March 14, 2022

George Miller

John T. McCutcheon

American Cartoonist

When we think of cartoonists from the golden age of postcards, we probably think first about those men (and they were all men) who drew for the “funnies,” the Sunday color comics — artists such as Outcault, Opper, McCay, Dirks. But cartoons come in many forms. Even today you find cartoons on the editorial pages of nearly all the major newspapers. The jokes that such cartoons are about involve public figures, politics, and current events. Unlike their counterparts on the “funnies” page, such editorial cartoons, because they are so timebound, quickly lose their humor.

At the turn of the century, American newspapers made extensive use of cartoons and illustrations. Since newspapers did not carry photographs, such pictorial devices were one way in which to stimulate and attract public attention. Such cartoons were not always buried inside the newspaper. Many newspapers featured front-page cartoons; an idea unheard of today.

One of the foremost American cartoonists was Indiana-born John T. McCutcheon. When he died in 1949, his obituary in The New York Times proclaimed him the “Dean of American cartoonists for 43 years.” Despite his prominence, however, McCutcheon is not well known today. In part, that relative obscurity can be attributed to the type of cartoons he drew. We tend to remember the cartoonists who worked for the “funnies” rather than for the editorial side. McCutcheon never drew a comic “strip,” although many of his cartoons were humorous, light-hearted celebrations of life. In his autobiography Drawn from Memory (1950), he wrote, “Broadly speaking, all cartoons fall into two groups, the serious and the humorous.” His predominant subject matter came from the events and people of the day.

McCutcheon’s cartoons were collected in a number of separately published books. He was particularly well known early in this century for his cartoons of Prince Henry’s visit to the United States in 1902 and those of President Teddy Roosevelt. I’ve never seen any of McCutcheon’s “political” cartoons on postcards, but he was responsible for what is one of the nicest and most difficult sets of postcards to complete — the Boy in Summer-, Fall-, Winter-, and Springtime Series.

His Life

At his graduation, McCutcheon delivered an oration on Caricature in Art. “Every age,” he observed, “is marked by the culmination of some great power. We have had the age of oratory. The age when books exerted their greatest influence is waning, and in their stead has gradually appeared first, the plain printed newspaper, and later its evolution into a sheet enhanced by the skill of the illustrator. It is this age that will pass down as an age eminently utilitarian and practical, and it is here that caricature and comic art first come into common application and use.” McCutcheon later remarked that, prophetic as his speech might have seemed, he had never considered art as a profession.He had thought about a career in writing, but after someone told him that art paid better than writing, he decided to look for work as a newspaper illustrator. At the time, newspapers did not carry photographs; any illustrations were done by artists. After studying the Chicago newspapers for several months (Chicago was the nearest large city) and compiling a small portfolio of his work, McCutcheon set off for the city. In late summer 1889, as a new graduate in search of a job, McCutcheon arrived in Chicago with $17 in his pocket to look for work. By October, McCutcheon had been hired by the morning edition of the Chicago Daily News for $16 a week with the promise of a raise to $20 by the end of the month.

His Early Illustrations

McCutcheon’s first illustration for the newspaper was a one-column Halloween sketch. For the first five years, almost all of his work was limited to illustrating news events. Gradually he began to branch out into recording details from daily life: for example, he did a series on “Artistic Doorways” in Chicago and another titled “Scraps of Conversation in Different Hotels.” In December 1889, McCutcheon first drew the large, five-column wide cartoon that appeared on the front page of the newspaper. Such cartoons, as was the case here, were typically about political subjects.

In 1892 McCutcheon also did sketches of the World’s Columbian Exposition, then under construction in Chicago. After a trip west to work on an advertising booklet for the Santa Fe Railroad, McCutcheon returned to the News, and for the next year worked exclusively on illustrations of the Columbian for the newspaper.

By 1896, McCutcheon was drawing the regular five-column wide front-page cartoon for the paper, in addition to illustrating the written work of writer George Ade, a soon-to-be-famous American humor writer, who was McCutcheon’s roommate during their single days in Chicago. Ade had a significant influence on McCutcheon’s work. McCutcheon remarked, “I leaned heavily on George for ideas. Except for this I don’t know where I might have landed as a cartoonist. Up to that time I had been a realist. Now I had to be made over into something requiring whimsy and, if possible, humor. In this transition George helped materially. He provided the excellent suggestions that gave my early cartoons whatever distinction they had.”

Spanish-American War Correspondent

In January of 1898, McCutcheon, leaving his job at the newspaper, embarked for a round-the-world cruise on the newly commissioned revenue cutter McCulloch. Less than half-way around the world, McCutcheon and his friends received word of the sinking of the Maine and the impending war with Spain. The McCulloch was transferred to the U.S. Navy and in Singapore joined the U.S. Navy Asiatic Squadron for the trip to the Philippines. Quite unexpectedly, McCutcheon found himself an eyewitness to the destruction of the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. One of three journalists there, McCutcheon and his friends made a trip back to Hong Kong and filed their reports about Dewey’s victory — the first news that America had of the victory. Ironically, it was the editor of the Chicago Tribune who broke the news to President McKinley, by calling the White House.

McCutcheon remained in Manila, filing stories and illustrations for the Chicago newspaper until the end of December 1898. After a trip to the Far East, India, and Afghanistan, McCutcheon returned again to the Philippines to cover the campaign of the Filipino Insurrectos. From there, he sailed to cover the Boer War in South Africa. Then after nearly three years as a correspondent in some most exciting places, McCutcheon returned home.

The Origins of the Boyhood Series

In 1901 he returned to work on what was now the Chicago Record-Herald. McCutcheon, in his autobiography Drawn from Memory, recorded the origins of the boyhood series pictured on the postcards, “I reflected that, next to a little dog, the most appealing thing in the world is a little boy, the barefooted kind with patches on his pants and a battered straw hat — the sort of boy that nearly every man in the Mid-west used to be. So, the following spring [1902], I drew a picture of such a boy. I called the cartoon A Boy in Spring-time. I reflected also that if one dog was funny, perhaps five dogs would be five times as funny, so this boy was accompanied by five dogs. A number of people spoke of the cartoon. Perhaps it occasioned unusual comment because it was an unusual type of cartoon to appear on the front page—purely human interest rather than political or topical. A week later I repeated the type under the same title, showing another common activity of boyhood at that season. The reaction was even more pronounced and led to a series of these ‘Boy’ cartoons running through all the seasons.”

At about the same time McCutcheon also created what was his most famous series of cartoons referred to as the Bird Center series. “One very dull day,” McCutcheon wrote, “when ideas were scarcer than hen’s teeth, I found myself in desperation for a subject for the following morning. As a final resort I drew a picture of a church social such as I had known in the early Indiana days.” Gradually, a whole cast of characters was developed and drawn and a slender plot developed for the imaginary town of Bird Center. “There was never anything very dramatic, but there were little love affairs and little ambitions that were gradually unfolded as the series advanced. Each drawing represented some small-town gaiety.” The series ran for over a year.

World Traveler

As McCutcheon’s fame as a cartoonist grew, so did his opportunities. About 1905, he joined the Redpath Lecture Bureau, traveling within a 500- mile radius of Chicago to deliver about once a week an illustrated lecture titled A Chalk Talk on the Psychology of the Newspaper Cartoon.

But McCutcheon was never content to simply travel in the Midwest. His time as a cartoonist and reporter was for the remainder of his life punctuated by prolonged trips to exotic places. He once remarked, “If I have had any conscious plan of action during my life, it may be based on the theory that each passing year will seem longer if it is marked by some distinctive feature, some new experience.”

McCutcheon went on safari in Africa, ascended in a tethered balloon, flew in the first aviation meet in Chicago in 1911, shipped around the Caribbean, landed with American troops at Vera Cruz, caught up with Pancho Villa, took at taxi cab to the front in Belgium during World War I, was detained briefly by the Kaiser’s troops, flew above the lines in a German warplane, married a young woman less than half his age, bought an island in the Bahamas, crossed the Gobi desert and the Andes mountains, and flew across the Atlantic aboard the Graf Zeppelin.

In 1946, McCutcheon retired from his newspaper work. He died on June 10,1949, in Lake Forest, just outside of Chicago.

The Postcards

The only McCutcheon-signed cards that I know compose the set of 32 numbered cards from the Boyhood series. These vertical designs are divided into eight cards in each of four sub-sets corresponding to the four seasons. The cards are delicately colored, although the originals were, of course, just black and white ink drawings. Each card is numbered and carries a caption. The backs of the cards feature a very distinctive design also done by McCutcheon. The cards carry a copyright line of 1903, although surely the set itself was produced at least several years after that date.

I have no idea how many different designs were originally included in the Boyhood Series, although it was certainly larger than the 32 found on the postcards.

The series is a handsome and funny one, hard to find, and because of its size, difficult to complete. The occasions for each cartoon are typical boyhood experiences — especially for a boy at the turn of the century. School is a pain, as are baby brothers and sisters. Girls are an attraction, but as a boy you do stupid stuff to catch their attention. Christmas is a time at which you are extra careful about being good. Many of the cards picture a barefooted young boy in suspenders with a straw hat. Dogs and other children figure prominently in the designs as well.

*   *   *

Checklist of McCutcheon

A Boy in Springtime
No. 1 “Dog gone it! I wish they hadn’t found her till after the baseball season.”
No. 3 “Every time I think of her, I have the queerest feeling, kind o’ like a painless stomach ache, only not so much. I wonder why?”
No. 4 “No, honest, cross my heart, you’re the first girl I ever said it to.”
No. 5 “Someday she’ll be sorry she treated me this way. I’ll go ‘way and make lots o’money and come back here riding in a carriage
with four white horses, and when she tries to ketch my eye I’ll pertend I never seen her before.”
No. 6 “Gee! I wish the circus’d hurry up and come. I’m terrible hungry. We’ve been waiting nearly three hours and it’ll be sure to come if we go home for breakfast”
No. 7 “You bet this is the last time I’m gunna visit Aunt Mary, not even if she invites me.”
No. 8 “Dog gone it! This kind o’life ain’t the kind o’life for me. I’m gunna run away ‘nd be a soldier, ‘nd get killed, ‘nd then you bet ma’ll be sorry she treated me this way.”

A Boy in Summer-Time
No. 9 THE PIRATE CHIEFTAIN — “We’re Surrounded by perils. Behind Us is a Herd of Wild Buffaloes, on One Side Is an Unfriendly Shore Swarming with Hostile Natives, and in Front of Us Are Breakers and Deadly Reptiles.”
No. 10 “See, I ain’t afraid.”
No. 11 “The Blowing-up of Dolly.”
No. 12 “The Voice of the Tempter.”
No. 13 “Just look at how much I saved for the Fourth. And I’m gunna spend it all for shootin’ crackers and fire ’em all off just for you.”
No. 14 “I bet they’re jealous because they ain’t boys, too.”
No. 15 “Gee! I don’t see how anybody can be sad in summer-time, ‘specially if he’s a boy an’ likes to go swimmin’!”
No. 16 “It’s funny how much easier it is to work the ice-cream freezer than to chum.”

A Boy in Fall-Time
No. 17 ” ‘Cept Spring and Summer, I like Fall the best of all.”
No. 18 “Recess.”
No. 19 “Little Brother Visits the School.”
No. 20 “THREE DAYS BEFORE THANKSGIVING—’I believe I’ll just pretend it’s Thanksgiving already.”
No. 21 “Helping Mother”
No. 22 “We’re gunna have ice-cream for supper.”
No. 23 “Ma says mebbe if we’re good we can eat at the first table tomorrow.”
No. 24 “Gee! I wonder how soon recess is?”

A Boy in Winter-Time
No. 25 “Well, how lovely for you to come over to visit your Aunt Mary! And you’re just in time for dinner, too. Isn’t that nice? Did you tell your mother that you were going visiting?”
No. 26 “Come on! Hurry up, fellers! The hounds have found the trail.”
No. 27 THE FAIRY STORY — “Once upon a time there was a very beautiful little fairy princess.”
No. 28 “Christmas is Coming.”
No. 29 “The War Story.”
No. 30 “Look, Ma! See how much wood we carried in, and you didn’t haf to ask us to, either. And we watered the plants, too.”
No. 31 “A Letter to Santy.”
No. 32 THREE SUNDAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS TREES. “We want to go to the Sunday School. Where is it at?”

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These are wonderful cards. I love old newspaper comics the early 20 th. Century it was a golden age of this type of comic. His work reminds of the Yellow Kid comic. I will have to seek out some of these postcards. Thanks for the informational article.

I live in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, where one of the high schools is named for McCutcheon.

I love these cards.

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