R. F. Outcault, The Father of the American Sunday Comics, and the Truth About the Creation of the Yellow Kid

by Richard D. Olson

   

R. F. OutcaultWho is the Yellow Kid and why is everybody making a fuss over him? The answer is that he was the first successful comic strip character to achieve a popularity so great that he not only increased the sales of newspapers carrying him, but he was also the first to demonstrate that a comic strip character could be merchandised profitably. In fact, for these two reasons, the Yellow Kid and his creator, R. F. Outcault, are generally credited with permanently establishing the comic strip and making it a part of American society. Now let's take a closer look at how this historical milestone actually occurred.

Richard Felton Outcault, known to all who know his work as R. F. Outcault, was the comic genius who took advantage of the Zeitgeist. Others had tried but failed--Outcault was the first to have the intellect and artistic ability to see and depict New York City as many of its residents did, and to be able to present it to them in a manner that made them laugh. And for being in the right place at the right time, and for possessing unusual innate and learned talent, R. F. Outcault became the anointed father of the American comic strip.

Outcault was born in Lancaster, Ohio, on 14 January 1863, the son of Jesse and Catherine Outcault, and died at his Madison Avenue residence/studio in New York City on 25 September 1928. Even as a child it was apparent that he had artistic talent, and he developed that talent with training in the community. He later entered the McMicken University's School of Design in Cincinnati in 1878 and continued his studies for three years. When he left in 1881, he took a job as a painter of pastoral scenes for the Hall Safe and Lock Company. In 1888, the Centennial Exposition of the Ohio Valley and Middle Atlantic States was held in Cincinnati. The Edison Laboratories electric light display needed some sophisticated illustrations and hired Outcault to do the work. His drawings were superlative, and he soon moved to Edison's West Orange, New Jersey, headquarters as a full-time employee. In 1889, Edison named him the official artist for his travelling exhibit and sent him to Paris for the World's Fair, where he also continued his art studies in the Latin Quarter. While in Paris, he developed what was to become a life-long preference for berets and capes.

Outcault returned to New York City in 1890 and joined the staff of Electrical World magazine, which was owned by one of Edison's friends. He also freelanced jokes and cartoons to some of the weekly humor magazines like Truth. His humor and art were well received, and his work appeared more and more frequently, typically focusing on Blacks living in the imaginary town of Possumville or Irish tenement street children living in New York City. Let there be no mistake about it, these cartoons were created for adults, not children. Adults bought the magazines, not children, and the humor was aimed at adults, not children.

Feudal Pride in Hogan's Alley

2 June 1894, p. 4: Feudal Pride in Hogan's Alley

Feudal Pride in Hogan's Alley

Little Rosilla McGraw -- No; we won't come and play with you, Delia Costigan. Our rejuced means may temporary necessitate our residin' in a rear tenement, but we're jist as exclusive as when we lived on the first floor front and papa had charge of the pound in the Department of Canine Captivity!

Interestingly, virtually no one realizes that the Yellow Kid first appeared in Truth magazine four times before his initial appearance in the newspaper, and at least once more after that date. It is my pleasure to be able to list those four seminal appearances and provide pictures of those cartoons.

1. 2 June 1894, p. 4: Feudal Pride in Hogan's Alley
2. 15 July 1894, p. 14: A Fair Champion
3. 15 September 1894, p. 11: Going by Precept
4. 9 February 1895, p. 10: Fourth Ward Brownies

It must be noted that the last cartoon, "Fourth Ward Brownies," was reprinted eight days later in The New York World and thus also became the first newspaper appearance of the Yellow Kid. The practice of newspapers reprinting cartoons from magazines was not uncommon during that era.

A Fair Champion

15 July 1894, p. 14

A Fair Champion.

Lorreena Lafferty (as a parting shot)--Remember dis, Issy Silberman may be a motzer. But de day will come as a millionaire banker, an' me his bride, de dust his carriage wheels makes t'roo Forsythe street will not be able den to build youz to his good qualities.

By late 1894, Outcault began submitting work to The New York World, the publication with the largest circulation in America. Morrill Goddard, the Sunday editor, hired him to do popular scientific drawings. His first technical illustration for The New York World was published in September, 1894. Outcault also continued to submit work to Truth and other humor magazines through the end of the 1890's.

Going By Precept

15 September 1894, p. 11

Going By Precept

Mr. Dugan (watching the dinner preparations)--Sure, that's too much cabbage for such a little bit of corn bafe! Mrs. Dugan (authoritatively)--Arrah! doesn't everybody say that two heads are better than wan?

Exactly when the Yellow Kid first appeared in the newspaper seems to vary according to the sources that a given author uses, thus perpetuating existing errors. To avoid this problem, I have personally reviewed the microfilm of The New York World for 1894 and 1895, and the Yellow Kid's appearances are very clear. I am now going to list the first ten appearances of the Yellow Kid in the newspaper.

 1. 17 February 1895 "Fourth Ward Brownies" [reprinted from Truth]
 2. 10 March 1895 "The Fate of the Glutton"
 3. 5 May 1895 "At the Circus in Hogan's Alley"
 4. 7 July 1895 "The Day after 'The Glorious Fourth' down in Hogan's Alley"
 5. 22 September 1895 "The Great Cup Race on Reilly's Pond"
 6. 10 November 1895 "The Great Social Event of the Year in Shantytown"
 7. 17 November 1895 "The Horse Show as Reproduced at Shantytown"
 8. 24 November 1895 "An Untimely Death"
 9. 15 December 1895 "Merry Xmas Morning in Hogan's Alley"
10. 22 December 1895 "A Hopeless Disappointment"

The first Yellow Kid cartoons were small, only one column by two inches, and published in black and white as were the other cartoons of the day. In fact, the Yellow Kid was only a secondary character in the early cartoons. However, as the strip rapidly gained in popularity, and the Yellow Kid received a bright yellow nightshirt, he soon became the central figure in a full-page cartoon. All of these developments and many others are characteristic of the interaction between the artist of a new comic strip and the public, and it took about a year for the strip to reach maturity and for the Yellow Kid to become the toast of New York City. The early newspaper cartoons, like the magazine cartoons before them, were clearly aimed at the adult market.

Fourth Ward Brownies

9 February 1895, p. 10

Fourth Ward Brownies

Mickey, The Artist (adding a finishing touch) -- Dere, Chimmy! If Palmer Cox wuz t' see yer, he'd git yer copyrighted in a minute.

William Randolph Hearst, the publisher of The New York Journal, was well aware of the Yellow Kid fever in the city, and finally lured Outcault away from Joseph Pulitzer's World and put him to work at a much higher salary drawing the Yellow Kid for the Journal. One of the myths about the Yellow Kid is that Pulitzer and Hearst both claimed ownership of the Yellow Kid, the case went to court, and the decision resulted in a Yellow Kid comic in each newspaper. Most of this myth is true, and there is no question that George B. Luks began drawing the Yellow Kid for Pulitzer immediately upon Outcault's acceptance of Hearst's offer. Luks continued drawing the Yellow Kid in Hogan's Alley and Outcault created a new neighborhood called McFadden's Flats. Thus, while the Yellow Kid only appeared in New York City newspapers, he did appear in two of them simultaneously! The weak link in the myth is the court decision--there doesn't appear to be any record of such a decision, and I know a lot of people who have looked for it. Regardless, New York now had two Yellow Kids!

Hearst and Pulitzer did everything they could to win the circulation battle. In fact, they seem to have published exciting stories about events that never occurred, and printed artists' drawings about scenes that didn't exist. Because of the furor over the Yellow Kid, the World and the Journal became widely known as "The Yellow Kid Papers." This was eventually shortened to "The Yellow Papers," which soon became "Yellow Journalism" when emotions increased even further over the Spanish-American War. There are dozens of political cartoons featuring the Yellow Kid relating to both the publishers and the expression, but the best of them was published in VIM by Leon Barritt and is reproduced in this article.

The Big Type War of the Yellow Kids

The Big Type War of the Yellow Kids

When he finally arrived, however, the public couldn't get enough of him. At his peak, he was appearing several times during the week as well as on the cover, in a full-page panel, and a half-page sequential comic strip each Sunday. The public wanted more and soon the Yellow Kid was being merchandised in every imaginable form from soap to whiskey.

Because he was the first successful comic strip character, the Yellow Kid was the first comic strip character to inundate the public with his face! Today, Yellow Kid collectibles are all rare, highly desirable, and sought after by a small but intense cadre of collectors. Please remember that the Yellow Kid only appeared in New York City newspapers from 1895 through 1898, and that the merchandising took place in the same time and place, making it very rare today. A variety of items are presented in The R. F. Outcault Gallery to illustrate the variety of Yellow Kid collectibles that still exist today.

In conclusion, R. F. Outcault and the Yellow Kid demonstrated that the Sunday comics could sell newspapers and other forms of merchandise, and firmly established the comics as a permanent part of the American newspaper. The Yellow Kid, coupled with the artist's subsequent creations, Kelley's Kids, Pore Li'l Mose, Buddy Tucker, and Buster Brown, has firmly established R. F. Outcault as one of the most important comic artists of all time. Every Sunday when I read the comics, I thank him for making it all possible.

  

Richard D. Olson, Ph.D., 40 Infinity Drive, Poplarville, MS 39470-9006 (601) 795-4838 richardolson@hughes.net


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