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
Buster Brown's name and face survived for over a hundred years, by hiding in ten million pairs of shoes! His familiar slogan, preceded by a bark or two, "That's my dog Tige, he lives in a shoe! I'm Buster Brown, look for me in there, too!" echoed in my ears, throughout my childhood years. In all those shoes, for all those years, his familiar face remained, essentially unchanged. The visage is that of a handsome lad with a look that seems angelic. But a mischievous wink reveals his true nature, that of a prankster, and all round trouble maker. Beside him, is his familiar, a pit bull terrier, "Tige", with a grin that is both diabolical and friendly. That’s about it, what Buster Brown is all about, summed up in a single picture
Apart from living in the shoes of a million children, there was an awful TV show, a leftover from radio, called "Buster Brown’s Gang". Named after its sponsor, the show had nothing to do with Buster Brown, other than the fact that it was paid for by his shoes. It featured a fat jovial host, "Smilin’ Ed McConnell" who was replaced, after he died by "Andy (less than) Divine". "Froggy the Gremlin", played by a vinyl squeeze toy, appeared in a blast of talcum powder smoke each week, and wiggled, atop a grandfather’s clock, threatening to “plunk his magic twanger” at "Squeaky" the mouse, who was actually a live hamster, held captive, from the neck down, in a human body suit, and "Midnight", a really creepy dead black cat, who was more representative of taxidermy than puppetry. And that was that! Who knew?
Who knew that Buster Brown was once a hugely popular comic strip, the worlds first comic mega hit! It was the work of R. F. Outcault, once again, following the Yellow Kid, and even more successful. No longer limited to the New York area, as the Yellow Kid had been, Buster’s fame was international. .
After the Yellow Kid, Outcault created and drew a panel comic strip called “Pore Lil Mose” for the next two years. It featured America’s first black comic hero, Pore Lil Mose, a seven year old black boy, living in New York City with: a cat, a monkey, a dog, and a bear named, Billy. Each weekly panel took the form of letters written by Mose to his Mammy, back home in Cottonville Ga. The strip was beautifully drawn, and the characters were spot on. Outcault was an excellent draftsman, his artwork was superior to all the other comic artists of the day, with, perhaps, the sole exception of the great Winsor McCay. The social Commentary of Pore Lil Mose was timely, and, although, the attitude it conveyed was dignified and kindly, it was of the era, and could not exist, today. Like Brer Rabbit, and Huckleberry Finn, it's gone with the wind, and the likes of it can never return again.
In 1902, Outcault created Buster Brown. He was a runaway success. Thus, two months later, Pore Lil Mose came to an end. As one commentator said, he went into the dustbin of history. Unlike the Yellow Kid, who was a poor street urchin, and not particularly good looking, Buster Brown was downright pretty, the pampered child of wealthy parents. But his looks belied his naughty nature. His sidekick, Tige, which was short for Tiger, was modeled after Outcault’s own pet. He was sometimes Buster’s partner in crime, and at other times, his conscience. Tige is credited with being the first talking animal in the comics. Some have conjectured that the name “Buster” was inspired by “Buster Keaton” who was a popular kid star of vaudeville, at the time.
In 1904 The Brown Shoe Company licensed Buster Brown. It seemed a fitting match, in as much as they both, by chance, shared the same last name. As an advertising campaign, the company hired an army of midgets to tour the country, impersonating Buster Brown to promote their product, Buster Brown Shoes. They also created a girl's shoe, based on Buster’s girlfriend, Mary Jane. Both names and shoes remain in use today. If not for that commercial tie in, the name Buster Brown might have followed Pore Lil Mose, into oblivion.
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In 1905, Buster appeared on Broadway, in a musical extravaganza. The lead role of Buster Brown was played by a 21 year old midget, known as Master Gabriel. A few years later Master Gabriel would star again in a production of Winsor McCay’s “Little Nemo.”
But, Buster Brown’s Success wasn’t only about shoes. In his heyday, Buster's likeness appeared on a multitude of items, from toys and games, and every kind of plaything, to socks, cigars and alcoholic drinks. Much of this merchandise, as you will see below, was quite beautiful. And some of it was intended to be Works of Art, even, back then. After all, the comic pages, in those days, were not just for kids.
Below, is the Buster Brown showcase. All my Buster stuff is, basically, in one place. I'll attempt to point out some of the items. Starting on the left, there are two Buster masks. The one on the top is high gloss, embossed and made in Germany. It advertises Buster Brown bread. The one below it, sells shoes. Next to these, is an amazing wind operated Animated Display. The Windmill that animates it is made of red and white striped celluloid. This is Green energy, circa 1910. On the back wall, is the Buster Paper doll. And on the side wall, is the Buster Brown Christmas puzzle box. Below that, is another variety of paper doll. And hanging from the top, is Buster, holding Tige. This early composition novelty is suspended on a spring. When it is bounced around, Buster lifts Tige up and down. This photo is also the only one that shows a bisque of Billy Bear. Can you find him? I’ll describe the other things, when we get there.
Here is the Buster Brown and Tige Schoenhut "Roly Dolly". This, might be the rarest and most desirable Buster Brown toy known, and one of the most aesthetically gratifying. It is a treasure, for which I can thank Noel. By the way, collectors, take note! There's a bogus version of this toy, out there, with a Tige that’s genuine, a base that's too small, and a Buster that's completly false. I know the maker, a real faker!
This huge imposing Candy Container, featuring Buster Brown, riding on a rabbit is stunningly spectacular, especially, in person. These photos don’t begin to convey its awesome size and presence. Its condition is amazing. Its form, magnificent!
Next to Buster, trampling on the Christmas Puzzle, is a considerably less attractive Tige. He, too, is a Candy Container, and has Glass eyes.
Here is a painted tin Buster and Tige wind up, with an amazing amount of the original paint intact, as well as what might be the original ball. This is one of a series of similar looking tin toys that use the same two figures. When the toy rocks, Buster and Tige roll the ball back and forth. By the way, is it just me, or does Tige look like a monkey?
Here is a Buster Brown advertising watch in a rather nice original box, with a pair of German bisques, on either side. The animated post card, behind, was designed for the user to cut out and construct, himself. It's amazing that it has survived!
Below, is a painted tin Buster on the left, and a white glazed porcelain Buster with a counter weighted nodding head, on the right, made by Schafer Vater. In the middle, is what might be the most exquisite Buster Brown item of them all. This bronze sculpture, on a marble base, was created by the renowned Austrian sculptor, Carl Kauba. Kauba was born in Vienna in 1865. His intricate bronzes were imported to to the United States between 1848 and 1912. He visited America, around 1886, inspired by the culture of the American West, and traveled to the Western states, where he made sketches and models of native Americans and Cowboys. Nonetheless, all his bronzes were made and cast in Austria.
This sculpture of Buster Brown was an unexplained departure for Kauba. Nothing else in his body of work remotely resembles it. One of his specialties was polychroming. Therefore, this figure of Buster was produced in two versions, plain bronze as seen, below....
and a second version that is polychromed as seen in these three views. The color is extremely subtle, a slight tint of pink on Buster's clothes. The work is signed “C Kauba” and inscribed, “after R. F. Outcault”
Here is a curious game, The Buster Brown Hurdle Race. Although, it is signed R. F. Outcault, the draftsmanship does not appear to be his own. On the other hand, all the characters are there, including the Yellow Kid and Pore Lil Mose. What makes this game exciting to me, at least, is the fact that elements of it were printed in the most amazing gold metallic ink. When the box is tipped away from the light it appears quite dull and dingy. But when the light hits it. just right, the gold ink begins to glow as if it was applied yesterday. This is no ordinary gold paint. I would find it difficult to replicate with any metallic inks I know, today. It wouldn’t surprise me if there is some element of real gold leaf involved, for the patina of age that has left its mark on every other aspect of the game has not altered the gold ink. It remains clean and unchanged, still glowing dramatically, even though, this toy was made at the Turn of the Century.
Last of all, here is, just about, my favorite Buster item. My tastes, perhaps, are simple. This uniquely trivial piece of Americana really speaks to me. Nobody would throw a Viennese Bronze away. But what are the chances that this fragile box, with all its uncut sheets intact, and an instruction sheet, printed on a thin piece of gossamer tissue paper, would survive, complete, in relatively pristine shape, after all this time.
Many years ago, when I found this treasure, I carefully carried it to the copy center, and had some Xerox copies made. Although, they are crude by today’s inkjet standards, when cut out and constructed, the results are quite effective. And, thus, they serve as surrogates for the real thing, as they surround the Buster Brown showcase, in a Buster Brown Parade.
Here is a window back in time, showing “The only Original” Buster Brown, at one of the the Brown Shoe Company’s Events. This one took place in Grove City, PA. Could this be one of an “Army of Midgets, ”hired to impersonate Buster? Or is this really him, Buster Brown in person? He sure looks like the real thing to me! Tige also is convincing! I have no idea what the origin of this image might be. It is not an original photograph, but it is printed on old card stock, and is quite large, 12” X 18’”. It might have been created in the era, for display in shoe stores. Clearly It wasn’t printed yesterday. I bought it at a show that, by the way, was in PA., over 40 years ago.