The mischief makers

Our local super-store has one sad rack of postcards with little to tempt even the most avid collector. A hundred years ago the situation was vastly different. Almost every topic under the sun was depicted on postcards, but none appealed to the general buyer more than adorable children.

Children were depicted as angels, Kewpies, cupids, romantic couples and advertising icons. They represented ethnic groups and frolicked in holiday settings, but above all, they were cute and irresistible. Artists who could capture the charm of young people could actually make a living doing art for postcards.

In this country Ellen H. Clapsaddle was the most prolific but her competition would make up a who’s who of postcard artists. Clapsaddle (who never had kids) and her peers saw children through rose-colored glasses. Their work can be compared to a professional portrait today with children dressed in their very best and bribed or cajoled into smiling for the photographer. The finished pictures never show tears, temper tantrums or peanut-butter stains.

At the other extreme some artists saw the dark side of children and used it with comic genius. Foremost among them was Rudolph Dirks, a German immigrant who made cartoon history with his Katzenjammer Kids. He began his comic strip in Hearst’s New York Journal in 1897, and it’s still syndicated by King Features, making it the oldest comic strip in American history.

Hans and Fritz were rebels long before the turbulent uprisings of the 1960s. They constantly bedeviled authority in the form of Mama, the Captain (a shipwrecked sailor, not their father although he tried to rein them in) and the school head, the inspector.

Dirks later left Hearst and did a new comic strip based on the same characters called “Hans and Fritz,” then “The Captain and the Kids.” But before he left, the American Journal Examiner issued a rather unique series of postcards featuring the antics of the boys. In order to get the joke, the card had to be held to heat, either an iron, a gas jet or a match. There’s no record of how many little fingers got singed in the process, but it seems easier to find these cards with the hidden figure revealed.

Dirks didn’t have a monopoly on bad boys, although he seems to be the only artist who worked exclusively with delinquents. John T. McCutcheon, a newspaper cartoonist for several Chicago newspapers including the Tribune, had work reproduced on postcards in 1905.

Although his newspaper work was essentially political, he was right on target in his postcard series, “A Boy in Summertime.”

Fred Spurgin is another artist to check out when looking for young mischief-makers. He was a prolific British artist especially noted for his World War I patriotic postcards, but he knew his subjects when it came to kids.

The devilry of boys appealed to postcard artists more than little girls’ mischief, possibly because they were mostly men remembering their own childhood pranks. Any number of comic cards feature kids in trouble, even though the topic isn’t the main subject of the artists.

Twelvetrees sometimes depicted the mischievous side of children. (There were two Twelvetrees. Charles H. drew the Johnny Quack comic strip from 1909 to 1911. Charles R. drew chubby-cheeked kids, but so did Charles H.). Lawson Wood, best known for his monkey calendars, drew kids in trouble, while some downright nasty kids show up from time to time on live-model cards. A boy about to hit an obese man with a stick would be an example of this.

For those who think kids are a hoot, the search for mischief-makers promises nostalgia as well as fun.

Barbara Andrews has authored several popular novels and is a long-time, avid postcard collector and columnist.