"Winnie Winkle" commences publication September 21, 1920. The daily and Sunday comic strip ran in the New York Daily News and the Chicago Tribune, and the Tribune-News Syndicate distributed it to other newspapers across the country. "Winnie Winkle" was the first of a genre of "working girl" comic strips. Until 1943 it carried the subtitle "The Breadwinner." The strip's creator, Martin Branner, set it in a large city, sometimes named Central City but most probably based on New York City, where Branner lived. The title character worked to support her lazy, stay-at-home father (Rip), her mother, and her adopted brohter (Perry). Winnie was a stenographer who desired a middle-class life. In the early years of the strip Branner contrasted Winnie's aspirations to the behavior of Patricia (Patsy) Dugan, an office colleague who became Winnie's friend on October 6, 1920. Patsy's language, appearance, and outlook were clearly working class.
There are no accounts of Branner's inspiration for the strip, but it started less than a month after the enactment of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Branner also created the strip against a backdrop of substantial changes in the status of women's work. The shortage of labor during America's involvement in the First World War led women to enter occupations previously closed to them. The expansion of the nation's businesses in the first two decades of the century, with the attendant centralization of control and management, created office jobs that women filled. It is not clear that Branner favored or opposed women working and voting. The only sure thing "Winnie Winkle" can tell us about its creator is that he used the changing position of women as a source for his humor. His underlying theme was the place of women in society. He depicted American society as one in which the consumption of commodities was expanding, driven in part by a working class that sought to emulate the middle class. He associated this move to a consumer culture with a feminine desire for display.
The creator of "Winnie Winkle" developed his critique in three recurring story lines. First, he satirized Winnie's consumer-driven personality and behavior in stories about her search for social advancement and an appropriate mate. Second, he memorialized a fading vaudeville era and counterposed it to Hollywood's centralized production of entertainment. Finally, Branner criticized the commercialization of culture and depicted celebrity product endorsement as "sissy." In all these stories he exhibited a concern about the suitability of public display and the construction of images. "Winnie Winkle" commented on the appropriateness of incorporating commodities into working-class lives.
Branner's lampoons of Winnie's attempts to break into a higher class counterposed effete, richly commodified, middle-class lives with working-class lives. In his presentation the middle class derived pleasure from purchased commodities whereas working-class leisure was more organic in its use of available resources. Branner favored the twelve-panel Sunday version of the strip for these stories. The basic plot of these episodes had Winnie embarrassed by the low-class antics of either her work-shy father or more often her adopted brother, Perry. For instance, on June 25, 1922, Winnie and Perry attended a society party aboard a private motor yacht. Perry, who went under protest, decided to join his friends who were swimming off a pier that the yacht passed. He stripped off his clothes and dove into the water. Perry's actions mortified Winnie, who tried to retrieve him only to compound her embarrassment by falling into the water herself. Branner derived a large part of the episode's humor from Winnie's humiliation. But the joke depended on contrasting the kids swimming off the pier and enjoying themselves with Perry, who was unhappily dressed in a formal suit.
Branner also presented Winnie's search for romantic love as an attempt to improve her class positin and her ability to consume. He cast these stories as melodramas in which Winnie failed to find happiness because she had compromised her virtue in the selection of a suitor. For Winnie, love was only possible with a professional gentleman, such as a banker, doctor, or lawyer, who could provide for her needs. She rejected an inappropriate elderly, wealthy suitor but considered a stockbroker twenty years her senior until he was revealed as a potential bigamist. The forty-three-year-old stockbroker Kenneth Dare first appeared in the strip on October 9, 1922. On November 3, 1922, Branner revealed to the readers, but not to Winnie, that he was already married. Dare and Winnie made marriage plans before Dare's wife exposed him as a would-be bigamist on January 24, 1923.
Branner used Mike Mulligan, Winnie's hick suitor, who first appeared in the strip on May 13, 1923, to highlight her tendency to associate wealth with happiness. Mulligan was an ill-dressed backcountry dweller. Short on manners, grooming, and intelligence, he was long on patience. For years he ignored Winnie's disinterest and pursued her relentlessly. Branner used Mulligan to lampoon fads. In December 1923 he had Mulligan go to college to play football. He picked up the language and mannerisms of the college set but was clumsy in their use. Although she was not interested in marrying Mulligan, Winnie enjoyed his attraction to a college "widow." Eventually, when another man appeared on the scene, Winnie got tired of Mulligan's boorish behavior, and he disappeared from the strip for two years. When Mulligan next entered the strip in January 1926, he had acquired some social graces and a good deal of money. His newfound wealth appeared to come from his "interior decorator" business, but in fact he was a bootlegger. Branner apprised his readers of this fact a week after Mulligan reappeared. Attracted by his riches, Winnie agreed to marriage, only to be left at the altar, once again, when Mulligan was arrested.
Branner liked to make fun of Winnie's consumer desire. The October 7, 1928, strip shows Winnie so distracted by shopping that she neglects a friend's baby she is minding and even mistakes a rubbish cart for its pram. The episode works on two levels. First, Branner employed the straightforward gag of Winnie mistaking a trash cart for a baby carriage. Then he drew on the underlying humor of Winnie's distraction. This component played off the notion of a woman's vanity and her need to consume to enhance her self-image. Branner reinforced his gendering of vanity and consumption by having only men laugh at Winnie.
Winnie's concern with her appearance fit the visual design of the strip. Every day Branner drew her wearing a new outfit. He resolved the dilemma of Winnie's ability to afford such fashion on her modest income in a 1921 series of strips. Responding to a reader's letter, Branner had Winnie followed by Gun-Shoe Gus, a detective, to ascertain the source of her extensive wardrobe. On October 28, 1921, Gus discovered that Winnie had a deal with a fashion shop to "model" their clothes in the strip. It was a clever story. Branner justified his depiction of Winnie in new outfits every day, indicated that readers were interested in the strip and that he paid attention to them, and made a self-referential claim that Winnie was an important enough comic strip celebrity that she modeled clothes on contract. After this story ran Branner occasionally drew Winnie modeling clothes rather than providing a gag or story continuity. He also used Winnie's modeling status in a number of story lines from the 1920s to the 1950s. In the 1950s Winnie parlayed her modeling experience into a job, first as a dress designer and eventually as the chief executive of a large fashion house. But "Winnie Winkle" was Branner's conceit from start to finish. If the structure of the strip demanded that Winnie be fashionably dressed, then Branner's ridicule of women's vanity was directed at his own image of women and his own success as a comic strip artist.