The Light That Failed
Richard Samuel West
A Lecture for the Aldus Society, April 9, 2009


I trust viewers of the exhibit that opened today at the Cartoon Library and Museum will enjoy the story behind how this show came about.   I own a business, Periodyssey, which sells old American magazines.  About this time last year I received an e-mail from a woman who identified herself as Diana Koehler asking if I knew anything about a magazine published in Chicago named Light [fig.1]. This was a stunning request.  When you labor in the dark tunnels of history, it’s always startling and a bit disorienting to encounter someone in the same tunnel.  I hadn’t imagined anyone else had heard of Light, let alone cared about it.  As it happens, I had written a brief history of the magazine for my own edification, based on research I had done at the Library of Congress, which possessed the only set of the magazine that anyone knew about.   

I soon learned that Diana and her husband Jim were the owners of a veritable museum to the magazine.  They lived in the house that had been built by the magazine’s editor and chief cartoonist, Philo C. Darrow.  Not only did the house still contain much of the original beautiful Victorian furnishings from Darrow’s day but, best of all, for my interests, piles and piles of paper and other artifacts that the Darrow family had left behind.  This is about the time in the story when I had to start working to contain my excitement.  Diana, of course, didn’t know me from Adam.  I didn’t want to overwhelm her with my enthusiasm.  But I apparently didn’t do a very good job of it because some members of her family thought she should take out a restraining order on me.  Luckily for me, Diana is an artist of great merit who has an eye for special things and she was happy to finally find someone who shared her appreciation of what she had.

Within a short time, I travelled to Diana’s Chicago home and was ushered down into her basement.  There I discovered stacks of the magazine, hundreds of original drawings, and boxes of ephemera. I was like a kid in a candy store.  Here was the archive of a humor magazine published nearly 120 years ago, still largely intact and crying out for the respect it deserved.  Diana and I soon discovered we were kindred spirits.  We talked into the night and forged a bond.  Diana asked me to help her find the best home for her amazing collection.    Within days, I called Lucy Shelton Caswell, the curator of Ohio State’s Cartoon Library and Museum.  I’m fairly certain the first words I said to her were, “You’re not going to believe this…”

Over the next few weeks, Lucy probably got tired of hearing me say how this archive was perfect for OSU, because she didn’t need convincing (only the needed funds).  But what an opportunity: a substantial run of a rare American humor magazine, along with more than three hundred pieces of original art.  To top it off, the darned magazine had its start in Columbus, of all places.  Well, the story culminates tonight with the opening of an exhibit at the Cartoon Library and Museum of fifty or so pieces of that original art.  I thank Diana and Jim for preserving this material so that now it can be enjoyed forever.

To the subject at hand:


During the last quarter of the 19th century there flourished a curious sub-genre of American magazine: the lithographic cartoon weekly.  They featured sixteen large pages, defined by a color front cover, centerspread, and back cover, nearly all of which was political and satirical in content.  The most famous of the cartoon weeklies were published in New York.  Puck was the first of the genre [fig.2,3,4]. Its most prominent imitators were Judge and Truth.  But no city of any size during this period was without a lithographic cartoon weekly.  Light was by far the most important of these forgotten regional magazines [fig.5].   What makes Light special is that it provided the first or early employment to a host of talented artists who would later go on to successful careers in design, magazine illustration, cartooning, and animation. 


Because lithographic weeklies were expensive to produce, most didn’t last long.  That was Light’s story – but only part of it. It had a bumpier existence than most.  In fact, during its two-and-a-half year run, Light’s only constant was change: it changed its name, its place of publication, its size and appearance, and its owners, editors, and chief cartoonists. 


The magazine began its existence on March 30, 1889, in good ole’ Columbus, Ohio, as The Owl [fig.6].  It was the brainchild of twenty-one year old Opha Moore, a West Virginia native, who was the stenographer to the sitting Governor, Joseph Foracker.  He modeled the new magazine after the black and white comic weekly Life, then in its prosperous seventh year. 


The Owl’s first issue, priced at a nickel, was unprepossessing: eight pages, with an illustrated cover, an interior made up of poems, jokes, a few cartoons, a comic essay, and a back page of small advertisements.  In Moore’s first editorial, he announced The Owl’s allegiance to the Republican Party.  The cover cartoon was on Ohio state politics, drawn by one W. D. Reamer of Greensburg, Pennsylvania.  With the sixth issue another artist of similar caliber who signed his work “Bloomer” began drawing The Owl’s cartoons.  Neither man was what The Owl needed most: a Midwest talent waiting for his big break.  That person came to Moore through the mails when in mid-April he received the first of many comic art submissions from one Philo C. Darrow of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 


Darrow was a man on the move [fig.7].  Born in Indianapolis in 1862, he was still in high school when he established a printing business with his younger brother George.  In 1887, to supplement their printing income, they commenced publishing a weekly devoted to bicycling called The Wheelmen’s Record [fig.8]. It was the only such publication beyond the East Coast. In the pages of The Record, Darrow’s abilities as a cartoonist took shape. To accommodate his brother’s talents, George designated one issue a month the “cartoon issue” and included in it a separately published full-page cartoon devoted to some aspect of the world of cycling.  The Record’s success emboldened the Darrow brothers. In June, they bought the year-and-a-half-old Wheelmen’s Gazette of Springfield, Massachusetts, and moved the well-known monthly to Indianapolis [fig.9].  Both magazines rode the wave of growing interest in the relatively new sport of cycling.  When George died in December of 1887, Philo was overwhelmed trying to perform two jobs on two magazines.   It prompted him at year’s end to merge The Record into The Gazette.  Seventeen-year-old brother Ben assumed the role of The Gazette’s business manager, allowing the firm to retain the “Darrow Brothers” name.  Before we move on, please note the advertisement on the front page.  It is for the American Rambler, the most popular bicycle in America, built by Gormully and Jeffrey of Chicago.


At the beginning of 1889, Darrow left The Gazette in Ben’s hands (he would continue to publish it for twenty years) to take a job in Milwaukee as assistant editor on Peck’s Sun, a weekly newspaper with a national circulation.  At about the same time that he had discovered The Owl, he was helping to launch a comic periodical in Milwaukee. Backed by Alex McDonald, the principal of McDonald’s Central College of Short-Hand and Typewriting, Bluff [fig.10] was a five-cent fortnightly illustrated entirely by Darrow and probably edited by him as well . 


Serving as assistant editor on a weekly and editor and illustrator on a fortnightly apparently didn’t keep Darrow busy enough. Now that he had discovered The Owl’s existence, he set his sights on playing an important role on it as well.  Moore recognized Darrow’s talent and opened the pages of The Owl to him.  Darrow may have even had a hand in urging Moore to change the weekly’s name.  In any case, with the June 15th issue, The Owl became Light.   The change was made, Moore dryly explained, because there was “too much night work connected withThe Owl.”  The next issue featured Darrow’s first cover cartoon, which praised Benjamin Harrison and disparaged Grover Cleveland for their responses to the Johnstown Flood [fig.11]


Signs of the magazine’s success were everywhere: expansion to twelve pages, more and more advertisements, and two-color cover cartoons.    The August 10th issue was the first to identify Darrow as Light’s art department director [fig.12].  The magazine’s appearance, which had been improving through the year, became even brighter.  Darrow brought order to the magazine’s layout and filled it with graphic contributions by himself, Jonathan Jay Baumgartner, and Jack Bennett.  Bennett, unknown and unheralded then as now, was a comic artist of real talent with a confident, simple style. He excelled at drawing comic strips, years before they became a fixture in American newspapers. Here's my favorite: [fig.13]


It’s no wonder that by late summer, Light had reached the impressive circulation for a regional magazine of 11,500.  What is curious is that despite unambiguous signs of success and right in the midst of a fiercely fought gubernatorial campaign, the magazine suspended publication.  Meanwhile, Darrow was forging ahead with his Milwaukee fortnightly, which he had renamed Flash [fig.14] the same week of Light’s demise. It too showed signs of success, growing from twelve to sixteen pages and featuring several pages of advertisements, but Flash was never as impressive as were the last half dozen issues of Light.  Darrow seems to have shared this assessment because he could have continued on his own in Milwaukee.  Instead, emboldened by his recent marriage into Milwaukee’s powerful Halsey family, he had something grander in mind. 


In 1890, Chicago was the city of possibilities.  It had supplanted New York, at least for a time, as the place to be.  Men of ambition, especially those seeking careers in the commercial and applied arts, flocked to America's newest metropolis.  The fact that Chicago was chosen to host the upcoming World's Columbian Exposition was not the origin of this sense of a limitless future, but rather the confirmation of it.  In January 1890, Darrow secured financial backing from Richard Gormully of Gormully and Jeffrey and convinced Moore to join him in Chicago to revive Light


On February 22, 1890, a new Light shone forth [fig.15].  Darrow was editor and art director and Moore business manager.  Unlike the Columbus Light, the Chicago Light was sixteen pages, priced at ten cents, and featured a center spread cartoon.  Also unlike its predecessor, Darrow’s Light declared its political independence.  “Believing that parties are the means, and not the end of good government,” Darrow wrote, “Light will always take issue with any tenets of any party that appear to be unfavorable to that end.” It wasn’t accidental that the new Light was published on Washington’s Birthday.  Like the founding father, Light too would be above party. 


Light’s reading matter was of uneven quality – one of the best things in it was a ten-part comic story by Darrow which starred a dog, Old Smoothbore, as a detective – but the cartoons were its marquee draw, and here Light excelled.  The Chicago Light became the platform for the most impressive gathering of artistic talent in any magazine outside of New York.  In the first issue, the Columbus trio of Darrow, Bennett, and Baumgartner was back, complemented by two fresh Chicago talents, T. E. Powers and Horace Taylor, both of whom were on the art staff of The Chicago Herald


Thomas Powers, the Wisconsin-born son of Irish immigrants, would turn twenty that year.  He had apprenticed in a St. Louis lithography firm for two years before coming to Chicago in 1887.  He became Light’s most prolific contributor after Darrow.  Many of his cartoons were political in nature, but his purely comic work was better [fig.16].  Though he would go on to a long career in comic art, his Light oeuvre constitutes some of his best and most accomplished work.  After Light, Powers contributed notable cartoons to the short-lived avant garde magazine, Mlle. New York [fig.17], before settling down to a long career as a comic strip artist with the Hearst papers . 


Taylor’s contributions were nearly as numerous as Powers. An Illinois native, Taylor was twenty-four when he began contributing to Light.  He was a fine caricaturist and drew many of the magazine’s best political cartoons.    Of all those who worked for Light, his future appeared brightest. Taylor’s career as a cartoonist reached its apex at the end of the century when he drew memorable chromolithographic cartoons savaging McKinley and Roosevelt for the New York weekly, The Verdict [fig.18].  For the remainder of his career, he worked as a cartoonist and illustrator for a variety of New York newspapers and magazines. 


Light’s second issue contained the work of Fernand Lungren and Henry Mayer. The thirty-year-old Lungren, Maryland-born and Ohio-raised, was in 1890 a successful commercial artist, contributing regularly to Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine and its sister publication for children, St. Nicholas.  He drew cartoons of society for Light in the vein of Charles Dana Gibson.  He was the magazine’s best artist of the human form [fig.19].  This places his Light cartoons in sharp contrast to his later work.  After Light, he moved to California and gained a reputation as an artist of the Southwestern landscape [fig.20].


Twenty-one-year-old Hy Mayer, born in Germany to American parents, had begun his career three years earlier in Cincinnati.  His contributions to Light [fig.21], though numerous, were not nearly as accomplished as his later standard-setting cartoons in New York. In that city, Mayer worked as a freelance cartoonist for nearly all the comic weeklies.  In 1904, he became the political cartoonist for the New York Times and then, ten years later, the editor and chief cartoonist of Puck [fig.22]. After that, he became an animator, creating a number of ground-breaking animated cartoons. 


W.W. Denslow contributed two cartoons to Light’s third issue. Denslow was the grand old man of the group both in age and experience.  He was thirty-four years old and had been in print for eighteen of them. Denslow had a confident hand and drew many of Light’s prettiest cartoons [fig.23].  On good days, he was also part of the Herald art staff, but his drinking had gotten him fired three times and may have been the reason why he contributed only a half dozen cartoons to Light.  By mid-year he had left the city and was working in Denver. Denslow’s fame still awaited him.  In 1900, he illustrated the first of several Wizard of Oz books [fig.24]


Peter Newell began contributing with the seventh issue [fig.25].  The twenty-eight-year-old Illinois native, who had lived for some time in New York, had resettled in Chicago the year before.  His work was already familiar to national audiences, having received considerable exposure in Harper’s Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar, and Life.  After Light, Newell achieved fame quickly, creating the popular children’s book, The Topsys and Turvys, in 1893.  Many more children’s books, including his legendary Hole Book, followed [fig.26].


Twenty-three year old, Ohio-born Clarence Rigby made his debut in the magazine May 17. Darrow recognized his superior talents as a caricaturist and immediately anointed him Taylor’s second on Light’s political cartoon team. Thereafter, Rigby invariably contributed at least one of each week’s lithographs [fig.27].  Later, Rigby moved to New York, where he drew comic strips for many years before, like Mayer, he too became a pioneering animator. 


Will H. Bradley was the last of the Chicago talents to join the Light artist corps.  His first signed work appears in the August 30th issue.  From then into 1891, something from his hand appeared nearly every week.   Born in Boston but raised in Michigan, Bradley had been working as a freelance designer for less than a year when Light debuted.  He contributed major illustrations to accompany poetry such as this piece [fig.28] as well as minor accents such as decorative initial letters.  His contributions exhibit many of the graphic flourishes that distinguished his later beautiful art nouveau work.  Though Bradley is sometimes characterized as a disciple of British artist Aubrey Beardsley, this previously unknown work of his in Light predates and anticipates the Beardsley style. By the mid-nineties, Bradley became widely recognized as America’s leading poster artist, thanks in large part to the covers he designed for another Chicago magazine, The Inland Printer [fig.29].  He would go on to a career as America’s first great graphic designer. 


In addition to these Chicago talents, Light’s pages were graced by the work of Eugene Zimmerman, Emil Flohri, and A.S. Daggy, all on the staff of Judge in New York.  It was customary for the owners of the New York comic weeklies to encourage their artists to supplement their incomes by contributing to other publications so long as they weren’t direct competitors.  That Judge’s owners allowed some of their best artists to contribute to Light was an indication of how untroubled they were by its existence, far as it was from the citadel of publishing power.  That stance  was a bit surprising since Light just got better and better. In May, Light produced its first full-color issue and in September enlarged its page size.  It was now superficially indistinguishable from its New York competitors. 


When the magazine commenced its third volume, Darrow legitimately asserted that no paper had made more progress in fifty-two weeks than had Light.  Still, that wasn’t enough to save the magazine.  On November 5, 1890, the day after the mid-term elections, Gormully, Light’s financial angel, announced he was done.  He had sunk $25,000 into the magazine that year and had yet to see a return.  The issue that came off the presses that day would be the last Light he bankrolled. 


The January 1891 issue of Lippincott’s Magazine featured Rudyard Kipling’s breakthrough novel, The Light that Failed.  When Darrow picked up that issue, he must have laughed: he had already written that story.  But it turned out that there was still life in Light.  Though Darrow had had enough, Opha Moore wanted to try a third time.  With the backing of a new partner, he resurrected the magazine January 10, 1891 [fig.30]


The firm of Moore and Hinckley had a plan.  The 1891 Light was reduced to its original price of five cents.  To make that price financially viable, the new owners dropped the expensive center spread and reduced the number of pages to twelve.  Initially Moore and Hinckley relied solely on Jack Bennett to draw Light’s front and back covers.  Powers soon was backing him up.  Bradley, Lungren, Mayer, and Rigby, along with Bennett and Powers, returned as regular graphic contributors to the letterpress.  By the end of March, Rigby and Mayer were drawing most of the lithographs.  They retained that responsibility right through a change of ownership, which occurred with the April 18 issue when Moore and Hinckley sold out to Charles Page Mitchell.  Mitchell was a British-born thirty-seven year-old insurance executive who, unfortunately, knew nothing about publishing.  His foray into the field didn’t last long.  Light published its final issue June 10, 1891 [fig.31].


As for the two principals behind Light, Moore returned to Columbus where he resumed his career as a government employee.  In 1930, he published a massive three-volume history of Franklin County, which remains the standard history today.  Darrow opened a printing office on Dearborn Street in Chicago, just down the street from Light’s old haunts.  He built a successful business that endured well into the 20th century. 


Light’s rocky three-year run proved not in vain. Its colorful cartoons provided inspiration to Herman Kohlstaat, the impressionable new owner of the Chicago Inter Ocean.  In the spring of 1892, his newspaper became the first in America to introduce a weekly color supplement featuring comic art on its front and back covers. The plainly named Inter Ocean Illustrated Supplement [fig.32,33], produced through the new process of four-color separation, caught the attention of the publishing world during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.  This led to the advent of the Sunday funnies, which within a few years became a staple of American journalism.  The weekly magazines were quick to follow this polychromatic lead, competing with one another on newsstands with bright covers and colorful contents. 


Whereas before the chromolithographic cartoon weeklies there was little steady work for even the most talented of America’s applied artists, by the turn of the century nearly every magazine and newspaper in the country, now lavishly illustrated, provided employment to a creative legion.  Light’s legacy, then, is substantial.  It was an important player in a genre of American journalism that created careers, not just for the men who had worked on it, but for thousands of artists of their generation and beyond.

© Richard Samuel West 2009



(Click images to enlarge)