The New York census of 1860 described denizens of the city's Fourth Ward thusly: Mary Sullivan, 22. Ms. Sullivan's birthplace: Ireland; the value of her personal real estate equaled nil as did her personal wealth. Her character listed as “doubtful.” Nearly half the residents of the Fourth Ward were labeled “doubtful” characters.
Thirty years later in 1890, Jacob Riis' How the Other Half Lives chronicled the deplorable conditions of the Fourth Ward and other “slums.” Riis' targeted readership was the emerging American middle class. He hoped his work would shame them into making improvements in the lives of the poverty stricken. 125 years later Riis would be appalled that the economic split in the United States breaks down more on a 90-10%, if not 99-1%, basis than fifty-fifty.
As Riis' How the Other Half Lives was being published, a young man who'd served Thomas Edison as a technical illustrator moved to New York City. His name was Richard Outcault. He hailed from Ohio and began his big city career with a job on the staff of Electrical World magazine. He also started strolling through the Fourth Ward on occasion. There, he literally drew inspiration for a lighter view of the impoverished souls of that region. Focusing on children as his main characters, Outcault fashioned illustration's of what he called Hogan's Alley. The first illustrated stories of Hogan's Alley appeared in a magazine called Truth, best remembered for publishing several stories by Stephen Crane.
Outcault's humorous illustrations drew the attention of Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of one of the most important newspapers of the day, The New York World, where “Hogan's Alley” debuted in the first week of May, 1895. This first modern comic strip proved so popular that William Randolph Hearst offered Outcault a huge pay raise to jump to Hearst's New York Journal American. Pulitzer sued and was awarded copyright to the title, “Hogan's Alley,” but Outcault's newly titled “The Yellow Kid” proved an even bigger success syndicated in Hearst's string of coast-to-coast papers. Pulitzer gave up grudgingly, hiring another artist to continue “Hogan's Alley,” with the Yellow Kid as its main character in his newspapers.
The circulation wars between Pulitzer and Hearst throughout the 1890s led to what could generously be called sensationalistic journalism, in which both Hearst and Pulitzer's editors often crossed the line of pure fabrication in attempts to gain the attention of potential paying readers and subscribers. The fact that both papers ran competing versions of the Yellow Kid comics led critics to label these sensationalist publications as “Yellow Kid Journalism.” By the time of the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the term had been simplified to “Yellow Journalism” (Hearst, especially, inflamed the public into a pro-war frenzy even before the battleship Maine sunk in Havana's harbor).
Outcault apparently tired of the Yellow Kid comic by early 1898, but the writer/illustrator had already invented the practice of ballooning characters' thoughts. In 1902 Outcault initiated a new strip, Buster Brown, about a rich boy in an oversized hat, often accompanied by his dog Tige. The Yellow Kid and other Fourth Ward characters occasionally appeared in Buster Brown. This strip created an entirely new avenue of revenue for Outcault when he signed a lucrative deal with the Brown Shoe Company to produce Buster Brown shoes.
As the twentieth century wended its way through two decades, Outcault became a mentor to young cartoonists trying to make their way in New York. One of those aspiring cartoonists was a Illinois native named Elzie Segar, who often signed his work with the initials E.C. followed by an ink drawing of a cigar. Outcault wangled Segar his first New York newspaper job. While Outcault aimed for social commentary along with humor, Elzie Segar used the hardly-working class as the model for a comic strip yearning for yucks more than class awareness.
Segar succeeded throughout the early 1920s with a six panel strip called the Thimble Theatre, published in the New York World. Thimble Theatre featured such winning figures as Olive Oyl, Castor Oyl, and Harold Hamgravy. This comic strip hummed along for nearly a decade before Castor Oyl asked a new character, "You there, are you a sailor?" and the popeyed sailor replied, "Ja' think I'm a cowboy."
Popeye was off and rolling. He soon grew so popular that most readers referred to Thimble Theatre as simply Popeye.
In 1933, Max and Dave Fleischer adapted Thimble Theatre into a series of Popeye the Sailor theatrical cartoons for release by Paramount Pictures. These movie cartoons, produced until 1957 (and rerun on television long after) are the Popeye that most Baby Boomers know.
Long before talking pictures E.C. Seger was a student at the Chicago Art Institute, where one of his instructors was Wellington J. Reynolds. Even earlier, in Segar's hometown of Chester, Illinois, a man named William Schuchert managed the local opera house. He was euphemistically called Windy Bill because of his fondness for unfolding tall tales. When he wasn't embellishing the truth Windy Bill dearly loved consuming hamburgers. In 1917 Segar plied his trade at the Chicago Herald-Examiner where a fellow employee ate burgers with Elzie at lunch. The fellow employee: H. Hillard Wimpee.
Segar died at 43 from leukemia. Popeye lives on. A specific day of the week lives on in melancholy verse:
J. Wellington Wimpy
was a very, very careful man
except when it came to hamburgers
of which, for which, by which
he was apt to sandwich
two or more in each hand
J. Wellington Wimpy
proved exceedingly prudent with funds
except when it came to a certain burger and buns
J. Wellington Wimpy
once strode svelte and lean
now too much of his favorite food
has done the gentlemen in
J. Wellington Wimpy
his sailor friends implore
all debts and regrets paid gladly
service: Tuesday at four.