Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Pictorial Wag (1842)

   The Pictorial Wag, Vol. I, No. 3, September 10, 1842
by Richard Samuel West

The early history of American cartoon weeklies has never been definitely delineated. Frank Luther Mott in his first volume of The History of American Magazines (1930) got it right in a shorthanded way. In his subchapter on comic periodicals, he referred to first the Pictorial Wag (New York, 1842) and then The Jester (Boston, 1845) before giving a more detailed treatment of Yankee Doodle (New York, 1846-47) the first well-known cartoon weekly. But until recently no one had examined copies of either the Wag or the Jester to support or deny Mott’s claim. Examination is critical in such cases because a humor periodical, examples of which stretch back to the beginning of the 1800s (Irving’s Salmagundi [New York, 1807-08] being exhibit A), is not properly classified as a comic weekly unless the illustrations in it are central to the magazine’s mission. That is, the illustrations must be more than just comic cuts used to fill space. They must be if not the main attraction an attraction equal to the text, sometimes augmenting it, sometimes standing alone. For example, The Town (New York, 1845), which is sometimes mentioned as an early comic weekly, is not, because the comic cuts in it are used almost exclusively as embellishments.

Mott based his comments on the Wag entirely on an 1875 article by L.W. Kingman, in which Kingman stated,

“[T]he first American comic publication, The Pictorial Wag, a semi-satirical newspaper, was published in New York about the year 1842. It was a quarto and was published by Robert H. Elton, a wood engraver, who had gained some little notoriety from his comic almanacs, which were poor affairs in comparison with those of the present day, and which were made up of reproductions of Cruikshank’s and Seymour’s designs, interspersed with jokes and humorous sketches. “Comic Elton,” as he was known, secured as editor of his paper, Thomas L. Nichols, at that time a well-known water-cure physician, whose name, however, did not appear as editor. The only artist was John H. Manning, whose designs were considered at the time very funny. Nichols was an egotistical person and unpopular with his brethren of the press. When it came to be known that he was the editor, the circulation fell off, and Elton, having found a more profitable business in manufacturing comic valentines, allowed the paper to die after publishing only about a dozen numbers. Elton afterwards built up the village of Morrisiania, above New York, and the adjacent village of Eltonia is named after him.”
Since everything Mott wrote about the Wag could have been culled from Kingman’s description, it is likely that Mott never actually examined a copy of the magazine himself. Even Kingman some 55 years earlier only remembered seeing the Wag and did not have one close at hand, otherwise he would have been definite about the date. Up until now, it has been impossible to corroborate Kingman because there were no known copies of The Pictorial Wag in any public collections. But recently, the third issue of the Wag has surfaced and it permits us our first glimpse at America’s first comic weekly.

We can now say with certainty that Kingman’s memory served him well. The first issue of The Pictorial Wag was published on August 27, 1842. In the prospectus, publisher Elton announced,

The Pictorial Wag, a weekly Charivari of Mirth, Satire, Fun, and Facetiae… will contain sixteen imperial pages, printed from new type, on handsome paper, and from fifteen to twenty-five splendid original pictorial embellishments from the pencil of J.H. Manning, Esquire, the acknowledged Cruikshank of America, and engraved by artists of acknowledged reputation. [The engravings were done by Elton’s former apprentice, T.W. Strong, who had just established his own engraving, printing, and publishing business.] The literary department will be conducted by Thomas L. Nichols, Esquire, whose well-known abilities as a humorous writer are sufficient to ensure the laughter-loving public a rich treat; he will be assisted by many crack wits.”

The Pictorial Wag, 1842, p.31.
‘The Wag’s Waggeries. No. 3. The Lord
Ashburton Dinner, Illustrated. – Look
on This Picture – And on This ! !’

It would not have been an Elton production if all of the engravings had been original, but it is clear he spent a good deal of money trying to make the Wag a pictorial stand-out. The cover was drawn by Manning and engraved by Strong. So was the full-page political cartoon, called here, “The Wag’s Waggeries.” Manning was active from the 1840s through the 60s. He was often attached to Boston publications, especially Gleason’s and Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing Companions. It is possible he began in New York in Elton’s employ, since his name pops up as an artist in several of Elton’s almanacs, and then later moved to Boston. He was a talented comic artist, crude by later standards, but skilled nonetheless.

Kingman (and Mott) were wrong, however, about Nichols. He was openly associated with the weekly from the beginning so his involvement could not have been the reason for the Wag’s eventual decline. Moreover, I can find no evidence of any generally held prejudice against him at the time. The causes he became attached to, women’s rights and the water cure, were in his future and not things he cared about in 1842. He was just one of many journalists in New York City trying to cobble together a living.

In his very useful and very spotty 1895 series entitled “American Comic Journalism” for Once a Week (NY), T.B. Connery quotes from an article in the New York press by Charles Sotheran (which I have been unable to locate) that states definitively that the Wag lasted thirteen issues. If we accept Sotheran’s concrete statement and not Kingman’s vague one, then The Pictorial Wag, this first attempt at an American comic weekly, was published from August 27 to November 19, 1842. 

               Next time: The Jester (1845)

* Richard Samuel West is the author of Iconoclast in Ink; The Political Cartoons of Jay N. “Ding” Darling, just published by the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum at Ohio State University, Satire on Stone; The Political Cartoons of Joseph Keppler (1988), The San Francisco Wasp; an Illustrated History (2004) and several other titles. Right now Iconoclast in Ink is only available through the Cartoon Museum. For more information on purchase write to 

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