Wednesday, June 18, 2014

An Old-Fashioned Summer with Skin-Nay

Since summer is about to begin, I thought we might look at some memories from summertime long ago.

At almost every estate sale I attend, I find tattered old books that someone has saved from their childhood.  The books bear the marks of having being fervently loved.  

One such book I picked up recently bears an odd title:

Oh Skin-Nay! The Days of Real Sport.  

It's a collection of cartoons by an artist named Clare Briggs, with text by Wilbur D. Nesbit.  It was first published in 1913...101 years ago.

The Days of Real Sport shows a year in the life of some small-town American kids, with a verse by Nesbit for each illustration by Briggs.  

In the drawings, the boys often refer to their playmate named Skinny (which sounds like "Skin-Nay!" when shouted at the top of their lungs) Malloy.  

Unlike a lot of single-panel cartoons, which deliver their humor in one swift punch, Briggs' drawings are complex and nuanced.  They draw a series of chuckles from the reader, rather than a belly laugh.  

Scholars who research such things have noted that there's always more than one thing going on in these cartoons by Briggs. Unlike a lot of single-panel cartoons, which deliver their humor in one swift punch, Briggs' drawings are complex and nuanced.  They draw a series of chuckles from the reader, rather than a belly laugh.  

On "A Hot Sunday Afternoon," the parents are trying to beat the heat in the shade of a tree.  One daughter is quietly reading next to them, but the two little boys are pestering their mother and the baby is trying to jar the father out of his nap under the Sunday newspaper.   The windows of the house are open. In the distant background, some neighbors are walking by.

Clare Briggs (1875-1930) was a cartoon artist for several newspapers in St. Louis and Chicago before landing a job with the Chicago Tribune in 1907.  There he developed Oh Skin-Nay! The Days of Real Sport, loosely based on his own childhood experiences.  In 1914, Briggs moved over to work for the New York Herald-Tribune.  He died in 1930 of pneumonia.  In addition to Oh Skin-Nay! he was well-known for his comics A. Piker Clerk (which has been called the first daily continuity comic strip), Mr. and Mrs. (which inspired a radio show of the same name), When a Feller Needs a Friend (which inspired a movie starring Jackie Cooper), and Ain't It a Grand and Glorious Feeling (which inspired a song by the same name). 

The Smithsonian Institute Libraries website observes that Briggs drew upon his own memories of childhood for the illustrations of Skin-Nay and Co., and notes that "his drawings of small town and city life are so accurate that they provide a historical record of the era."

Some of the children in Briggs' panels do the same thing in story after story.
Note the kid who's making the swing spin.

Even though he was one of the highest-paid and best-known cartoon and caricature artists of his time, Clare Briggs is relatively unknown today.  Fortunately his work is being studied by scholars and fans of classic comics alike. Oh Skin-Nay! has been reprinted in a facsimile edition, so a new generation of readers has been introduced to those active little boys and girls of long ago. 

There's the kid getting dizzy on a swing again.

Wilbur D. Nesbit (1871-1927) was a journalist and feature writer for the Chicago Tribune who was also well-known for his poetry.  He wrote a poem (outside the realm of Skinny and his friends) that's important for us to remember:

Who hath a book
Hath friends at hand,
And gold and gear
At his command;
And rich estates,
If he but look,
Are held by him
Who hath a book.

Who hath a book
Hath but to read
And he may be
A king, indeed.
His kingdom is
His inglenook-
All this is his
Who hath a book.

I looked through some of the readers' comments about Briggs' work on a website that sells used books.  One person wrote that reading Oh Skin-Nay is like having a great-grandfather tell you about his own childhood.  

One could do worse than have such an artistic legacy.

I sent this old copy of Oh Skin-Nay to a young family member who is very artistic.  He can listen to Briggs and Nesbit tell about their childhoods, and use those stories to tell tales of his own. 

Here's a biography of Clare Briggs:

And a 1924 interview with him:,6458138

There's a memorial to Clare Briggs in his hometown of Reedsburg, Wisconsin:

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