The Yellow Kid on the Paper Stage
Introduction Origins of the Kid Class Warfare on the Urban Stage Race and Ethnicity Selling the Kid The Death of the Kid
Mullen's Alley, Cherry Hill, 1888, by Jacob Riis
"Tenement Life in New York—Sketches in the Fourth Ward."
"Children's Playground in Poverty."
"First of April—The Loaded Hat."
Click on images above for a larger view and source information..

Origins of the Kid: Street Arab, Slum Life, and Color Presses

R. F. Outcault

"The Yellow Kid was not an individual but a type. When I used to go about the slums on newspaper assignments I would encounter him often, wandering out of doorways or sitting down on dirty doorsteps. I always loved the Kid. He had a sweet character and a sunny disposition, and was generous to a fault. Malice, envy or selfishness were not traits of his, and he never lost his temper." (from 1902 Bookman interview with R. F. Outcault) 1

R. F. Outcault, a former technical illustrator who eventually drew some of the most famous comic strip characters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, describes his earliest success in making a character, above, as a "type." The urban environment, with its oversized communities, pushed its citizens to view each other types, because knowing them as individuals was increasingly difficult. "Typing" people was a common source of comedy during the nineteenth century in minstrel, variety, and vaudeville shows that featured such "types" as the drunken Irish brawler, the hard-working German, and the foolish Black man. Urban entertainment, even when it traveled to rural areas, helped audience members make sense of the world by simplifying it; individuals were complicated and not funny; types were. Outcault and his cartooning colleagues used such lessons from theater to forge a new entertainment that offered theater in brief—and on paper.

Illustrated magazines, an increased interest in and writing of tenement literature, and the improving capabilities of newspaper press technology, all helped influence the creation of the Yellow Kid. Americans also had a newfound interest in the urban environment, as shown through the realism movement in literature and as the reform movement in society. Victorians were interested in portraying the urban poor in art and literature, but their attempts at formulating a critique of capitalism were undercut because they treated the poor as entertainments themselves.

Back   Next

1 Blackbeard, Bill. Introduction. R. F. Outcault's The Yellow Kid: A Centennial Celebration of the Kid Who Started the Comics. Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press, 1995. 135.