The Brownies. Artist: Palmer Cox.


Original Medium: Magazine stories and cartoons
Appearing in: Wide Awake magazine
First Appeared: 1879, or 1881
Creator: Palmer Cox
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Nowadays, we're so used to seeing Dilbert on coffee mugs and Wonder Woman on children's underwear, we just naturally think toons and merchandising go hand-in-hand. But …

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… there was a time when such exploitation of cartoon characters was a novel idea. Cartoonist Palmer Cox is believed to be the first to succeed in turning his characters into a commercial franchise — even Ally Sloper, which began in 1867, wasn't widely commercialized until later.

Cox wrote stories about his Brownies in the classic four-beat iambic verse form, used in children's literature of all languages since time immemorial — and in comics since Max und Moritz, 19th century German precursors of The Katzenjammer Kids. He illustrated those stories in his own distinctive style. Cox set stories in the Brownies' miniature world as early as 1879, but it wasn't until the February, 1881 issue of Wide Awake magazine that the recurring characters that gave the series its wide appeal assumed their final form.

Oddly, it was only in the art that the characters appeared as individuals. In the text, none were identified by name, or any other personal characteristic — attributions for speech and action appeared in the form of "one said" or "another did", and exactly which said what or who did which was never specified. But in the drawings, each was unique. One looked like a monocled English lordling, another like a policeman, a third like a white-bearded old man. There was even one dressed as an 1880s-style stereotype of an Asian-American.

At the time, the word "Brownies" was not as widely known in America as it is today. In fact, Palmer Cox's feature is largely responsible for popularizing it. His inspiration came from the Scottish folklore that still survived in and around Granby, Quebec, where he was born on April 28, 1840. Scottish Brownies, so-called either because of their hair color (red and black being more common in that area) or because the outdoor lifestyle darkened their skin (accounts differ, Cox stated in a later essay), were a relatively benign species of Little Men. They enjoyed all sorts of fun activities, an aspect Cox ably captured in his stories.

Tho Wide Awake magazine published the first of the "Brownies" stories, the magazine most closely associated with the feature's early days was the famous children's periodical, St. Nicholas. Dozens of the stories appeared there over the next few years. In 1887, The Century Company collected 24 of them into hardcover form, under the title The Brownies: Their Book. This was followed by Another Brownie Book (1890), The Brownies at Home (1893) and others — a dozen, in all, the last of which was published in 1918. Cox died on July 24, 1924.

The books were only the beginning. There were also at least two stage plays, one of which, Palmer Cox's Brownies, opened in New York in 1894 and, in one venue or another, continued in production until 1899. The Ladies' Home Journal ran a series of articles about Brownies, by Cox. They also starred in popular sheet music, such as Frolic of the Brownies, with words and music by Warren Beebe, which came out in 1896. Cox did them as a newspaper Sunday page for several years starting in 1903.

And of course, there were imitators galore. A prominent one was The Ting-Lings, by Charles Saalburg, which began in The Chicago Inter-Ocean in 1894. An even more prominent one was The Teenie Weenies, by William Donahey, which started in 1914 and which The Chicago Tribune Syndicate distributed until Donahey's death in 1970.

After Palmer Cox died, interest in The Brownies faded. Within a couple of decades, the series was barely a memory — in fact, when, in 1942, Dell Comics did its own version of The Brownies, the title referred mostly to the creatures of fable (quite well known in America by that time), and had little to do with the version that had helped launch the modern toon industry.

In the 1960s, Dover Books brought out facsimile editions of Cox's first three "Brownies" volumes, and those printings can still be had inexpensively by anyone who puts a reasonable effort into seeking them out. Other than that, cartoondom's first great commercial success is seldom glimpsed.


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Text ©2001-07 Donald D. Markstein. Art: 'The Brownies' is in the public domain. This image has been modified. Modified version © Donald D. Markstein.