May 6, 2002
-- He was a little rich kid with a blond pageboy haircut who was always getting into mischief, but also had a serious side. One hundred years ago this week, Buster Brown and his dog Tige made their debut in a Sunday comic strip in the New York Herald
. The pair soon appeared in newspapers around the country and went on to become even more famous when the Brown Shoe Co. adopted them as mascots.
As NPR's Elizabeth Blair
reports on Morning Edition
, Buster Brown was the perfect character for the turn of the last century, the genteel age. "In almost every strip, Buster Brown wore short pants, a little jacket, and dainty Victorian shoes and sometimes a wide, saucer-rimmed hat. His family was rich, which appealed to upper class New Yorkers."
Buster Brown's creator was Richard Outcault, a pioneer of the comic strip as a form of art and social commentary. Outcault's first popular character was the Yellow Kid, who was so popular that the two New York newspapers that carried that strip were called "the yellow papers." The term "yellow journalism" was coined after the papers' sensational reporting during the Spanish-American War.
The Yellow Kid was always getting into trouble with his rascally friends in the slums of New York. He was used to advertise cigarettes, tobacco and beer. Moms found the Kid too vulgar and the strip eventually died.
A few years later, Outcault introduced Buster Brown, who was loosely based on a boy near his home in Flushing, N.Y. Like the Yellow Kid, Buster Brown also got into trouble every Sunday, but it was a "nicer grade of trouble," says Richard Olson, a historian and Outcault expert.
Olson explains: "He got into trouble by putting syrup in his mother's perfume bottle. Or doing things that weren't quite as dangerous as what the Yellow Kid did. In the bottom right corner, the Buster Brown comic would always end with what was called a 'resolved' panel (in which) Buster would say, 'I'm sorry I was bad, I promise never to do that again, I'll be a good boy from now on.' And of course that went over great with the parents."
Buster Brown's appeal was obvious. He was drawn to be marketed, says Kris Runberg-Smith, the archivist for the collection of Buster Brown memorabilia at the Brown Shoe Co.
In 1904, Outcault traveled to the St. Louis World's Fair, where he sold up to 200 licenses to the Buster Brown image, Runberg-Smith says. Brown Shoe turned out to be the most prominent licensee.
"By 1908, a veritable army of midgets and little boys were traveling the country dressed like Buster Brown," Blair reports. "They told jokes, performed and, of course, urged kids to buy Buster Brown shoes."
By this time, Outcault's Buster Brown comic strip was in newspapers throughout America and the cartoonist used the strip to take on current social issues of the day.
In "Buster Brown Visits the Zoo and Talks to the Stork," Outcault addressed public anxiety that whites risked committing "race suicide" by using birth control and not keeping up with the surge in the immigrant population. In the trip, Buster goes to the zoo and asks a stork to bring him a baby sister. When the stork delivers the baby, Buster's mother says "Shoo! Get out -- we don't want it. Buster says, 'Oh, I'll take care of her." In the final, "resolved" panel, Buster says: "Now I understand the gravity of this race suicide question. Society is in a beautiful attitude toward posterity. Goodness!! What are we coming to?"
Mort Walker, creator of Beetle Bailey
, says Outcault, who drew Buster Brown until 1920, rightly earned the title "father of the comic strip." Outcault was the first to make "us investigate our lives and comment on it and draw cartoons about it," Walker says.
Learn more about R.F. Outcault
, creator of Buster Brown and the Yellow Kid comic strips.
Read a history of Buster Brown and the Brown Shoe Co.
Read about Buster Brown and other comics and cartoons
Visit the grave of William "Major" Ray
, a midget who portrayed Buster Brown.
Tour the St. Louis World's Fair
of 1904, where R.F. Outcault sold licences to the Buster Brown character.
Read about Buster Brown suits
worn by boys in the style of the comics character.
Read about Smilin' Ed McConnell
and the Buster Brown radio and TV show