The Working Class Heroes of Clare Briggs

A shoe shine man enters his home after a long day’s work and boasts to his wife about his special talent for snapping his shine rag and using superior polish. After work at a sign painter’s home, the practical artist extolls the superior quality of his brush and his unique mastery of curving letters. A park garbage cleaner muses on spearing newfangled gum wrappers and the challenges of cleaning up eggshells during picnic season. A soda jerk brags to his wife that his colleagues just can’t sling those mixed drinks as quickly as he. A street sweeper shows off to his wife the new brush with just the right heft and breadth for easier work, and then ponders his chances for promotion over “Jerry” who “is good at plain sweeping’ but he’s no good around telegraph poles.”

These miniatures of workingmen returning home at night was the conceit for Clay Briggs’ remarkable Real Folks at Home series of the 1920s. This was a deep dive into the nuances of pride, spousal support, small ambitions, respect for craft among the laboring classes for the most part. There were occasional forays into more vaunted professions like an orchestra conductor, opera singer, or baseball star. But largely Briggs was concerned with the hard-working manual laborers who may have been invisible to the white collar suburban classes to which many newspapers tried to expand their circulation after WWI. This was a regular celebration of the people who made towns and cities run, the dignity of work, and the native intelligence and thoughtfulness of “real folk.”

The Flagman embodies many of the themes Briggs explored in Real Folks at Home. Here a road crew flagman recounts the workday highlights to an admiring, attentive wife. Spousal support seems to be key to Briggs’ working class idyll, where wives celebrate their husbands’ skills, ratify their egos and lobby for them to apply for raises. This is quite different from the chronically bickering and distrustful Joe and Vi from Briggs’ own Mr. and Mrs. strip. But in Real Folks, the male menial laborer is king of his castle and hero of the workplace. Our flagman lectures her on the latest controversy over flagging techniques and how he and his colleagues differ on which hand movement is more effective at controlling traffic. Across these strips Briggs transforms laborers into experts and craftsmen, masters of the brick hod, street sweeping, or road flagging. He invests manual labor with intelligence and discrimination. And, of course, there is male ego. In most of these strips, our blue collar hero compares himself to his less able fellows, the soda jerks who can’t handle mixed drinks quickly, the sweeps who don’t get around telegraph poles, the watchmen who make too few rounds. Real Folks at Home was a celebration of common man pride, ambition and dignity. 

Clare Briggs (1874-1930) was among the best known, best-paid, and beloved of American cartoonists in the 1910s and 1920s. Historians often remember him as a master of the nostalgic slice-of-life panels of small town childhood (The Days of Real Sport, When a Feller Needs a Friend, Aint’ It a Grand and Glorious Feeling). He is also credited with pioneering the format of the daily strip with recurring characters in A. Piker Clerk (1904) at Chicago’s American. He was so popular among newspaper readers nationwide that upon his premature death in 1930, his publisher issued a seven-volume retrospective of his work, from which the images here have been scanned. 

While his slice-of-life panels usually align him with fellow cartoonists like J.R. Williams and H.T. Webster, Briggs could bring a sharper and more satirical edge to his vision of modernizing America than some of his peers. His Mr. and Mrs. strip of the 1920s depicted the ongoing marital dysfunction of Joe and Vi, who often seemed genuinely to dislike and distrust one another. 

Real Folks at Home ran counter to the 1920s trend towards situation comedy among the the rising suburban middle class. This series focused on the moment workingmen returned home.  Sign painter, hod carrier, road flagger, night watchman, traffic cop, mailman, garage mechanic are among the professions Briggs explores. Sometimes, Briggs goofs around with the profession. the orchestra conductor conducts his wife’s singing responses. The tour guide and his wife bark conversation to one another through megaphones. 

But the most interesting examples of Real Folks at Home are appreciations for the pride that everyday laborers take in their craft, the social insights and perspective their jobs give them, and how their wives feed their male egos regardless the profession.

There isn’t a whiff of condescension in Briggs’ appreciation of these workingmen (and a few working women). His key insight is in showing the native intelligence and self-respect of men who see the craft in what others regard as menial tasks. they do. The flagman shows his wife the special twist of the wrist that makes for a more noticeable warning signal. The sign painter who proudly invites his wife to come see his handiwork and skill with curved letters. The nightwatchman who dotes over the quality and freshness of his lantern wicks. The garbageman who bemoans the amount of food people waste. And spousal support is critical to Briggs’ idealization of working class heroism. The domestic There is also a social critique lurking beneath many of these strips, an alternative vision of modernizing, consumerist America from the perspective of the class that services the more affluent, often invisibly. 

This is another great example of the unique aesthetic qualities of the comic strip form and the singular ways it contributed to the cultural conversation. Briggs focused readers’ attention on  aspects of American life and areas of society that were as rich in meaning as they were overlooked. This is what art does; enlarges our perspective and pour sympathies. In his pioneering work, The Comics (1947) Coulton Waugh understood the importance of Briggs, and it is a shame so few of his successors have. “it’s the idea that gets you,” he wrote of Briggs. “The hominess, the truth of it, the insight, the looking into so many tiny dramas, hopes, and frustrations, which no one else ever bothered with and which are utterly real.”  on the medium 

Happy Halloween From Frank King and Bobby Make-Believe – 1919

By title alone Frank King’s Bobby Make-Believe strip is compared to Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo. But King Brought to the strip richer and subtler understanding of the inner life of children than McCay. And yet, like McCay, King loved to play with nature and landscape, bringing out their surreal potential. But this strip foreshadows the gentle sensitivity to everyday emotional reality King was about to bring to Gasoline Alley.

Premiere Panel: Gasoline Alley Meets Skeezix

On Feb. 14, 1921 the orphan who came to be known as Skeezix landed on Walt Wallet’s doorstep, forever changing the trajectory of the Gasoline Alley comic strip and making it a singular American work of art. Until then, Walt had been the main character in a small tribe of neighborhood fellas who loved to tinker with cars (hence “Gasoline Alley”) and trade quips and jibes. Male bonding, circa 1919. With the introduction of Skeezix, however, the strip became a uniquely introspective saga of everyday human connections. Unlike anything else on a comics page that included Thimble Theatre, The Gumps, Mr. and Mrs., Moon Mullins, Little Orphan Annie and Wash Tubes and Captain Easy, Gasoline Alley explored the progression of generations, community dynamics and values, the emotional cadence of everyday human interaction in a granular, gentle way.

Gasoline Alley is best known for being the only major American strip that let its characters age and even pass away. By the 1930s, Skeezix would hit early adolescence, and the strip became one of the first works of pop culture to focus on this modern phenomenon of the “teenager.” Many of the main first generation characters in this male bonding epic would die, usually quietly and off stage, several decades after the strip launched.

Authored by Frank King, Gasoline Alley was a genuinely homespun comic strip. While many American cartoonists had their roots in the Midwest and small towns, King brought that personal experience to the center of the strip. He patterned many of the characters after friends and acquaintances. Walt was based on a childhood friend. Skeezix’s growth paralleled King’s own son, including those rough teen years. But more than anything else, King based his strip on the language, rhythms and emotions of everyday exchanges. As Jeet Heer points out in his excellent introductions to the ongoing reprints of the strip, Gasoline Alley was not a gag strip or a soap opera, nor was it slapstick or satire. Strips rarely ended with a punchline or a cliff hanger. The four daily panels typically added perhaps a little insight into a character, advanced a plot line just a smidge, or showed characters interacting in a small way that expressed the depth of their connection with each other. The joys of the strip were cumulative, an extended immersion in the little interactions and feelings of a tightly knit cluster of friends and family, people who knew one another well and forever.

Which is to say that no small collection of reprinted strips here can really capture the unremarkable remarkableness of Gasoline Alley. I find that extended immersion is King’s world is truly compelling but takes days and weeks of persistent exposure. As Heer says, “Gasoline Alley achieves its hold on its audience by being ruminative and cumulative.” It lets you peer into the nuances of family, immediate and extended and the subtle ways in which people know and appreciate one another. But the strip below, which marked the first anniversary Skeezix’s appearance, hints at the kind of emotional depth and intimacy King crafted here. As a single father for the first years of Skeezix’s life, Walt proved to be the prototypical sensitive male, that rare figure in popular culture of the nurturing man. It is a good example of how King was getting at aspects of modern American culture that were not accessible in other more compressed popular arts like film, novels or even the pulps. Gasoline Alley is the quintessential comic strip. It demonstrates more than any other strip how the medium can build worlds subtly, incrementally, and over the course of decades in four panels a day.