, sure enough, the business got bloody.
crime didn't find its way into the cartoons of the lawless decade very often:
bootlegging could be joked about but not murder. However, in the pages of the
old Life, editoonist Charles H. Sykes sometimes reminded readers
about the cloud of criminality hanging over the country. Sykes did political
cartoons for the Philadelphia Evening Ledger on a daily basis; weekly,
he cranked up a cartoon in juicy wash for Life, and once a month, he did
a page of diminutive pen sketches commenting on the newsiest topics of the past
But if there is any single image that epitomizes the era it is not the funereal Mr. Dry in political cartoons; it is that effervescent bundle of giddy self-assurance, girlish laughter, and unabashed sex appeal— the flapper. The visual symbol of the flapper did not appear widely until she was an accepted type— that is, until about 1923; but she had become a familiar social phenomenon long before then.
The typical flapper was a nice girl who was a little fast ("brazen and at least capable of sin if not actually guilty of it," as Shelly Armitage says in her biography of John Held, Jr.). The flapper offended the Older Generation because she defied accepted conventions of decorous feminine behavior. Women's hair had always been long; the flapper wore hers short— "bobbed." She used make-up (which she often applied in public). She wore tight, short dresses which bared her arms completely and her legs from the knees down; underneath, she wore as little as possible. And on the beach, she resorted to a skin-tight, single-piece costume that didn't cover arms or legs and that therefore left very little of her figure to be imagined.
But the flapper did more than symbolize the revolution in feminine fashion and mores: she also embodied the spirit of the times in a way no other figure did. John Held, Jr., a mere cartoonist, did more to create this revolutionary icon than anyone else. And in the brevity and brilliance of his career, he embodied the meteoric character of the Age of Flaming Youth that he so aptly illustrated.
Held (January 10, 1889 - March 2, 1958) had come to New York from his hometown Salt Lake City in 1910, seeking a serious career as a sculptor, but he took work with advertising firms in order to make a living and sent for his wife Myrtle as soon as he felt secure. Formerly society editor for the Salt Lake City Tribune, Myrtle had a kind of self-assurance that her husband, at that time, lacked. Seeing commercial value in the comic sketches Held made after hours, she took them around to magazines and sold them.
By 1915, Held's work was appearing in Judge, Life, The Smart Set, and Vanity Fair. For years, his drawings were signed "Myrtle Held" or "Babette" because those who first bought them had believed that the woman who peddled them had also drawn them, and Myrtle, rather than give a tedious explanation, had played along, scrawling her name on her husband's unsigned work.
After World War I, Held began to develop a new drawing style to portray the new social order that was emerging in the post-war years. The Younger Generation, disillusioned by the brutishness of the conflict and the sordid politics of its aftermath (which demonstrated that the world was no more safe for democracy than it had been before the War), threw itself into cynical pursuit of some unattainable anodyne for their spiritless existence. Affecting a bored detachment beyond their experience of life, the Young plunged into endless rounds of drinking and pointless escapading, making merry desperately as if there were no tomorrow.
Focussing on their antics, Held captured their insouciance with the simple elegance of his line, their youth with perfectly spheroid heads proportionately too large for their bodies. Initially, Held's belles were roundish, almost plump, but at the apogee of their evolution, they were skinny approximations of their sex, emblematic of a sort of perpetual adolescence.
As skirts became shorter, Held exaggerated the effect by making his girls' legs longer and slenderer, giving them the gangling coltish appearance of youth. And so was the apotheosis of the flapper achieved.
Humorist Corey Ford maintained that Held actually invented the flapper by supplying the Young with a prototype: "Each new Held drawing was pored over like a Paris fashion plate, girls cropped their hair and rouged their cheeks and shortened their skirts to be in style, galoshes and raccoon coats were indispensable to every male undergraduate wardrobe. So sedulously did we ape his caricatures that they lost their satiric point and came to be a documentary record of our times."
Without question, Held defined the spirit of the decade. More than any other cartoonist, Held captured in his graphic abstractions the fashions and fads of the collegiate jazz age. His leggy flappers with noses in the air and hose rolled at the knee and his bell-bottomed sheiks with their hair plastered tight to cue-ball heads personified the Younger Generation to a nation of readers. His comic figures, shorthand caricatures in geometric shapes with mellon heads and spindly bodies, were rendered in delicate, fragile lines against which Held boldly contrasted solid blacks. Sophisticated and vaguely dissolute, his short-skirted cuties were insatiable neckers, and their tuxedo-clad escorts inveterate social bootleggers, a flask on every hip.
Held's work appeared regularly in all the most popular magazines. At the height of his fame, editors begged for his work. Theatrical caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, one of Held's closest friends, tells of watching Held open his morning mail— each of 20 or 30 envelopes containing a check for hundreds or thousands of dollars.
By this time, the would-be sculptor was trapped by the commercial and economic demands of his success as a cartoonist. With a new wife in charge of their social life, Held had to support a lavish "roaring twenties" lifestyle, complete with weekend parties and mansions in Westport and Palm Beach. The work ethic of his Mormon upbringing very much operative in the cartoonist's mind, he was an absentee merry-maker: while his wife and friends partied through the nights, he hunched over his drawingboard to earn the money that financed the fun.
Identifying intimately with the frivolity of the twenties, Held didn't make the transition to the grim depression times that followed after the collapse of the stock market in 1929. Suddenly, magazine editors no longer wanted his work, and his cartoons soon disappeared from the national scene. In 1931, he had a nervous breakdown. (Hirschfeld says his friend was done in by changing feminine fashion: "The long skirt imported from Paris did it. Held's drawing of a girl in a long dress was ludicrous. Russell Patterson, an illustrator, replaced Held's flapper with a cleverly drawn anatomically persuasive girl in a tight-fitting, transparent, long dress." But Hirschfeld, with the caricaturist's occupational flair, is exaggerating, over-simplifying. Patterson, as we'll see in the next essay in this series, was established as a delineator of fashionable life in the twenties well before hemlines fell and the stock market crashed and ended the party.)
During the hard-scrabble thirties, Held wrote fiction and illustrated it, designed stage sets, hosted a radio variety show, and became a serious artist— watercolors and sculpture, at last.
He married his fourth wife in 1942, and they retired to a small working farm in New Jersey. After World War II, Held was rediscovered and enjoyed considerable reputation until his death (of throat cancer) in 1958. And his work, documenting an era, continues to amuse and amaze.
Held's style was unique— without precedent or imitation. But as the ensuing parade of cartoons attests, he was not the only distinctive cartooning stylist who emerged in the Roaring Twenties. The cartoons hereabouts were assembled mostly from the 1923-25 pages of the old Life, supplemented slightly by a few from 1924-25 issues of its rival, Judge. Many of the same cartoonists appeared in both publications (and in The New Yorker when it began), and while not all cartoonists of the day were represented in these magazines, our samples are nonetheless representative of the period— illustrative of the spirit of the times and of the state of the art of cartooning.
One of the most individualistic pen techniques in the history of cartooning belonged to Percy L. Crosby (December 8, 1891 - December 8, 1964), whose famed newspaper strip character, Skippy, debuted in the pages of Life in 1923. The March 15 issue announced Skippy Skinner's imminent advent with the boxed picture and copy shown nearby; the next week, the kid arrived in all his spunky impudence as depicted next to the announcement.
Crosby's sketchy, effortless line has a ferocious energy, the vitality born of pen tearing breakneck across paper, and Crosby's subjects were imbued with that energy even if drawn in repose. And the cartoonist's distinctive style of drawing is as much a part of his nine-year-old protagonist's character as the gags that gave him personality.
Strangely, Skippy's anachronistic costume belies his character: attired always in an English schoolboy's gown (smock-like jacket), high Eton collar with flaring bow-ribbon tie, and short pants, Skippy should be a well-behaved momma's boy. Only his shapeless hat, tilted rakishly— provocatively, almost belligerently— over his eyes and his down-at-the-ankle socks betray him as a boy's boy, rowdy and roguish and just a trifle quarrelsome, who swaggers into view with his hands jammed deep into his pockets, strutting his neophyte machismo.
Skippy proved so popular that Crosby, who owned the copyright on the character, syndicated a daily strip version, starting June 22, 1925. Distributed at first by bush league syndicates, Skippy was eventually taken up by Hearst, beginning with the Sunday page in 1926; then in 1929, the dailies. (A reprint project these days is putting Skippy between hardcovers; IDW’s Library of American Comics is up to Volume 4, covering 1934-36, with an on-going series of stunningly illustrated introductory essays by Jared Gardner, tracing Crosby’s life and developing talent, year by year.)
Largely self-taught while on the job as staff cartoonist for the New York Globe (briefly) and then (for several years) for Pulitzer's New York World, plus freelancing cartoons to magazines, Crosby invented several short-lived panel cartoon features and comic strips for newspaper circulation. Among the latter were Beany and the Gang and The Clancy Kids, both about lively children. In the Army during the last year of World War I, he did a strip about Army life— That Rookie from the 13th Squad—which was syndicated by McClure and subsequently reprinted in two book collections. The books established a reputation for Crosby.
After the War, Crosby revived The Clancy Kids, one of whom, Timmie, is the very image of Skippy. Also for McClure, he did a panel cartoon under several themed headings, including Back o’ the Flats, focusing in the urban poor, and Three Rooms and a Bath, about a young family. He continued freelancing cartoons to Life, to which he’d sold his first cartoon at the age of 16. Hoping for something more permanent and secure (McClure was not an ambitious syndicate), Crosby approached the Life editor with an idea for a regularly feature about a kid, and Skippy was born.
Crosby had too much energy to confine his efforts solely to his strip. He was a creative volcano, waiting to blow. During his peak years of production (between, say, 1925 and 1940), he spewed out 14 books— novels (often about Skippy, with whom the Brooklyn-bred Crosby identified very closely), poetry, and essays on philosophy, politics, literature, and art. He also painted in oil and watercolor, and he crusaded for individual rights and freedom of the press— and against Prohibition, bootleggers, gangsterism, atheism, naval disarmament, and pacificism.
When editors wouldn't print his diatribes on such subjects, he took full-page ads in large metropolitan newspapers to air his views. Skippy, Crosby’s alter ego, often philosophized in the comic strip on Crosby's favorite subjects. Once when an editor had the temerity to object to Crosby's fulminating in the strip, Crosby wrote back: after wondering if the editor permitted his readers to say up past 9 p.m., he told the editor he took orders from no one, and then he calmly removed the paper from the strip's list of subscribers.
Tragically, Crosby was eventually consumed by his passions. His crusades became more furious, and he began to imagine that the objects of his tirades were plotting to do him in. Increasingly into the forties, he made Skippy his mouthpiece, and finally, King Features sought to rein him in. Crosby wouldn't agree to the terms of the renewal contract he was offered, so the strip died December 8, 1945.
Four years later— his marriage in shambles, separated from his children, income dwindling to nothing, unable to find a public forum, and drinking heavily— Crosby attempted suicide. Diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, he was committed to a mental institution where he spent the last 16 years of his life in bitter isolation from all responsive human contact, desperately trying to secure his release (he was scarcely insane by the standards of the next generation), writing tracts in lucid, often brilliant prose that no one would read, and drawing pictures of favorite subjects— dancers, skaters, horses. But never Skippy. He never drew Skippy again.
Among our samples of cartooning in the twenties is another figure familiar to newspaper comic strip readers— Grandma from Edwina's Cap Stubbs and Tippie. Edwina is Edwina Dumm, and her history and that of her comic strip about a boy and his dog is recounted in Opus 377. Here, at the elbow of your eye, we remind you of that history with Grandma’s debut in Life.
Another of Life's cartoonists who did a newspaper feature was Gluyas Williams. Rendered in Williams' stolid black and chaste white manner, Suburban Heights, a panel cartoon that changed its title according to the subject, debuted in 1923 and continued for 25 years. Williams, who had graduated in 1911 from Harvard where he'd been art editor of the notorious Lampoon, had drawn for the Boston Journal and edited art for Youth's Companion before starting to submit regularly his patented comic tableaux to Life in 1919.
Arthur B. Frost, on the other hand, was near the end of his career in the 1920s. A contributor to Life for three decades or more, Frost made his most enduring mark in American visual arts by doing the definitive illustrations for Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus stories in the 1890s. Highly regarded for his paintings of sporting scenes, Frost also excelled at pen drawings of animals and eccentric rustics. Winsor McCay, famed creator of the fanciful Little Nemo in Slumberland, considered Frost "the greatest comic draftsman in the history of the country."
Frost was noted among his contemporaries for his comic depictions of black people, one of which I've included here for the sake of the record. Cartoons of this sort were common in the 1920s although by no means prevalent.
The benighted society that found humor in such cruel caricatures was, I hoped (until the Age of Trump), becoming a thing of the past, and I have no wish to extend its vitality any by bringing forward these savage old stereotypes. Still, to leave cartoons like this out of our review altogether is to suppress them as well as an unsavory part of our past— and thereby to misrepresent history. And just as we need memory of the Holocaust to remind us how monstrous we can be if our ethnocentricities are permitted unrestrained sway, we need a caricature by Frost to remind us that racial stereotypes like his were wholly fictitious (and still are). They had their origins in minstrel show characters that were invented without much reference to real people by white men in blackface to serve their comic purposes on stage.
Psychologically, the blackface comedy of the nineteenth century stage served to quell anxieties in white audiences that wished to justify slavery or (after resolution of that issue) that feared an emerging black populace. In the 1920s, the cartoons of Frost and others may have served much the same psychic function. Ironically, at the same time that Frost's cartoons were making people laugh at lazy ignorant rural blacks, the staff of Life and much of the rest of the population of the nation's most urbane center often found its entertainment in the city's nightclub mecca, Harlem.
At the time, Harlem was a black metropolis, the black capitol of the world, and the scene of a literary and cultural flowering that became known as the Harlem Renaissance. Elsewhere in the country, blacks were suffering persecution unparalleled since Reconstruction. Between 1918 and 1927, over 400 blacks were killed by lynch mobs that were common in some rural areas. To assuage their fear and shame, white Americans laughed at cartoons like Frost's.
It's no good contending, as some historians have, that cartoonists who drew cartoons with racial and ethnic stereotypes were having innocent fun with minorities they otherwise respected. They respected those minorities no more than any other white Anglo Saxon protestant of their time. But they also ridiculed the KKK mercilessly— and consistently.
Other unique stylists whose work is represented here include Gilbert Wilkerson, whose brilliant studies in black and white and supple line appeared most frequently in Judge; Gardner Rea, drawing in a manner only vaguely evocative of the stark simplicity of his later style; Art Young, whose gentle and genial nature is better reflected in his cartoons for Life than in his savage attacks on social injustice in The Masses; and T.S. Sullivant, whose anthropomorphic animals and Biblical buffoons had been committing hilarities in Life since 1891.
Also represented in the line-up below is the Jefferson Machamer girl, whose figure not even the straight lines of flapper fashion could shroud; the Alice Harvey girl, a modest maiden only slightly dingy; and the Ethel Plummer girl, a saucy flapper.
In addition to showcasing the work of some of the best of the decade's cartoonists, our series of Cartooning the Roaring Twenties also reveals the state of the art of the single-panel (or "gag") cartoon during a critical period of its evolution. Until the 1920s, the gag cartoon was merely an illustration for comic dialogue that appeared underneath it in a series of verbal exchanges. And the practice continued into the twenties as attested by examples hereabouts. By the end of the decade, however, the single-speaker caption had supplanted the multiple-speaker caption, and a new kind of cartoon emerged.
In the old gag cartoon, the humor resided chiefly in the words of the caption; in fact, the picture was often entirely superfluous to the joke. In the modern gag cartoon, words and picture are interdependent: the significance of the drawing is made clear only by the caption or the utterance of one of the characters in the drawing; by the same token, the import of the utterance is evident only when the picture above it is understood. Word and picture blend to create comedy that neither alone provokes.
Many of the cartoons in this series demonstrate the evolution in thinking by which pictures became integral to the humor of the gag cartoon. In the 1920s, a kind of "visual wit" distinguished many cartoons. In such cartoons as Jack Farr's, the humor arises entirely from the cleverness of the pictures. And in cartoons like Ellison Hoover's, the words draw attention to the picture, which, in turn, delivers the joke. Ditto Held's "Outlines of History" cartoon (inspired by H.G. Wells' popular book with the same title).
Cartoonists doubtless noticed the greater comedic impact in cartoons of such verbal-visual blending and began to strive for that effect. Despite the long-standing tradition that Harold Ross and his cartoonists at The New Yorker invented the single-speaker captioned cartoon, the evolution of the gag cartoon along these lines was evident long before Ross's magazine appeared on the scene on February 21, 1925. (See Harv’s Hindsight for October 2004 for an elaboration on this thesis.)
The eccentric Ross's insistence on such niggling details as being able to tell which of the figures in a drawing was speaking no doubt helped to focus his cartoonists' efforts in the direction of single-speaker captions, and the success, by the end of the decade, of his magazine over the foundering Life and Judge surely established the form even if it did not invent it. But even The New Yorker published multiple-speaker captioned cartoons through much of the decade. Still, it was clear that the old illustrated verbal witticism was on its way out, and the cartoons we display below helped to show the way.