Friday, May 8, 2009

Turn of the Century Comics

Few things capture immigrant life on the Lower East Side better than art, which we'll explore in this week's series.

Because they were published for a broad working class audience, turn of the century comic strips captured the pulse of immigrant life in a way that paintings, photos, and other forms of high-brow art couldn't.

One of the earliest strips was drawn by German immigrant Rudolph Dirks and appeared in the New York Journal in 1897. Dirks and his family settled in Chicago after landing in the US, but his cartoons - which were written in a hybrid of German and English and followed the misadventures of two mischievous brothers nicknamed the Katzenjammer Kids - would have struck a chord with New York's German population.

Even closer to home (literally) for residents of the Lower East Side was a comic strip set in the Fourth Ward's tenements, rear yards, and alleyways. The title character of Richard Outcault's extremely popular Yellow Kid cartoon, which wound up spawning the term "yellow journalism," embodied a somewhat stereotypical notion of the immigrant slums with his hand-me-down nightshirt, shaved head, and hard-knocks attitude. It's possible the Yellow Kid had fans in 97 Orchard; we've found scraps of newspapers throughout the building which might have once contained this or similar cartoons, as well as a comic strip from a 1931 issue of the Daily American in Apartment # 10.

The Yellow Kid comic strip was an offshoot of Hogan's Alley, an earlier Outcault cartoon set in the slums of the Lower East Side. The now-famous boy in the yellow nightdress was one of Hogan Alley's main characters.

A Yellow Kid strip published in William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal in 1896. Lice infestations were frequent in working-class neighborhoods, which would explain the little boy's shaved head.

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