Sunday, June 05, 2011

Life Drawing 39: More of "Woolf's Waifs"

3. Skinny Legs and All

September 1, 1887

Michael Angelo Woolf drew cartoons that captured late-19th century urban life at street level. He drew cartoons about muggers, con men, drunks, shopkeepers, immigrants and public transit riders. His most popular work (and I'm not clear how that was determined,) was his cartoons featuring the children known, at least to his obituary writer, as "Woolf's Waifs." These were, for the most part, drawings of the children of the lower east side tenements. As previously seen, they could be darkly humorous representations of the harsh living conditions found there or vehicles for lampooning the melodramatic excesses of popular culture. Here they offer commentary on the courting rituals, social customs and class distinctions of the time. It's possible that these children, who appear to be from 7 to 12 years old and seem prematurely interested in the opposite sex and dating and romance, not to mention death, are keenly observed portraits of childhood in the 19th Century. Some of the cartoons do seem to reflect children's concerns and might come from have something Woolf observed. More often, I think that Woolf was using children as tools for satirizing adult behavior, as cartoon kids have been used right up to the present day.  In either case, they must have been a welcome relief for Life's readers to the magazine's depictions of children from the upper crust.

September 2, 1897

February 13, 1890

October 20, 1887

July 1, 1897

May 14, 1896

February 20, 1896

July 14, 1892

April 14, 1887

Any suggestions as to what a "sykesy twist" might mean would be appreciated.

August 11, 1898

October 13, 1887

May 10, 1894

October 6, 1898

February 1, 1894

March 29, 1894

March 8, 1894

June 21, 1894

April 5, 1894

Skinny, weak legs, which may have been the result of malnutrition or disease, probably weren't all that uncommon among the children on the Lower East Side, yet a few of Woolf's drawings indicate there was a substantial social stigma attached to this condition. I don't know if there's any historical truth to this. It's possible Woolf just thought skinny legs on kids were funny. I'm pretty sure that even an accurate explanation wouldn't make these cartoons seem any less bizarre.

December 8, 1887

May 3, 1894

March 25, 1896

November 10, 1892

December 3, 1898

4. Gangs of New York

Gangs existed in New York City from just after the Revolutionary War. With names like the Bowery Boys, the Broadway Boys, The Fly Boys and the Long Bridge Boys, their purpose was not initially criminal.
As a social unit the gang closely resembled such social organizations as the fire company, the fraternal order, and the political club, and all these formations variously overlapped; gangs might serve as the farm league or the strong-arm squad for the other entities. ... The principal pastime of these bands was warring with each other over definitions of territory.1 

Woolf never created a recurring character among his waifs, but he did create an archetype. 
Though the older gang "B'hoy" had been "depicted in the penny press and the popular theater"2 prior to Woolf, his cartoons of younger kids emulating the speech and petty criminality of their elders are cited as a precursor to, or possibly the inspiration for, Outcault's Yellow Kid. At Life in the next century Percy Crosby and J.R. Shaver would have their own takes on the streetwise city kid. (Crosby didn't miss the importance of the recurring character and created the popular Skippy.) Eventually the type would be all over the movie screen, from Our Gang to the Dead End Kids, lingering on into anachronistic absurdity at least through the last Bowery Boys picture in 1958.

February 17, 1887

June 30, 1895

January 18, 1894

April 7, 1887

July 7, 1892

April 12, 1894

November 17, 1892

March 8, 1894

October 17, 1895

May 28, 1896

March 5, 1896

June 16, 1887

April 30, 1896

January 27, 1887

August 6, 1891

August 11, 1892

Sometimes, though, Woolf's kids were just kids.

May 5, 1887

April 21, 1887

November 24, 1898

November 24, 1892

June 9, 1887

December 22, 1887

September 22, 1887

April 5, 1894

May 17, 1894

October 20, 1898

July 15, 1897

February 8, 1894

Unlinked sources
1. Sante, Luc. Lowlife. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1991.
2. Brown, Joshua. "Gangs." The Encyclopedia of New York City. Yale University Press, 1995.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have never seeb these before--today is first visit to your blog--charlie