The last precondition for the Yellow Kid's appearance was the newspaper—both the technology that allowed for cheap color printing and the rising popularity of the daily paper, due at least in part to its affordability. As Gunther Barth notes, "In the span of two generations, the economic power of the modern city converted the newspaper, formerly a stodgy mercantile sheet or a straggling political journal, into another form of big business... The metropolitan press pioneered journalistic practices that satisfied people's need for information about the bewildering place they found themselves in, the other inhabitants, and themselves. It spoke of their hope and despair, honesty and corruption, success and failure, and virtue and sin, in a world that let few dreams come true by shattering many."1 In other words, newspapers offered a script for city dwellers to understand their rapidly changing environment: "In the modern city, law, custom, and tradition lacked the authority to assign people to a station in life, but newspaper stories about neighbors, work, and leisure helped residents identify themselves...Immigrants, ignorant in the ways of becoming citizens, turned to the metropolitan press for answers."2 By 1890, 40 percent of New York City's population was foreign-born.3 The press may have adapted in part to appeal to an audience that hadn't been addressed before, making their product more visually appealing—and offering an alternate entertaining experience that didn't require perfect mastery of English—as printing technology progressed. As W. Campbell Joseph noted in his study of yellow journalism, this new kind of journalism was characterized by bold, multi-column headlines and generous use of illustrations.4
|Edison's Menlo Park, by Outcault.
The New York World, owned by Joseph Pulitzer, was the first newspaper in New York City to widely use editorial cartoons, featuring in 1884 a front page splashed with the "Royal Feast of Belshazzar Blaine."5 On May 21, 1893, the World published the nation's first color comic supplement—it was also the first time comics could be had for a nickel rather than a dime in a Sunday newspaper; the cartoons themselves were reprints from the 10-cent Judge, Life, and Puck.6 In the meantime, R. F. Outcault had begun his career as an illustrator for Edison Laboratories, and eventually began working freelance on illustrations for magazines like Truth.7 He began making original illustrations for the World in 1894, and the Yellow Kid may have appeared in an early format as early as 1895 in the World and as early as 1894 in Truth, according to comic historian Bill Blackbeard.8 On May 5, 1895, Outcault's "Hogan's Alley" series debuted,9 and the Kid's shirt was exclusively yellow after a February 16, 1896 comic, "The Great Dog Show in M'Googan Avenue."10
But Pulitzer was soon challenged by William Randolph Hearst's upstart New York Journal, which raided the World for Outcault and a number of other artists and writers in 1896; one of Outcault's first drawings for the Journal's Sunday comic supplement, American Humorist, was "The Yellow Kid and His New Phonograph." It had a six-panel format and word balloons, and is widely considered the first newspaper comic strip.11 The true focus of Outcault's work in these years were large full- or half-page spreads, such as those featured in "McFadden's Row of Flats" at the New York Journal, on which Outcault colloborated with Chimmie Fadden author Edward Townsend. Outcault and the Yellow Kid also made a foray into a diary format, which combined text and drawings. In the meantime at the World, eventual Ash Can artist George Luks took over "Hogan's Alley." Two competing Yellow Kids captured the nation's attention, but only Outcault's work revealed on colorful newsprint the tensions facing late-nineteenth-century Americans.
1 Barth, Gunther. City People: The Rise of Modern City Culture in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. 59.
2 Barth 62.
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. 93.
4 Campbell, W. Joseph. Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001. 52.
5 Gordon, Ian. Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890-1945. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998: 13.
6 Blackbeard 23.
7 Blackbeard 21.
8 Blackbeard 24, 26
9 Blackbeard 27.
10 Blackbeard 34.
11 Blackbeard 68.