Thursday, June 15, 2017

Herbert Johnson - Sutton's Cartoonist

Renown cartoonist Herbert Johnson

was born in Sutton on October, 30, 1878 

Herbert Johnson (1878-1946)

It is trite to say 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.

Herbert Johnson's cartoons usually featured his depiction of the "Common People". 
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.

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.

Our hero was a rather distinguished looking fellow.
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.

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 to take that job.

Herbert Johnson drew covers for the Saturday Evening
Post and Country Gentleman magazines, among others.
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.

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 transcriber interpreted a value of $9,000,000.
This article appeared in The Sutton Register on June 29, 1939, part of an exchange between John Heinz in Sutton and
Herbert Johnson. He did remember his early (before age 13) years in Sutton including the "Blue Clay" swimming hole.

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…
This early 1936 cartoon reflects Johnson's hope that Republican voters would
return to his party to defeat President Roosevelt and the New Deal.
Didn't happen.

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 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.

Herbert Johnson at the easel in his studio, likely in his Montgomery County home outside of Philadelphia.

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