Early Comic Strips 1898-1916

This exhibit of early "funnies" is drawn from the volumes of the recently acquired American Newspaper Repository (ANR) which contains over 152 titles dating from 1852 through 2004. Long runs of The World and The Chicago Tribune provided material for the exhibit. At the turn of the nineteenth century, two newspaper titans, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, were engaged in a bitter rivalry for supremacy in the New York market. The introduction of the color printing press and the modern "comic strip" was instrumental in their competition to circulate the most newspapers.

In 1889, Pulitzer featured The World's Funny Side, a single page of black and white humorous illustrations, in his Sunday paper. This "funnies" page bloomed into a Sunday multi-page color comic supplement in 1894 when Pulitzer acquired a color printing press. Cartoonist Richard F. Outcault's one-panel comic Hogan's Alley gave birth to the first modern comic strip character, TheYellow Kid. Hearst responded to the success of The World's innovative supplement by hiring away the majority of Pulitzer's cartoon staff, including Richard F. Outcault.

On October 18, 1896 , Hearst published American Humorist, an eight-page color comic supplement in the Sunday New York Journal. Outcault's law suit to copyright The Yellow Kid and benefit from the comic strip's wild popularity failed. The court awarded him rights to the title but not to The Yellow Kid's likeness. From 1896 until 1898, newspaper readers enjoyed The Yellow Kid in the Sunday editions of both the New York Journal and The World. The phrase "yellow journalism" has had a much longer life than the comic strip that inspired it.

With the creation of The Katzenjammer Kids by Rudolph Dirks for the New York Journal in 1897, the three primary components of modern comic strips were all in place: 1) character continuity, 2) sequential panels or pictures, and 3) speech within the picture usually enclosed in a balloon. In 1904, Clare Briggs drew the first daily comic strip, A. Piker Clerk, for the Chicago American; and The Katzenjammer Kids, Happy Hooligan, Alphonse and Gaston and their Friend Leon were issued as comic books.

The comic strips in the exhibit were carefully reproduced from bound volumes of newspapers in the American Newspaper Repository. Most cartoons were copied from The World and the Chicago Tribune, which are well represented in the ANR. The process required a two-step capture, first photographing the cartoon page with a traditional, medium format camera and digitizing the subsequent color transparency. The digital file of the 17"x23" newspaper page was then reformatted in Adobe Photo Shop to 16"x20". The image quality of the exhibit prints varies dependent on the condition of the original page. Rippled, faded pages produce slightly fuzzy, out-of-focus prints.

Due to the fragility of these early newspapers, the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library encourages researchers to use microfilm copies of the newspapers whenever possible.

Karen Glynn
Visual Materials Archivist

Bibliographic sources

  • Blackbeard, Bill, and Martin Williams, editors. The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics. Washington, D.C. : Smithsonian Institution Press, 1977.
  • Fuchs, Wolfgang, and Reinhold Reitberger. Comics: Anatomy of a Mass Medium. Boston : Little, Brown and Company, 1972.
  • Gordon, Ian. Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890-1945. Washington, D.C. : Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002.
  • Goulart, Ron, editor. The Encyclopedia of American Comics. New York : Facts on File, 1990.
  • Spiegelman, Art. In the Shadow of No Towers. New York : Pantheon Books, 2004.
  • Waugh, Coulton. The Comics. New York : The MacMillan Company, 1947.
Last modified November 20, 2009 4:36:13 PM EST