THE YELLOW KID
All Photographs and Copy are Coryright MEL BIRNKRANT
Some of the imagery is Copyright The Walt Disney Company
THE MEL BIRNKRANT COLLECTION
A Guided Tour of
In 1894, on the lower east Side of New York City, both, my father and the "Yellow Kid" were born. My father, Samuel, was the second of 13 children. The Yellow Kid, on the other hand, was the first of a hundred thousand siblings, who followed in his barefoot footsteps to populate the pages of the funny papers and comic strips of this Great Nation, and, indeed, the World. As most historians will tell you, it was thanks to him, the Yellow Kid that the newspaper comic strip and Comic Characters began.
Hogan’s Alley, be it real or fictional, was just around the corner from Delancy Street, where my Grandparents, Maurice and Tillie lived. My father never spoke of his youth, in NYC, with the exception of one story, which I heard, time and again. Whenever I asked for pocket money, he would, inevitably, hand me some, but not without reminding me that he "had to sell newspapers on the streets of New York City, when he was only four years old." Could it be that the newspapers he was peddling featured the Yellow Kid?
Richard F Outcault was the towering genius behind this ground breaking creation. The Yellow Kid appeared for only a short span of four years, in two opposing New York Newspapers, from 1895 to1898. Outcault first created the Yellow Kid, and drew him for two years in a strip called “Hogan’s Alley”, Appearing in the Joseph Pulitzer's “World”. He was then hired away by Hearst to draw him for the “Journal” where he created a new neighborhood called, McFadden’s Flats. Meanwhile, a new artist, George B. Luks continued to draw the Yellow Kid for Pulitzer. The two papers came to be known as “The Yellow Kid papers” and the battle between them to report and often exaggerate, or even fabricate news stories led to the term “Yellow Journalism”. In the fabulous jigsaw puzzle, below, drawn by R. F. Outcault, himself, in 1896, we see The Yellow Kid’s new neighborhood, McFadden’s Flats.
The Yellow Kid’s Yellow nightshirt, on which words were written, was the beginning of the “talk balloon”. Outcault, eventually, developed talk balloons, that more resembled those we know, today, clouds of speech emitted from the character’s mouths.
TheYellow Kid’s popularity led to his image being used on countless articles of merchandise, everything from toys and games to cigars, chewing gum, sheet music and whisky. These items appeared in the New York area, only, and for a relatively short period of time, which makes them extremely rare and hard to find today.
My father’s story always seemed like a Tall Tale to me, but I figured if Davey Crocket could kill him a "bar" when he was only four, then Sam Birnkrant could sell the “New York Journal American” or the “World” on the sidewalks of New York when he was four years old, as well.
On the other hand, his story was not nearly as hard to believe as the fact that I nearly didn’t collect the Yellow Kid.
When I began collecting Comic Characters, Yellow Kid pin back buttons were everywhere. It seemed like I could have easily amassed several sets, but I found them repetitious and uninteresting, and buttons never were my thing. As I used to say, "Just a picture of something on something doesn’t interest me. I liked objects that one could touch and see in 3D." Occasionally, a Yellow Kid figure would fall into my lap, and I would lap it up. Then, I stopped collecting the Yellow Kid. It was my friend Noel Barrett who I could thank for that! And it was also Noel who I can thank for the fact that after a hiatus of several years, I started collecting him again.
Beginning in the early days, when Comic Character Collecting, was new, Noel and I did all the shows together, sharing booths, hotel rooms, and good times, at every Brimfield, Renninger's Extravaganza, Kennedy Toy Show, and Atlantic City Show, for nearly 30 years. Noel was at these events in a dual capacity, both as a toy dealer and a toy collector. His first order of business was, by necessity, to make a living. I, on the other hand, was there only to spend money, money I had worked equally hard to earn, elsewhere.
Noel had a customer in Texas, who was nuts about the Yellow kid.. Thus, if Noel found anything that he could sell this guy, it would absolutely make his trip. So, with that in mind, I stepped aside, when It came to Yellow Kid, and I would even help Noel find things to sell his customer. Once, I bought a fabulous bound volume of all the Yellow Kid Magazines, for only $50. I passed it on to Noel, and we shared the profits, which were big! Many a time, at my house, after the show, Noel would pile his Yellow Kid haul on my desk and I would “spruce it up” for him, before he shipped it off to Texas! The fact is, I could have owned that guy’s whole collection, before it ever got to him, if I had kept the stuff I found myself, and paid Noel Texas prices for the rest.
One day, several “Yellow Kidless” years later, in our hotel room on the eve of a Kennedy Toy Show, Noel reached into his luggage and pulled out a fabulous Yellow Kid Candy Container. His tone, as he showed it to me, was one of Shock and Incredulity! He had sent this handsome object to Texas, and the guy had sent it back again, saying that he "Didn’t like it!" What? You’ve got to be kidding me! Noel speculated that his prize customer had figured out that he had been in heated competition, and paying competitive prices, when there was, actually, no competition. In other words, it dawned on him that he was the only player in the game.
“That’s exactly the game I like to play!" said I. "I’ll buy it!”
Noel’s star customer had realized that he was, not only, living in the Lone Star State, he was, also, the Lone Yellow Kid Collector! And he needed to think someone else wanted his stuff, in order to be hot for it, himself. I can’t remember the fellow’s name, but, from that day forward, as my mother used to say, “His goose was Cooked!”
And so, I bought the candy container, and got a head start on collecting the Yellow Kid again. From Noel’s point of view Texas had moved to New York State. We had met the "New" Yellow Kid Collector, and he was me! Here is the candy container below; this fabulous head of the Yellow Kid with a trap door in the bottom and blue glass eyes. I'm still trying to decide: What's not to like?
Thus, my Yellow Kid collection is a modest one, compared to what it could have been. Ironically, the man in Texas unloaded his whole collection, with the help of "Richard Olson", who is the ultimate expert on the Yellow Kid. Rich is the president and founder of “The R. F. Outcault Society”. That “link” will lead you to his Yellow Kid Site. So, ironically, in the end, many of the things that once sat on my desk, came back again, and as an extra dividend, I made a new and lasting friend, Rich Olson.
And so, the question is: Where to begin? These things all fit pretty nicely on one shelf, and I could easily click a photo of it all, from a distance, as I have done so many times over the past few weeks of taking photos. But the thing I love most about these Yellow Kid objects is the dazzling impact of the color Yellow, when one moves in closer, and lets it fill your field of vision. Together, they radiate a distinctive yellow glow. So here is a group of favorite things, up close! Looking at the photo, now, I am questioning why is that piece of cardboard there? It is obscuring one of my all-time favorite Yellow Kids. I have no appetite to shoot this over. I'll just pull him out, and take a photo of him on his own.
Moving over to the left, we see a larger version of the fabric doll that has caused every collector who has seen this to express surprise that it exists. Below that, are two mechanical Yellow Kids, a bell ringer and a hat tipper. Here, also, is a fragment of a piece of wood beautifully painted as the Yellow Kid. This was the first image of him I ever saw. I acquired it half a century ago, with no idea who he was. Next to him is a vintage greeting card, on which his face appears, and last of all, an outrageous doll with a body covered in bright yellow rabbit fur.
In the center of this long showcase, is the paper on wood Yellow Kid Theatre, the only one I ever had a chance to get that was all original, including the top curtain, which has always been missing, even as a Xerox copy on the few I’ve seen. In front of that, is the Yellow Kid paper weight, and two bars of figural soap in their original boxes. Both boxes have the original paper brochures inside. and the writing on his nightshirt, both on the soap and the box lids is different on each one. Here, too, is what appears to be a Yellow Kid ventriloquist doll. It has a moving jaw. Last of all, is a preciously delicate tiny doll in a dress of yellow crepe paper. Sharing center stage, as well, are an exquisite pair of German bisque figures of Mutt and Jeff with moveable arms, they are 4 and 5 inches tall, and a small bisque figure of Uncle Sam, riding on a bull. If you're wondering what they're doing in the Yellow Kid showcase, the answer is: lack of space!
On the far right of the long showase is a blast of yellow: The Yellow Kid Ten Pins. This set has a dazzling presence to it. At first glance, all ten ten pins look identical, but the fact is, each has a different bowling related saying on his gown. The main figure takes a slightly different pose, pointing out that he’s "De King Pin - See!” On his head he wears a crown. On the left is another delicate doll, and on the right, are two telescoping scissor toys that grow to three feet tall.
Now that you have seen close ups, the complete case, below, looks small. That is a problem I have experienced throughout the process of taking these photographs. I’ve tried to strike a happy medium, so these images will be large enough to still have impact on a larger monitor, and small enough to be seen on smaller screens, as well, even if some scrolling is involved. Beyond the confines of this showcase, a few other Yellow Kid items have leaked out, and are scattered around the house.
One of those is the fabled Yellow Kid Cigar Cutter. This was originally Noel’s pride and joy. He sold it to the guy in Texas, and Rich Olson got it back for me. The condition really isn’t bad, considering. By the way, I would never consider touching up a rarity like this. Nor, for that matter, have I seen the need to do any restoration on any of the Yellow Kids. The very fact that they have survived, is, in itself, a Miracle.
This website is coming to you in real time. I’m really working it out as we go along. What? You’re not surprised! Ha! It was just too complicated to figure it out, ahead of time. Anyway, there was one issue, on which I really couldn’t make up my mind. Should I attempt to isolate the various showcases from their environment as on Charles Ponstingl’s site? Or should I show them in their actual surroundings? Taking photographs, over the past few days, I tried it both ways. So the question is, should I show you the Yellow Kid showcase, with all the stuff that sits in front of it removed, as I have, more or less, attempted on this page, so far? Or should I show it the way it would really look, if you were actually here, with all the stuff that sits in front of it every day, still there?
Well, the fact is, it’s all great stuff, and there will be no record or memory of it if I don’t show it some way. Everything is mixed together, but, on the other hand, in my eyes, it all goes together, and I like it that way. When one sees so many similar things, they become repetitious. Therefore, I often take great visual delight in the way dissimilar objects relate. I guess I’m slowly realizing that there is no way I can make an honest accurate record of this collection, without revealing the environment. So with that in mind, here is what the Yellow Kid department looks like, at any given time.
I’m about to show you one more great thing. By what Miracle did this massive impressive work of art make its way to me? The answer is, eBay! This beautiful Wood carving is clearly of the period. It radiates the glow of provenance and age. But it also is a mystery. What was this exquisite carving doing in a turn of the century apothecary shop in Nova Scotia? The man who sold it to me was French Canadian, and he sought it out in this fabled store that had been locked for half a century. Apparently, it was attached to some sort of rack that was intended to hold newspapers or magazines. At my urging, he went back to the shop again, which was a trip, to try to get the remnants of the rack, but it was gone by then. I realize that this story raises more questions than it answers. What was the Yellow Kid doing on in the bleak coast of Nova Scotia, so far from New York City? PS. Later on, we’lll talk about the Mickey Mouse, below, for now, this is about "Mickey Dugan", the Yellow Kid, on the top of the showcase. Don't pay any attention to the Mickey underneath!
I bought this carving based on photographs, and intuition. Intuition, by the way, rarely fails me. I’ve found it to be more perceptive and reliable (and plentiful) than brains. But, I must admit, while waiting for this object to arrive, some questions troubled me. One look, set my mind at ease. Whether or not the story held water, really didn’t matter. To see this awesome wood carving, in person, to hold it in your hands, and peer into its hollow interior, marvel at its form and construction, and realize, first hand, that Its age and patina is perfection, leaves the viewer with no option, other than to instantly suspend all disbelief.
What you see, here, is pretty much self-explanatory, a plaster bust, a milk glass bottle, painted yellow with frosted head, a gorgeous statue, and the iconic art on which it’s based, a jointed doll, and next to him a cast metal hat-tipping toy, wearing its original yellow dress with the writing still intact and legible. Finding Yellow Kids, on which the century old fabric is still there, is rare. In the back row, is the Yellow Kid cigar box with its beautifully graphic label that portrays the Yellow Kid, whose name, by the way, is “Mickey Dugan”, blowing smoke out of his ears, and the small and generally known version of the fabric doll. And then..... I’ll take a better photo of this totally outrageous object, in which, when a crank is turned, the Yellow Kid swallows cigarettes! And, of course, when the crank is turned the other way, he spits them out again.