Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Cartoonist Herbert Johnson - Sutton Born

Our subject for today, Cartoonist Herbert Johnson, born in Sutton, Nebraska, October 30, 1878.

It is trite to say that the amount of information on the internet has ballooned. It is more accurate to say it is still ballooning.

The people at youtube claim that the amount of new videos uploaded is approaching 500 hours every minute. If you are disappointed that you might be missing some good videos, chill out. You can’t keep up.

Government agencies continue to make their archives available online. Genealogists really appreciate that.

Clubs, associations and just about any organization is creating or expanding their online presence.

If you did some research just a few months ago, you may want to look again. We learned that last month when several articles about Sutton’s Walter Wellman showed up that we had not seen before. An obscure magazine posted three articles Wellman had written about his exploration giving us in Sutton a much better picture of the life of that Sutton native.

One of many magazine covers by Herbert Johnson
It’s happened again. We had earlier learned a little bit about Herbert Johnson. We knew he came from Sutton, was a cartoonist for student publications at the University and later drew numerous political cartoons during the 1930’s. We even have a book with 90 of those cartoons. He drew more cartoons for the covers of Saturday Evening Post and Country Gentleman magazines.

But we knew nothing about most of his life. Until now.

Among the items that we found about Herbert Johnson was an issue of “The Scroll”, a publication of the Phi Delta Theta international social fraternity. The publication had asked our fellow to write a sketch of his life. This account was written about 1914 covering his early life, before notoriety may have dimmed this portion of his life. We’ll take advantage of it here.

Herbert Raymond Johnson was born in Sutton on October 30, 1878. The family appears in the 1880 census where J. W. Johnson, age 29 identified himself as a broker, we can guess real estate. Herbert’s mother was Mary A. (nee Bagley) and he had an older brother Joseph W. age 3. We learn later that Joseph was also his father’s name. A seventeen-year old brother of Joseph was living with them.

In his sketch, Herbert Johnson quotes William Allen White when he said he enjoyed “the inestimable privilege” of being born in a small town.

We get a taste of man from the boy:

I have always been temperamentally opposed to the tyranny of vested interests, and at the ripe age of nine, feeling that my personal liberties were being unduly curtailed by the stand-pat policies of the family government adhered to by my parents, I insurged, and ran away from home, hitting the trail for the Black Hills.

He returned after a few days “to submit to the domestic steam roller.”

The family moved to Lincoln when Herbert was 13. He attended public schools for two years and then got a job as a clerk and bookkeeper in a general store in western Nebraska.

Another two years later he was on vacation in Denver when he visited the office of Mr. Wilmarth, the cartoonist for the Denver Republican. He did a few sketches and was offered to job as assistant for $20 per week.

He had never had any formal art training but had always been able to draw pictures “better than anything else except ride horse.”

He went to the Kansas City Journal where he was in charge of the art and engraving departments. An article at the time identified him as the youngest art manager in the country.

In 1899 Hebert Johnson returned to Lincoln and the University where he earned his way managing a college weekly. This piece of information surfaced some time ago on one of the University websites. And, of course he still neglected to take any art classes.

He was back living with his family in the 1900 census with three younger brothers, all would have been born in Sutton. Herbert listed his occupation as “cartoonist”.

His health failed so he went to California to work in the Yosemite Valley shoveling snow off trails, cutting timber, fixing roads and general labor. (I didn't understand that, either.)

In 1901 he wandered into Tucson where he became circulation manager for the Arizona Daily Citizen, screwed up and was fired. However, the only reporter on the paper quit and he was hired back to take that job.
Cartoonist develop favorite characters that recur in their
work. Herbert Johnson used this image as "Common People."

He then went to New York City and submitted five drawings to Life Magazine, one was accepted for $45 but little more came of that experience. Then onto Philadelphia where his career took off. He was in charge of the Sunday art department of the North American newspaper and became their regular cartoonist in 1908.

At this point in his life at age 29 he was drawing cartoons and illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post, Country Gentleman, Life, Colliers, LaFollette’s, etc.

He had finally arrived.

By 1910 he was married to Helen Letitia Fowler Turner and they had an infant daughter named Heberta.

His father Joseph Johnson worked for the State of Nebraska as Railway Commissioner and as Food Commissioner.

The 1920 census found the family in Philadelphia where Herbert listed his occupation as cartoonist. Herberta was ten and had an eight-year old sister Katherine. The household included Herbert’s widowed mother-in-law and a 31-year old servant, who was identified in the practice of the time as “Mu”, mulatto.

He was distinguished-looking - worth 2 portraits.
Herbert’s political cartoons during the 1920’s were in solid support of the Republican Party and the administrations of Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.

The Johnson family met the 1930 census enumerator out in the northeast suburbs of Philadelphia in Montgomery County where Herbert valued his home at $100,000. Not bad in 1930. Though his 1940 census estimate of the home value is a tad more. It definitely is some number of millions, the first digit is blurred. The census transcriber interpreted a value of $9,000,000.

The election of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal policies of the Democratic Party predictably led Johnson to a new style of cartooning with a new harshness and edge. He did not like Roosevelt. He did not like anything about the New Deal. His opposition crossed the line into quixotic.

Our collection of 90 cartoons from this era came to us from a grandson of Mr. Johnson in Berks County, Pennsylvania. His wife had seen a post on our blog several years ago. In it we mentioned that the book of cartoons was listed on amazon but was out of print. We received an email offering us one of the volumes, we took it…
One of the political cartoons Herbert Johnson published mostly during the 1930's. This is one of the 90 cartoons in a book that we have on display in the Sutton Museum. The book was sent to us by the wife of one of Herbert's grandsons. Thanks to them.
We more recently received an enticing offer from a dealer in memorabilia. He had a book of 384 original cartoons by Herbert Johnson. His photos of the book indicated it was a scrapbook with four cartoons pasted onto each page. We asked for more information and learned that his asking price was $25,000. It was not that enticing.

We passed.
Herbert Johnson's letter to John Heinz published in
The Sutton Register on June 29, 1939.

Prior to our most recent finds about Herbert Johnson, we were hesitant to feature his story and loaded up our accounts with caveats. There were instances where his birthplace was listed as Sutton, Nebraska but there wasn't any local evidence of that. (Not sure how we missed the 1-year old Herbert in the 1880 census.)

We found our first convincing evidence of Herbert Johnson's connection to Sutton in the June 29, 1939 issue of The Sutton Register which carried a letter from John Heinz of Sutton who had written to Herbert Johnson complimenting him on one of his cartoons. Johnson's response included a account of his brief visit to Sutton while "passing through". He related a few of his experiences of growing up (through age 13) in Sutton.

Unrelated, but really interesting was his reference, "I learned to swim in that old swimming hole west of town which we used to call "Blue Clay". He didn't know why it was called that, no one we've talked to so far knew of such a place. I'll edit this post to describe the Blue Clay Swimming Hole as soon as someone helps me out.

Herbert Raymond Johnson died on October 13, 1946 after 53 days in the Abington Memorial Hospital in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania as he neared his 68th birthday.

This is another in our series of research efforts and articles about natives of Sutton who have left this area and achieved fame elsewhere. We’ve seen here that Herbert Johnson did not forget where he was born and raised and that he enjoyed “the inestimable privilege” of being born in a small town. We need to return the favor and remember him with a certain level of pride that he was once a part of our town.

This post is based on an article that first appeared in the April, 2017 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. Learn more about this publication by contacting mustangmediasales@gmail.com or calling Jarod Griess at 402-984-4203. 

Herbert Johnson at his easel in his studio - comfortable supportive chair, light from the left, excellent outdoors view - all the
right features to a work-conducive environment. But, did he work in coat, tie and good dress shoes? Maybe.




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