Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Mysteries of Melvin

In the late fifties William Gaines received a letter on Buckingham Palace stationary concerning the resemblance between Alfred E. Neuman and young Prince Charles of England that had been published in MAD magazine.

Gaines recalled publishing something about the resemblance between Neuman and the Prince and receiving the letter saying “I bloody well don’t look like him” and signed “Charles Printemps or something like that and it was mailed from a post office box near the palace. We never did find out if it was legitimate or not.”

Gaines also remembered MAD was sued several times over the ownership of Alfred E. Neuman. “His face has been around at least a hundred years. When I was a kid I used to see it on post cards saying “What, me worry?” We found it as early as the 1890’s. He was an advertisement for a dentist in Topeka, Kansas, whose name was Painless Romaine. He was used for a million things, even for anti-Roosevelt ads in the 1930’s.”

[1909] Winnipeg Free Press, October 30
Harvey Kurtzman said that the publishers became curious about the origin of Alfred E. Neuman, sometimes referred to as Melvin Cowznofski, and pleaded with its readers for information. “The answers were astonishing. The face dated back to the 19th century. It was supposed to have been used for selling patent medicine, shoes, and soft drinks. The kid was depicted as a salesman, a cowboy, a doughboy, and was rendered in dozens of slight to gross altered variations.”

“But the answer I have always liked to believe was that the face came from an old high school biology text -- an example of a person who lacked iodine.”

Carl Djerassi of Stanford recalled an anti-Semitic wall-poster featuring ‘the face’ as a Jewish street-pedlar. He saw it in Nazi Germany in 1938 under the message “Death to the Jews.” Craig Yoe said Alfred “probably started as a cartoonist's stereotype of an Irish idiot boy.”

[1928] Winnipeg Free Press, March 26
Alfredo Castelli found a character from Pittsburgh circa 1903 named Pickle Neary (see Pickle Neary pin-button) who had an uncanny resemblance to the Kid and also noted a close resemblance to Rube Goldberg’s brother Walter in an old photograph. The face has also been used in Australia to sell dairy products in the 1920’s. Recently I turned up some examples from New Zealand.

M. Reidelbach’s Completely Mad (1991) reported the finding of a precursor to Alfred Neuman in the “It Didn’t Hurt A Bit,” Kid found in an advertisement in the Illustrated London News, printed in New York City in 1895. He also showed up in ads for Cherry Sparkle Soda and Puck Magazine. The Christens write in ““It Didn’t Hurt a Bit” Kid: Dental Precursor to Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman:”

“In the late 1890’s, the Ritter Painless Dental Company, located at the corner of Third Avenue and Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn, New York, used a large picture of “The Kid” on their second floor outdoor display. An accompanying label stated, “It didn’t hurt a bit.” In this large painting, the boy’s facial features were exaggerated to make him look like a mentally defective “pinhead.”

[189?] New York
In 1908 Antikamnia calendar cards were supplied to dentists. In 1886 two German doctors discovered a coal-tar derivative called acetanilide which was supposed to reduce fever and numb pain. The patent medicine makers took it up for the North American market. One popular remedy was punningly called Cuforhedake Branefude, another was Antikamnia. Allegedly these medicines killed 28 people and one dog. Samuel Hopkins Adams exposed them in a series of articles in Colliers magazine between October 1905 and September 22, 1906, entitled The Great American Fraud. Antikamnia was still being sold in the 1930’s.

In 1909 the first Winnipeg Tribune “It Didn’t Hurt A Bit” Kid ads for the Winnipeg Dental Parlours appeared and ads were still shilling for Dr. Glasgow, Dentist in 1928. Apparently ads were published periodically in Manitoba until at least 1936. The Trib also published the cartoons of Grue [Johnny Gruelle] throughout 1909 which were published through the early NEA while Gruelle was working in Indianapolis. Painless Romaine “It Didn’t Hurt A Bit” Kid ads from Kansas survive dated 1910, and King Dental Parlours was another source of Kid ads. He even appeared in Gruelle’s June 17, 1911 Sunday page of Mr. Twee Deedle, in close-up with the gap-tooth in the right place, a dead-ringer for ‘The Kid.’

[1910] Antikamnia 
One person has suggested that the Kid first appeared in 2 illustrations by Henry Holiday to Lewis Carroll’s 1876 Hunting of the Snark, “The Butcher and the Beaver” and “The Beaver’s Lesson.” It’s true it looks quite a bit like Alfred E. Neuman but the character is a boy about 6 to 9 years old while Alfred is at least beginning puberty in the dental ads. The book I studied showed the preliminary pencil drawings as well as the engraved finish work and they look nothing like Alfred. The first shows the boy with a soft and gentle face with mouth closed. The second is a bit more sinister, the boy looks like some fairy character from the Bedlam asylum art of Richard Dadd, who returned from a trip to the Holy Land and stabbed his father to death. The boy is biting on a quill pen and seems to have a full set of teeth. Maybe - but I’m not very convinced.

Going back further we find the Kid character in "The Crowded Grandstand," from July 9, 1896 Toronto Evening Star, signed Archer. He shows up again in the work of cartoonist W. M. Goodes in a book called Comic History of Greece by Charles M. Snyder, 1897, J. B. Lippincott Company.

Jock McCulla
Curiosity led me to think that perhaps he had come from one of the early travelling medicine shows, perhaps as a label on the bottles of patented painkiller. I recalled reading an article years ago in the Weekend magazine, sent all over Canada with the comic sections. I looked it up.

I don't claim this is the true story of Alfred E., merely a possible origin;

The King of Canadian medicine men was Thomas Patrick "Doc" Kelley (1865-1931), who, starting in 1886, travelled Canada and the U.S. selling patent medicine like East India Tiger Fat and Passion Flower tablets. He was so well known that druggists in Toronto and Winnipeg stocked his wares in their drugstores. His favoured stomping grounds were Illinois, Michigan and Ohio. Other medicine shows travelled the circuit, including the Kickapoo Company, but they never seemed to make it outside of Toronto.

Amongst the banjo players, wrassling bears etc., the most popular member of Kelley's troupe was a comedian, Jock McCulla, born in Scotland, whose pratfalls and slapstick, often of a very painful- looking nature, made him one of the most popular comedians in North America, pre-movies and vaudeville. I can imagine him saying after a particularly nasty fall; "It didn't hurt a bit," followed by sales of bottles of some type of pain-killer, stocked by drugstores all along the route for boys with teeth knocked out by hockey puck or baseball.

Jock McCulla bore an uncanny resemblance to Alfred E., with carrot-top hair and a gap-toothed grin -- well, judge for yourselves -- here's Jock McCulla in the flesh, possible forerunner of the What-me-worry kid sometime between 1890 and 1896.

Researching the subject I found that one of the mainstays of the medicine shows in pre-painless dentistry days was the pulling of teeth with pliers as well as providing the pain-killer for relief. The painkiller was quite effective since it was often mixed with opium or cocaine. Violet McNeal wrote a vivid outlaw memoir of the medicine-show days in 1947, Four White Horses and a Brass Band, which details the lives, cons and crimes of the travelling performers and quack doctors. Many of the men and women involved in the medicine shows supplied (and used) illicit drugs like cocaine and opium to the whole continent, from Manitoba to the Inland Empire, the American South, Midwest and the East Coast. Medicine shows were amongst the earliest of advertisers in newspapers, almanacs, bottle labels, illustrated cards, fences, farmhouses, rocks, even one joker who painted on the side of the Rockies.

Jock McCulla
The first comics I have found where some of the characters bear strong resemblance to “the Kid” were by Frederick Burr Opper in Puck and they go back as early as 1888. Cartoonist F. M. Howarth was using similar faces in both Puck and Golden Days in the same time period. Opper used the look-a-like so many times that you have to believe that either he invented the character or he knew that the audience would recognize the Kid because the character was already well-known to the public in North America.

[1900] C. A. David in Toronto Saturday Night, December 1
When I first started passing my findings around I received a mysterious letter from some wag saying that the writer had seen the face of the gap-toothed kid carved in stone doorknockers in various Museums of Antiquity in the Middle East and elsewhere. When I queried him for further information my letter was returned unread from his dead letter box. I’m sure I was just having my leg pulled but you never know. Alfred E. Neuman could very well be a part of the world’s collective unconscious, a Trickster, Shaman, or Coyote-like figure. It could still be that his idiot face and toothless grin beams down from the walls of some forgotten cave hidden from sight since the Dawn of Man.

[1911] Mr. Twee Deedle, by John Gruelle, June 17

Further Reading:

“Publisher says MAD still going strong after 32 years.” Pacific Stars and Stripes 20 Jan, 1985.

“Once and for all the story about Alfred Neuman,” by Harvey Kurtzman, Winnipeg Free Press, 6 Feb 1975.

“That Way Lies MAD-ness: Carl Djerassi Confronts his Past” Current Comments No. 24, 12 June 1989.

““It Didn’t Hurt A Bit” Kid: Dental Precursor to Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman” by Arden G. Christen, DDS, MSD, MA, and Joan A. Christen, BGS, MS Journal of the History of Dentistry, Vol. 48, No. 2, July 2000 p.53-55.

“Behaving Madly,” by Craig Yoe, Modern Arf, Fantagraphics 2005.

“Mysteries of Melvin” Continued HERE and "Painless McPhee" HERE

[1910] John Gruelle, Winnipeg Tribune, July 16
[1948] Maclean's Magazine 
[1876] Hunting of the Snark by Henry Holiday
[1940] Hooey (reprints from a Canadian newspaper column)

[1887]From Puck, by Frederick B. Opper, December 28

[1896] by ARCHER, Toronto Evening Star,  July 9

[1909] by John Gruelle, Winnipeg Tribune, July 16

[1895] Opper in Puck, July 17

[1895] Just for Fun, Puck, by Opper

[1890] Puck's Library by Opper
[1903] Pickle Neary pinback
[1895] Wizard Oil pamphlet cover

[1908] John Gruelle, The Spokane Press, Dec 16, 1908


  1. John, thanks for this! It's a curious and fascinating story, and there's always something elusive about coming to a satisfying conclusion, so much so that I'm half inclined to go along with the "collective conscious" notion.

  2. Collective unconscious maybe. Hagrid's giant cousin in the Harry Potter series is another more recent example.

  3. was also used as sheet music art for 1894's "The New Boy"