|Harold Gray drawing his famous character. Note how many girls have a fashionable bob cut.|
In 1917, Gray graduated from Purdue University with a degree in engineering and, still a country bumpkin, walked into the offices of the Chicago Tribune looking for a job in the art department. Despite a letter of introduction by John T. McCutcheon, the Tribune's editorial cartoonist of many years, the art editor had no work for him.
After a stint in the army and odd jobs as a commercial artist, Gray went to work for Sidney Smith, creator of the extremely popular Gumps newspaper strip, in 1920. He assisted Smith with lettering and backgrounds. In 1922, Smith signed a million-dollar contract, $100,000 a year for ten years. Not surprisingly, Gray began submitting ideas for his own strips to Joseph Medill Patterson, owner of the Tribune. Patterson, who took an active interest in his paper's comic strips, rejected Gray's proposals, until he came up with Little Orphan Annie in 1924.
"She had common sense, knew how to take care of herself. She had to. Her name was Annie. At the time some 40 strips were using boys as the main characters; only three were using girls. I chose Annie for mine, and made her an orphan, so she'd have no family, no tangling alliances, but freedom to go where she pleased."
If Gray's story is accurate, it would have only made sense to title his strip "Little Orphan Annie", after the popular 1885 poem, "Little Orphant Annie", by James Whitcomb Riley.
In any case, the strip was accepted, and dailies debuted on August 5, 1924 in Patterson's tabloid, The Daily News. Gray was 30 years old. Sunday strips began appearing in the Tribune on November 2, followed by the dailies a week later. It was picked up by other papers in syndication, and soon became one of the most popular and lucrative comic strips around, making Gray a wealthy man.
|Gray's 25-room Georgian mansion in Connecticut, room enough for dozens of orphans! He must have bought it simply because he could. After all, he and his second wife, Winifred, never had children.|
|The mansion, as depicted on this Christmas card from 1939. Every year from 1924 to 1967, Harold and Winifred sent out Christmas cards featuring Annie and Sandy, some to the multitude of fans who wrote to Gray.|
Cupples & Leon, publisher of children's books, as well as collections of newspaper strips, reprinted Annie's adventures from 1926 to 1934, a total of nine hardcover volumes. The 92-page books, edited by Gray himself, sold for 60 cents each.
|Little Orphan Annie In The Circus (1927), reprinting the strips from May 1, 1926 to September 4, 1926.|
|Little Orphan Annie And The Haunted House (1928), reprinting the strips from May 26, 1927 to October 7, 1927.|
|Little Orphan Annie Bucking the World (1929), reprinting the strips from January 2, 1928 to November 22, 1928.|
|Little Orphan Annie Never Say Die (1930), reprinting the strips from January 2, 1929 to May 4, 1929.|
|Little Orphan Annie Shipwrecked (1931), reprinting the strips from June 13, 1930 to November 22, 1930.|
|Little Orphan Annie A Willing Helper (1932), reprinting the strips from January 14, 1931 to December 18, 1931.|
|Little Orphan Annie In Cosmic City (1933), reprinting the strips from August 26, 1932 to December 31, 1932.|
|Little Orphan Annie And Uncle Dan (1934), reprinting the strips from September 25, 1933 to December 30, 1933. Gray must have just read "The Little Match Girl" when he drew this cover.|
|Well, here's 13 of the 17 Big Little Books, anyway. (Two of them, Little Orphan Annie and the Ancient Treasure of Am, are different editions of the same book.) Not shown: Little Orphan Annie (the book seen here with that title is actually Little Orphan Annie and Punjab the Wizard), Little Orphan Annie and Sandy, Little Orphan Annie with the Circus, and Little Orphan Annie and Chizzler. (More information on Annie's Big Little Books can be found here.)|
And there were others, including Whitman's even smaller Wee Little Books, and numerous comic books published by Dell, some of them giveaways, most of which reprinted the newspaper strip.
|Wee Little Books issued six Little Orphan Annie stories. First Big Little, then Wee Little... The books got smaller, but Harold Gray's bank account got bigger.|
The Little Orphan Annie radio show debuted on WGN Chicago, owned by the Tribune, in 1936, starring 10-year-old Shirley Bell, already a veteran radio performer, as Annie. She would play the 10-year-old urchin for the next ten years -- and make good money doing it. On April 6, 1931, the show was picked up by the NBC Blue Network and Ovaltine became the sponsor. For the next two years there was a San Francisco cast, with Floy Hughes as Annie, but they were dropped when technology allowed the original Chicago show to be broadcast from coast to coast. (During a contract dispute in 1934 and 1935, Bobbe Dean played Annie.) The show moved to NBC in 1936, and then Mutual on January 22, 1940, at which point Quaker Puffed Wheat Sparkies became the new sponsor, and Janice Gilbert the new Annie. The final show aired on April 26, 1942.
Every day millions of kids tuned in at 5:45 p.m. to listen to Annie's adventures, though half of the 15-minute time slot was taken up by an announcer vigorously hawking Ovaltine and the endless parade of Little Orphan Annie premiums, including a secret decoder ring and mugs to drink your Ovaltine from, which could be obtained by mailing the aluminum seal from the can, and perhaps a dime, to "Little Orphan Annie, Chicago, Illinois; or, if you live in Canada, mail it to Ovaltine, Peterborough, Ontario." Boys and girls were encouraged to get their mothers to pick up a can of Ovaltine from the grocery store because, "even if you have some at home now, you'll be needing another can pretty soon anyway!"
|Ovaltine premium, 1935|
|Ovaltine premium: "talking" stationery|
|A secret society of six million kids|
|The first issue of Radio Orphan Annie's Goofy Gazette newspaper, 1939. Annie and Joe Corntassel, editors. There were only three issues. Published by Ovaltine, natch.|
|Mitzi Green as Annie, 1932|
In 1932, RKO's Little Orphan Annie hit the movie theatres, starring 11-year-old Mitzi Green, a popular child actress of the 1930s. Paramount released their own version in 1938, with Ann Gillis playing Annie. Neither movie was a blockbuster, but for the kids it was probably a thrill to see Annie and Sandy on the silver screen. Unfortunately, there were never any animated shorts.
|Ann Gillis as Annie, 1938. Sock 'im, Annie!|
|1938 movie song book|
It would be impossible to make a complete account of Little Orphan Annie merchandise in a mere blog post -- it just wouldn't fit. Starting in the 1920s, there were everything from Little Orphan Annie sweaters to Christmas tree light bulbs. Perhaps a thousand blog posts would do it. But here's a few items and related paraphernalia:
|Song book, 1925. (Not to be confused with the song used later in the radio show.) It didn't take long for spin-offs -- the strip had only been around for a year.|
|Annie oilcloth doll, 17-inches tall|
|Board game, 1928|
|Little Orphan Annie sweater button to stick on your Little Orphan Annie sweater. Who'da thunk?|
|Colouring book, 1930|
|Annie mask, 1933. An Ovaltine premium.|
|...and the box the bracelet came in.|
|Kids have to blow their noses, so this Little Orphan Annie hanky set had a right to exist.|
|Paper plate, 1934. How many kids scraped birthday cake off of Annie's face?|
|Playing jacks was a swell way to have fun in the 1930s. Today, kids are blowing off zombies' heads with shotguns.|
|Basically, a rubber stamp kit. 1935|
|Actually, there were a lot of printing sets available.|
|Annie watch, with box, 1935. It's hard to tell the time when your eyes have no pupils.|
|Pin, early 1930s. There were many Little Orphan Annie pins to be had. Gray's original colour artwork from the 1920s, used on this pin, was used on numerous other pins.|
|Wind-up toy. Watch Annie skip rope.|
|Dime bank, 1936|
|Rummy cards, 1937. Annie, with a frown, discouraging Sandy's gambling addiction.|
|12-inch doll, 1930s|
|Pop-up book, 1935|
|Sandy gets a slice of the pie...and then carries it for Annie in her lunchbox.|
|Annie's Lucky Knife cutout book, 1937. There were at least three books in the cutout series.|
|There's everything else under the sun -- including the washing line -- so why not Little Orphan Annie clothes pins? (1938)|
|Travel game, 1930s.|
|Annie and Sandy shilling for Flare-Top ice cream cones, 1947.|
|Little Orphan Annie Sunshine Biscuits, 1930s. Unlike today's store-bought cookies, you don't have to be Victor Frankenstein to understand the list of ingredients.|
|...or you can just make your own cookies with this Little Orphan Annie pastry set; comes with a board, cookie cutter and rolling pin. (1930s)|
|Jigsaw puzzle, 1948. If you look closely, there are a few shapes in the pieces, including what might be a car and a word balloon. One of the pieces is definitely Sandy. Can you find Sandy, boys and girls?|