Cover of Tillie's third reprint volume.


Original Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: King Features Syndicate
First Appeared: 1921
Creator: Russell Channing Westover
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Nowadays, comic strips about working women abound. Cathy, On the Fastrack, Sally Forth … even Blondie has gone into business. But there was a time when the idea was new — in fact, The Chicago Tribune's success with a strip of that description …

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… (Winnie Winkle the Breadwinner, which began in 1920) may have made King Features Syndicate more receptive to the idea of starting its own in '21.

Or maybe it was just a coincidence — the two debuted less than four months apart, Russ Westover's Tillie the Toiler first seeing print on Monday, January 3, 1921. In any case, Tillie proved popular enough to get a Sunday page on October 10, 1922.

Tillie (last name Jones) toiled for a fashionable women's wear company run by clothing mogul J. Simpkins. Or usually did, anyway — she'd occasionally quit or be fired, as the plotline, which ran at breakneck pace and didn't always make perfect sense, required. During World War II, in fact, she even joined the U.S. Army. But she always came back to Simpkins. Mostly, she worked in his office, but she also did a little modeling. Whatever she did and wherever she went, however, she was impeccably dressed in the very latest styles. (Except when she was in the army, of course.) This helped her in the pursuit of charming and often wealthy young men, who came and went at an alarming rate, providing grist for the story mill. She did, however, have one steady male associate, Clarence "Mac" MacDougall, a short, bulb-nosed co-worker who loved her persistently even tho she returned little of the feeling.

Cupples & Leon, the company that reprinted Harold Teen, Buster Brown and dozens of other old-time comics, put out its first Tillie the Toiler volume in 1925. Eight came out altogether, the last appearing in 1933. Dell Comics, too, reprinted Tillie, in 14 issues of its catch-all series, Four Color Comics, coming out between 1941 and '49. Also, Whitman published Tillie in novel form, a distinction also bestowed on Invisible Scarlet O'Neil, Boots & Her Buddies and several other strips.

And her name was echoed in some of the female protagonists Marvel Comics introduced in the late 1940s, such as Tessie the Typist, Nellie the Nurse, Sherry the Showgirl and Millie the Model.

Tillie became a movie star on June 5, 1927, when MGM released a film titled, simply enough, Tillie the Toiler. Marion Davies played the title role, with Matt Moore as Mac and George Fawcett as Mr. Simpkins. And she became a movie star again on August 7, 1941, when Columbia Pictures released a second film with the same title. This time Kay Harris played Tillie, William Tracy played Mac and George Watts played Mr. Simpkins. For some reason, Tillie's last name was changed to Tompkins in the 1941 release.

Back in the newspapers, Tillie's strip had the distinction of featuring the first professional work of Alex Raymond, who later became famous for Flash Gordon, Rip Kirby and other classic strips. Raymond, who had lived in Westover's neighborhood as a child, became the cartoonist's assistant in 1929.

After three decades on the job, Westover retired. In 1951, he turned most of the writing and drawing over to his assistant, Bob Gustafson. He got out of the game completely three years later, and Gustafson began signing the strip on October 4, 1954. It continued to run with Gustafson's byline until March, 1959, with the daily strip ending on the 7th and the Sunday on the 15th of the month.

It was in that March 15, 1959 episode that one very long-running plot element was finally resolved. On that day, Tillie and Mac were finally married. Neither character was ever seen again, so presumably, they lived happily ever after.


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Text ©2003-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © King Features Syndicate.