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The Poverty of the Kid: Visualizing the Ragamuffin in R.F. Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley

By Vincent M. Basso

In the winter of 1895, Richard Felton Outcault’s Yellow Kid, a big eared, bald headed, and jovial urchin, appeared in a Sunday supplement of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.1 Early American comics like Outcault’s Kid were part of the evolving visual culture of the period, one marked by the advent of cinema and the proliferation of photography in the late nineteenth-century.2 But as much as his poverty indicates a social crisis, the Yellow Kid sported a realism infused with absurdity. Outcault’s streets are gritty, his characters rendered more actual than abstract, and despite the hijinks that ensue Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley puts the privations of tenement life on display to all. The Yellow Kid visualized the strangeness of urban America and the Kid’s popularity can in part be explained by the scopophilic pleasures he avails while opening the poverty of America’s urban districts to spectatorial scrutiny and a hearty laugh. The fact that the Yellow Kid signaled the emergence of the comics medium as a widely disseminated literature in the United States is important, principally, I argue, because of how the Yellow Kid represents cultural anxieties related to child poverty and the problematics of national belonging as a means of entertainment.

Rather than treat poverty as a generalizable category in Outcault’s Yellow Kid, I focus on child welfare specifically because of the child’s centrality as a germinative national citizen and question to what end Outcault’s work addressed and leveraged child poverty for its nostalgic appeal and sensational immediacy. Moreover, I do not look to extricate Outcault’s work from reformist discourses that infantilized the poor, nor do I attempt to sanitize Outcault’s representations of these prejudicial views. If anything, Outcault’s children express the indeterminate boundaries separating the impoverished child from the poor adult. More to the point, the Yellow Kid’s seriality and slapstick houses both impoverished adults and children in a kind of rhetorical stasis. The poor Kid stays poor and a child, and despite the Kid’s world tour in 1897 no one ever really escapes Hogan’s Alley. Still, by virtue of its humor, Outcault’s comics formulate child poverty as less threatening and more knowable, humanizing child subjects through a resistance to sentimental constructions of child identity.

Jared Gardner suggests that comics provide a “counterweight to the narrative of modernity’s traumas” as for “each image of the ‘sharp discontinuity’ of modern life and the dangers of breakdown, there is a corresponding comic image which sees these discontinuities as eliciting not anxiety but humor, comfort, and new pleasures” (11).3 Gardner’s point is that the comic form and its joke are capable of helping the reader process sometimes catastrophic social issues. Deprivation seems the standard ecological condition prevailing in Hogan’s Alley and despite negative environmental pressures the cast of characters remain, against all odds, impervious to destruction. Audience reception and the degree to which the Yellow Kid underwent such proliferate commodification suggests that part of the Kid’s mass appeal lies in how he contained the prejudices and threats of poverty in a relatively innocuous image, and in an often fantastic literary genre.

Outcault’s comic intervention emerges as image/text in a period when the impoverished child’s photographic capture increasingly co-occurred with its literary representations.4 Just as urban poverty’s degradations were represented in the works of writers and photojournalists like Jacob Riis, John Tidwell, and Lewis Hine, so too did literary representations of pained and impoverished children register a social catastrophe across an increasingly literate and conscientious public sphere. The ragamuffin trope, which Outcault put to such use, was familiar to audiences during the Progressive Era, and, while writers like Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo explored the experiences of the poor and socially oppressed in Europe’s urban centers, the child’s confrontation with social inequity figured centrally in many of the best-selling American novels.

Representations of such precocious, endearing, and yet tragically abandoned kids circulated in popular works that range from Maria Susanna Cummins’ antebellum The Lamplighter (1854) to E.D.E.N. Southworth’s The Hidden Hand or, Capitola the Madcap (1859), Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick (1868), and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1884). It was this already well-trod aesthetic ground that provided Outcault with a stable trope in the form of the impoverished child, an emblematic figure that signaled to its expectant audience a mix of sentimentality, comedy, and adventure. The orphan Capitola Black, who is the irascible protagonist of The Hidden Hand, navigates harrowing conditions from homelessness to encounters with ghostly apparitions, bandits, and villains of all stripe and does so with a deftness and surety that surpasses her age. Cap, who first appears in drag as a homeless newsboy in the streets of a New York slum derided as Rag Alley, is described as a “saucy little prince of patches,” (39) who lived “dreading the gnawing hunger by day and the horrid perils of the night” (Southworth 46). The image of the orphan Gertrude “Gerty” Flint, the protagonist of Cummins’ Lamplighter, was that of a little girl “scantly clad, in garments of the poorest description. Her hair was long and very thick; uncombed and unbecoming…her complexion was sallow, and her whole appearance unhealthy” (1). Little Gerty “was but eight years old, and all alone in the world,” subject to the abuses of body, “one blow for her ugliness and another for her impudence,” (2) as well as the psychological torments administered by her guardian Nan Gant, “‘a horrid, wicked woman, that drowned my kitten in bilin’ water!’” (Cummins 12).

Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick makes for a conspicuous example of the puckish and street wise, but always good natured boot-black, who “had no particular dislike to dirt, and did not think it necessary to remove several dark streaks on his face and hands” (4). Dick was a boy with a penchant for cigar smoking, who never failed to act with charity towards his fellow shoe shiners and newsboys, and who took pride in his shabby Washington coat, an iconic garment that Dick rarely failed to reference as authentic and a symbol of the ironic link between disenfranchised youth and those revolutionary statesman and generals that served as the heroic progenitors to the United States. Twain’s titular Huckleberry Finn, the foul mouthed vagabond youth of rural Missouri, reminisces early in the novel on the aftereffects of his flight from the Watson home and how he found himself “lazy and jolly, laying off comfortable all day, smoking and fishing,” but notes too that “my clothes got to be all rags and dirt” (18). Despite Finn’s recollection of an anarchic freedom outside the confines of society, he equally acknowledges that his liberty came with a high cost, and that life “was pretty good times up in the woods there, take it all around…But by-and-by pap got too handy with his hick’ry, and I couldn’t stand it. I was all over welts” (Twain 18).

Poor kids like Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Southworth’s Capitola with their rag-wear, matted hair, and filth stained limbs typically presented as precocious urchins capable of negotiating complex and often harrowing circumstances with an intelligence and insight beyond their years. Sentimentalized fictions like Cummins’ Lamplighter or Alger’s Ragged Dick situated their wards in bildungsromans that appealed to the sensibilities of robust readerships while reinforcing a sense of paternalism that endeared the impoverished child to the hearts of the public. The proliferation of these novels, which sold remarkably well in their day, further index the child’s potential as a motivational force for social change and a figure that brought to light the evolving social crisis of youth at the turn-of-the-century.

Despite the narrative acrobatics of satire and improbable adventures, the ragamuffin’s gaunt and often sentimentalized image signified the presence of a social detritus and the generational surplus of human life existing in the urban slums and ramshackle spaces of rural America. What then emerged in the figure of the impoverished child was a stunted potentiality, a condition often attributed in the period to the three-fold barrier of structural deficiencies, societal indifference, and the view that certain families lacked the moral and intellectual fitness to enact socially productive lives.5 These kids, adrift in the flows of abjection, signify the compromised remnants of a generation, but their romanticized adventures and uncanny ability to surpass poverty also obfuscated their own social abandonment. The image of the vulnerable child worked to induce a sense of empathy in the reader while further rousing indignation and shame, feelings at once capable of animating the would-be social actor or otherwise encouraging one to turn their vision further from the child and those stark conditions that produced him.

By 1890, millions of New Yorkers were housed in over eighty thousand tenements, and as James Marten has noted of the period between 1870 and 1900 “the percentage of children between the ages of ten and fourteen who worked for wages increased from 16 percent to 22 percent” (8). During roughly the same time, “the percentage of working children who lived in cities rose…from 47 percent to nearly 75 percent” (Marten 8). Even as the twentieth-century got underway, between 1900 and 1910, the number of children counted in the American labor force hovered around eighteen percent, a figure indicating that children held an entrenched place in the labor market for well over a generation.6 Social historian Viviana Zelizer notes that this figure, while dramatic, nonetheless undercounts the total number of laboring youth, particularly because census records excluded children under ten as well as those assisting in domestic labor or otherwise supporting “their parents in sweatshops and on farms” (56) outside of the school day. The increase in the urban child population fed the child labor market, which varied widely from newsboys to industrial workers.

The depression of the 1890s, which rose to its height in 1894, exacerbated the economic crisis in city and country alike. Nell Irvin Painter, whose work so critically treats the social dilemmas of the period, has suggested that “no one could recall times as hard as these” in which “families broke up as men took to the roads” and “employers who did not discharge workers outright cut wages drastically” (116). These conditions produced unemployment well in excess of ten percent and saw between two million and three million workers turned out of their employment, a trend that left “one-fifth of the industrial work force…idle in the winter of 1893-1894” (Painter 116).7 The hard actualities of economic collapse destabilized families in myriad ways and more than anything situated youth among the mass of competing laborers.

The public was acutely aware of the harsh conditions facing urban youth within a technologically advancing society, and while disease, tenement fires, and industrial accidents demonstrated the risks facing the youth of the city one of the most visible dangers lay in traffic accidents. Zelizer emphasizes this significant issue, writing that “[b]etween 1910 and 1913, over 40 percent of New York traffic victims were under fifteen years of age,” a sobering statistic that in 1914 “jumped to 60 percent” (35). Threats to youth were well known and such conditions indicated an ongoing social crisis, one punctuated by the fact that, as Steven Mintz indicates, “[a]s late as 1895, 18 percent of children—one in six—died before their fifth birthday” (134) and in the same period “20 to 30 percent of all children lost a parent by age fifteen” (157).8 The corrupting influences of the city and changing economic patterns encouraged child welfare reform, but the new activism also responded, as Zelizer convincingly demonstrates, to a revised cultural investment in the “sacralization” of the child, a process that saw the utility of the child transition from its monetary valuation and ability to participate in the household economy to “an exclusively emotional and affective asset” (11). This cultural shift affected rich and poor alike and, as Zelizer writes, “[a]s children, regardless of their social class, were defined as emotionally priceless assets, their death became not only a painful domestic misfortune but a sign of collective failure” (32).9

Turn-of-the-century child welfare reforms responded to those social conditions that at once threatened child health and wellness and conducted youth into the circuits of labor.10 But reformers also sought to correct the problem of youth delinquency, an issue that had consistently grown over the course of the later nineteenth-century and that came to occupy a considerable station in public consciousness. Part and parcel to the ethos of reform were contestations in the public perception of child development. Psychologists and social thinkers like G. Stanley Hall found in eugenics the rationale for stringent structural controls, and despite many reformer’s designs to save the child from its adult corruption such suppositions often perpetuated harmful beliefs about biological and social predispositions to degeneracy. The vogue of social Darwinism notwithstanding, beliefs were shifting from the long history of bodily discipline and moral regulation to an emphasis on nurture and support. This alteration in approaches to child rearing perpetuated, as Bernard Wishy writes, a certain early American romanticism in that “the essentially good child, or the child corrupted by a harsh world, was to be converted or restored to his true innocent nature” (134).

The minister and social reformer Charles Loring Brace saw youth delinquency as that which contributed to the formation of “dangerous classes,” the “young burglars and murderers, the garroters and rioters, the thieves and flash-men” (31). It was Brace, the head of New York’s Children’s Aid Society, who championed the placing-out system in which eastern urban youth were placed and adopted out to western farmers and homesteaders where they might shed the iniquities of the city, a cost effective and unevenly successful program that by 1929 had relocated some two hundred thousand youth to the west. Jane Adams, co-founder of Chicago’s Hull House and a leader in the settlement movement, called on reformers to “know the modern city in its weakness and wickedness, and then seek to rectify and purify it” (42). Adams strikes a more compassionate tone when suggesting that youth were “possessed of good intentions,” but in need of outlets and support (42). Either way, child poverty signaled a rudimentary criminal-type and the category through which social ills like violence and addiction emerge. The sometimes ambiguous positions of child reformers, as Steven Mintz writes, saw them striving “both to protect children from the dangers of urban society and to protect society from dangerous children” (155). Despite these contradictions, Progressive Era reformers dramatically improved public health, reducing infant and child mortality in eastern cities by over fifty percent, and forwarded critically important legislation designed to protect children’s rights, curtail child labor, and reduce social risks to a now far more idealized American youth.

While social activists like Brace and Adams directed their energies at reform, Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives (1890) revealed the stark crisis of a seemingly abandoned generation. The social realism expressed in photographs like Riis’ “Didn’t Live Nowhere” and “Street Arabs in Sleeping Quarters” crystallized the hard actualities of cultural violence and its traumatic affects just as the pessimistic spirit of literary naturalism took hold among the reading public.11 That photography provided, as Alan Trachtenberg suggests, a means to “interpret the present in light of the past” (6) helps explain the value of social realist photography in the period, but Riis’ documentarian work, much like realist fiction, also locked the subject in the “conventional image of his or her social role” (28) thereby presenting child poverty as a problematic but no less static quality of being. The child became an almost monumental figure, a type, who in photographic, critical, and fictional representations bore witness to his own abjection. Perhaps it was this strange conflation of harsh exigencies and those sentimentalized narratives of childhood adventure that churned within Outcault’s mind as he re-imagined the ragamuffin in the form of the Yellow Kid.

The Yellow Kid ran between 1895 and 1898 in both Pulitzer’s World and Hearst’s New York Journal, and for four short years the Kid was so popular that he spawned a merchandising industry that featured the Kid’s mischievous grin on everything from coffee cups to whisky.12 Yellow Kid themed parties were also, apparently, a thing, as were stage adaptations like Frank Dumont’s The Yellow Kid Who Lives in Hogan’s Alley (1897).13 Bill Blackbeard attributes the Kid’s abrupt decline in popularity in 1898 and subsequent drop from the papers to nationalist sentiments expressed against all things Spanish during the Spanish-American War, the yellow of the Spanish flag being no exception. At the same time, the “simultaneous appearance of two Yellow Kids in newspaper strips, and the flood of unlicensed products,” as Ian Gordon suggests, “diminished the value of the character as a commodity for both Outcault and the publishers” (33). The anxieties of war, along with an emerging discontent with the sensationalist nature of yellow journalism, of which the Kid is understandably associated, and the emergence of other popular comic strips presented a confluence of events that the Kid simply could not withstand.14 Nonetheless, in his brief heyday the Yellow Kid, who availed himself to the literate and illiterate alike, enjoyed a readership in the hundreds of thousands.

Outcault’s Yellow Kid sallied through the Bowery District with his band of delinquents greeting his readers each Sunday with a burlesque of street life, raucous and stylized in such a way as to present to the reader a Vaudevillian stage out of doors. Lowbrow theatricality cuts to the heart of the Kid, as both his deviousness and physicality play at the nerve of a spectacle that at once compels and revolts. Both interlocutor and spectatorial subject, the Kid presented a specimen of child poverty that brimmed with a youthful exuberance in counterpoint to his abjection, and it was this nightshirted champion of the downtrodden, who provided Outcault’s frames with social commentary and a privileged view into the lives of the children of Hogan’s Alley.

In a New York blighted by poverty, the Yellow Kid and his miscreant pals undertake carnivalesque adventures amid drunkards, vagrants, and their own downtrodden relations. Amid Outcault’s calamitous urbanity it is not uncommon to find malnourished goats and horses roaming amid shrieking cats and mange-ridden dogs. The grimy streets, cracked tenement windows, and shadowy doorways suggest a despair that permeates the space and the psyches of its inhabitants, but, as David Nasaw suggests, “to paint too grim a picture of life in the early twentieth century, to speak only of scarcity, to emphasize only poverty is to caricature the conditions of daily life for many” (12). Outcault’s work is fundamentally a caricature and one that suggests a negative ecology that while permeable and subject to change, nonetheless demonstrates the ongoing pervasiveness of forces that exhaust resources, degrade the environment, and debilitate life. As much as this negative ecology is an objective and external process so too is it subjective and internal, influencing emotion and affect just as it does social and environmental systems.

Through its representations of a circular environmental logic, I see Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley as perpetuating a negative ecology that reinforces negative psychological, social, and environmental conditions, generated in part by the socioeconomic and ideological forces that appear absent but in reality actively produce the slum’s materiality. It is in this negative ecology, characterized by the anxieties of poverty, pernicious class conflicts, and the tenement’s degraded spaces, that the Yellow Kid and the cadre of urchins with which he cavorts, eek out their freedom and adventure in mimicry of the adult world through scenarios that range from matrimony and horse racing to the parade of armies. Despite their environment being “the city of the ‘other half’ [where] the sewers were always clogged and the streets and alleyways filled with garbage” (Nasaw 9), the Yellow Kid and his pals interrupt the narratological procession of their degradation, demonstrating a rupture in the discourse of childhood abjection.

In order to underscore Outcault’s depiction of poverty in Hogan’s Alley, its crisis of community, and what seems to be a near totalizing negativity of place, I’ll discuss several street scenes that progressively demonstrate the relationship between youth poverty and U.S. nationalism in certain of Outcault’s socially realist inflected comics. In “Moving Day in Hogan’s Alley,” Outcault depicts an ensemble of tenement dwellers haranguing a family evicted from an apartment. The scene is animated with the noise of the street, as dogs bark and men and women shout over one another. The tenement kids jeer as they hurl bricks, wooden boards, and baseballs at the family, who hollers back in protest. One child fires a spitball into the eye of a toddler and another readies to beat a mange bearing goat with a rod. Yet another kid presents a burning stick to the face of a horse, which readies to rear back and bound.

Figure 1: “Moving Day in Hogan’s Alley”

The Yellow Kid gleefully motions to the scene as the undesirable Duggan family carts their dishes and laundry and iron stove from Hogan’s Alley. Even a caged bird hung from a second story window taunts “Good Bye. Good Bye.” The proprietor of the tenement, “Casey’s Waldorf Annex,” hammers a sign near the front door that reads “To Let. 3rd Floor Back To Any Family Who Will Pay The Rent.” The mother of the three children, two of whom return the taunts, stands with arms wide in argument with another woman, who clings to her babe with one hand while bearing her fist with the other. While neighbors certainly argue from time to time, Outcault’s piece plays on middle-class anxieties by suggesting communal antagonism is a fixture of tenement life. Cartoonish behavior is depicted as real and real exigent conditions as cartoon, aspects suggesting social disregard for the infantile poor and the delegitimization of their politics.

In the turn-of-the-century, mass European immigration and the Great Migration of African Americans, fleeing widespread lynching campaigns and socioeconomic and political disfranchisement, made New York City a hub of multi-ethnic and multi-racial demographic conglomeration. As the Yellow Kid, who was formally christened Mickey Dugan in 1896, demonstrates, impoverished Irish immigrants figure centrally in Outcault’s work, but his comedy, as Mary Wood suggests, relies on the spectacle of vaudeville and African American minstrelsy.15 These features suggest that the Kid’s humor is predicated in part on the reader’s normalized cognitive dissonance towards the spectacle and its racialized and socially oppressive narratological sources.16 Outcault’s indeterminacies, as Lara Saguisag writes, “at once infantilized and humanized” his impoverished characters whose presence “in newspaper comics were perhaps the most potent manifestation of ambivalence for the Other” (13). Arguably, one has to acknowledge certain prejudices and social power structures in order to ever really be in on the joke.

Plainly enough, we can see how the comedy of the Kid might play differently for different audiences. While I believe Outcault’s work sensationalizes child poverty, I also acknowledge that the Yellow Kid is a reaction to this critical social problem. The ambiguity of Outcault’s project speaks to the fact that the kid is not a unique person, but a representative figure, a point Outcault himself emphasized in a 1902 Bookman interview when he stated “[t]he Yellow Kid was not an individual but a type. When I used to go about the slums on newspaper assignments I would encounter him often, wandering out of doorways or sitting down on dirty doorsteps. I always loved the Kid. He had a sweet character and a sunny disposition” (130).

To conceive of the Kid as a type suggests, as Ian Gordon indicates, that what Outcault’s Kid lacks in individuality is made up through characterization. Jared Gardner writes that like the photographic studies of motion made by photographers Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey, early American comics “sought to study the movement of social types” (7). Types, and the racial logics promoting them, according to Gardner, were destabilized through comics’ seriality, and with the Yellow Kid the social type transforms from ethnic Irish poor to “a mass-mediated personality” that effectively “accord[s] to the stereotype an identity” (13). So, through Outcault’s de-actualization of young Mickey Dugan, the Yellow Kid is formulated at outset not as a person but as a thing, an amalgamation of the qualities and associated metaphors constructing here a type: poor, Irish, urban, youth. We can now see the social construction of identify in action, as Outcault and his readership work to inscribe, on that billowing yellow nightshirt, their refractory visions of who and what the Yellow Kid really is.

As Outcault’s narrative progressed so too did the magical ferocity of Hogan’s Alley. In “What They Did to the Dog-Catcher in Hogan’s Alley,” the Yellow Kid again stands as an impish figure lampooning the depraved scene behind him. Here a city dogcatcher has been brought to the ground by a brick. The children mob him, kicking and bludgeoning him with sticks, while yet another mange-infested dog tears at his leg. One youth falls from a fire escape and someone else has set fire to the dogcatcher’s wagon. Some children wield stones and clubs while others ready their axes. In the far right a second dogcatcher can be seen fleeing the violence as two dogs and a child with cudgel give chase. In the diegetic space of Outcault’s work the crisis of the character’s lives reproduces itself within the negative ecology of the space they inhabit, places overflowing with tight-packed tenement dwellers and rife with social discord. Outcault’s “Moving Day” and “Dogcatcher” present a frenetic claustrophobia, urban environments that seem to pinion their misdirected subjects, as was the experience of many urban youth, into the lived space of only a few square blocks.

Figure 2: “What They Did to the Dogcatcher in Hogan’s Alley.”

Outside of the home and school, urban children possessed a world of their own that was governed by its own distinct behavioral codes. Here, as David Nasaw shows, “[t]he block was the basic unit of social organization for the city kids” (32). Territorial transgressions often led to conflicts among youth “gangs” and transgressing into these contested spaces could easily result in a child “chased out of the neighborhood with sticks, stones, and fists” (Nasaw 34). Such antagonisms, although far less dramatic, extended to adults as well, as youth “resented the intrusion of others into their play world” (Nasaw 20). Outcault’s “Dogcatcher” satirizes these youth conflicts and comically inverts children’s territorial policing to target the adult transgressor in their midst. At the same time, the violent character of the poor is realized because of its objectification, and Outcault’s “Dogcatcher” projects the bowery’s reality as co-occurring and yet separated out from the one the reader inhabits. Beyond the mob violence of the slum presumably exists the less violent and depraved community in which the reader is situated. The illusion is that the two ecologies are not coextensive when in fact they are constantly permeating and conditioning one another. More to the point, it is this other social ecology to which the second of Outcault’s dogcatchers appears to run.

Mary Wood suggests the Yellow Kid’s humor resides in the ways it provided “an alternate glimpse of the tenement realm as a place of excitement and danger, and was perhaps able to satisfy poor audiences looking for escape and rich audiences looking for the spectacle of the slum” (np). Moreover, the Yellow Kid “subvert[ed] the increasingly codified roles assigned to the rich and the poor. It defies the growing sentiment that perhaps America is not the promised land of opportunity…and instead suggests that the only place where roles can be reassigned is in a fictional, two-dimensional world—where the genre must be comedy in order to subvert reality” (np). It is a bleak reality in which social liberation is delimited to the fictional portrayal of revolt and yet such alternative narrativizations of social experience are the antecedents to actualizable social change. The danger, however, resides in the representation’s concretization and the public’s potential inability to see beyond the satire and its transient relief.

The practice of “jumping the rent,” as depicted in Outcault’s “Moving Day,” seems to erase community solidarity, but as Bill Blackbeard notes, this was an act “more likely to evoke sympathy than the neighborhood condemnation shown in Outcault’s cartoon” (39-40). Outcault’s depictions of urban strife then go far afield in their sketching of metropolitan barbarities and here reinforce existing class prejudices at the expense of his subjects. While Outcault’s depictions of the impoverished exercising such petty violence upon one another seems perverse, the battery of the dogcatcher indicates that the poor, and especially impoverished youth, resisted the policing of their lives by city authorities. Through the expulsion of one form of an external regulatory power the bowery youth assert responsibility over the management of their own social relations to the end of community survival and self-care. Outcault’s tendency to illustrate the lower classes as eager to do one another in presents a violence that provoked condemnation from magazines like Puck and Life, as well as the clergy, libraries, and schools, but as is evident in Outcault’s “Dogcatcher” this violent reactivity could also challenge those institutional forces that like the dogcatcher asserted the right to legislate the lives of the poor.

Arthur Asa Berger argues that while such images “served to focus attention on the problem of poverty” (26) their “fantasy and use of humor masked a sense of despair” (27). Berger writes that “underneath the horseplay and absurdity, we find a world of anguish and pain…a sense of malaise, a feeling that the old, rural, natural American is being destroyed” (31). Outcault’s representations of a community in turmoil often indexed the impoverished as a fallen citizenry given over to base impulses and vice with little regard for one another’s welfare. The bowery’s poor appear to lack morality and social competence and so actively threaten social codes and the systems designed to manage their lives. Outcault’s realism contains and configures impoverishment and restricts its connection to the ideological and socioeconomic forces that produce it. Yet even as Outcault’s comic represented the poor as unfit and incapable of productive citizenship, through his work poverty becomes palatable and, as I believe Outcault’s cartoonish examples make clear, his scenes of social discord bring the problem of child poverty to the foreground while concealing its causes in the background.

Outcault’s “The War Scare in Hogan’s Alley,” published in the March 15, 1896 edition of the World, responds to a territorial dispute between Venezuela and British Guiana. This comic situates the Yellow Kid in the foreground of a regiment of would be child soldiers arrayed for inspection and brandishing everything from washtub drums to picket signs, toy guns, sticks, and even an axe and a sword. The Yellow Kid sports a red cap and drags a toy canon behind him while another small child, also bald and garbed in a yellow nightshirt punches a child, depicted as Chinese and demonstrably foreign, in the nose. Behind the brawling toddlers a girl stands with the words “The Girl I Left Behind Me” emblazoned across her dress. At the fore of the image an older boy is clothed in navy and plays the role of field marshal complete with a feather in his cap. With one hand he raises a sword above the crowd and with the other clings to the chains that tether two small dogs, one with muzzle and one without, whose collar reads “Dogs of War.”

Figure 3: “The War Scare in Hogan’s Alley”

Taken at first glance the scene seems innocent enough: these are children playing at soldiery. But in such a reading lies the crux of the problem. Outcault’s “War Scare” draws from a long history of political cartooning and its staunchly nationalist sentiment evokes both racial bigotry and the romantic nostalgia of self-sacrifice in times of war. In the case of the Yellow Kid, it is the sacrifice of some of the poorest of society. While the young and Irish Mickey Dugan here postures against British imperialism, the Yellow Kid and his child army ironically stand as the ready-made agents of U.S. imperialism. The piece, while comedic, is also rhetorical. The work declares that there is a national body of which even those of the most profound disenfranchisement remain a critical part. “War Scare” is part and parcel of an ideological apparatus, one that in the Spanish American War of 1898 realized its own capacity to exceed the American geographies of the Monroe Doctrine.17 Moreover, it was the Yellow Kid’s dueling publishers, Hearst and Pulitzer, whose circulation war electrified the public with sensational narratives of both urban calamity and the drama of the Spanish-American War.18

While Outcault’s “War Scare” predates the Spanish American War by two years, during the war with Spain the national clamor for volunteers compelled enlistments from throughout the country and across the social spectrum. Harvard undergrads embraced a newly rejuvenated national spirit, while Georgia moonshiners and Boston toughs signed up to avoid prosecution. Recruits also came from the very same New York Bowery that features so prominently in Outcault’s comics. In an article from April 27, 1898, The New York Times documents two thousand new and somewhat surly bowery recruits incensed by a logistical error preventing their exercises at the Sixty-ninth Regiment Armory.19 Another article from April 29th suggests “Lively Recruiting in the Bowery” and goes on to state that while many bowery candidates could not satisfy the physical examination, those “‘awkward squads’” (4) that did were put to drill. One might imagine how the children of Hogan’s Alley could envision their own heroics in service to a nation that might reward their bravery and lift them out of poverty if only they were to risk their lives at the expense of the lives of others.

In Outcault’s “The Day After ‘The Glorious Fourth’ Down in Hogan’s Alley,” published in a July 7, 1895 edition of the World, Outcault depicts what appears to be youth in the aftermath of some brutal conflict. A year later, his “An Old-Fashioned Fourth of July in Hogan’s Alley,” from July 5, 1896, provides the reader an image of the catastrophic national celebration that resulted in the numerous bruised and bandaged children seen in the July 7th image of 1895. In “The Day After,” the scene is somber, as if a stillness has settled over the lower ward after some great conflagration, but in “An Old Fashioned Fourth,” the kids of Hogan’s Alley delight as they blast one another and the neighborhood dogs with firecrackers and roman candles. In this 1896 image, the fire escapes of the tenement, which still posts “Flats to Let,” are packed with residents who look on in terror as a fire bursts from a third floor window. People have fallen one atop the other at the base of a ladder, while several others leap to the ground below. One terrified mother lowers her infant by a rope and a parrot squawks, “This ain’t as funny as it looks.”

Figure 4: “The Day After ‘The Glorious Fourth’ Down in Hogan’s Alley”

The children of Hogan’s Alley, some of whom are bandaged and others blindfolded due to their injuries, revel in the spectacle of the 4th. The Yellow Kid lets out peels of laughter as he launches firecrackers causing a dog to jump while another takes flight in terror with explosives tied to its tail. In contrast to Outcault’s 4th of July in 1896, his depiction of the aftermath of the 4th from 1895 reveals a scene of maimed and mournful children, a sentimental depiction memorializing the American fallen of the Revolutionary War. One child in a yellow nightshirt stares from a second-floor balcony, while the other children: bruised, bandaged, and battered gather to take stock of their loses. Some children are missing an arm and others stand on crutches. One child in the foreground lifts his arm to display a hand shorn of three fingers. One room of the tenement is noticeably blackened, perhaps by a fire the night before, while in the background a woman and her two small children look upon the street and a tattered American flag hangs from a bent pole. Based on these imagistic markers, it seems reasonable enough that in Outcault’s retelling of holiday revelries he imagined his celebratory image of 1896 as a narrative precursor to the somber aftermath depicted in 1895.

Figure 5: “An Old-fashioned Fourth of July in Hogan’s Alley”

Outcault’s war comics, as I’ve chosen to classify these three, disclose the way July 4th celebrations sublimate violence and war. The children’s play telegraphs the disintegration of those caught in war’s theater and integrates society through a narrative of shared self-sacrifice. These images hold a certain sublimity, overpowering in its demand to surrender oneself in order to perpetuate the state. So long as we detach sublimity from a static physicality and link it, as Slavoj Žižek does, to ideology, then Outcault’s war comics radiate with the violating sublimity of U.S. nationalism.20 Outcault’s depictions of social depravity and youth mobs make a farce of the period’s exigencies, but those nationalist strains that contextualize Hogan’s Alley during July 4th celebrations present an irreconcilable contradiction as they incorporate the urchin into the national body while still marking the fundamental excision of the impoverished child from civil life.

Outcault’s comic configured its youthful protagonists as locked in the paradoxical dynamic of national allegiance to a society that facilitated the predatory economics that impoverished them. The national holiday quite literally batters the kids of the 1895 cartoon, who stand as wartime casualties in miniature. These haggard figures, whose poverty expels them from the cast of ideal citizenship, nonetheless stand as embryonic national subjects recast as laboring and militarized citizens willing to sacrifice their bodies and spirits for the project of American hegemony of which they remain only marginally a part. The kids of Hogan’s Alley represent what is to be feared from moral, familial, and material collapse, and yet they stand as would be patriots, the war dead before the war has come. The Yellow Kid expressed the visuality of child poverty, abuse, and neglect in such a way as to bring these radical social ills to the fore of public consciousness, but as a spectacle and simulation that through its comedy undermined the exigencies of child poverty even as it projected the cartoon Kid in realist terms.21

The ragamuffin trope dramatizes poverty, but in so doing it risks the overdetermination of its significance, and so the momentum of public energy is exerted in the expression of either agreement or dissent on issues of social welfare and the structural changes needed to address them. The scope of a problem like child poverty is so monumental that for the majority of people its rectification lies well outside the activities of daily life. The mutual recognition that poverty is a social ill demonstrates a shared communal identity, an “intimate public” that, as Lauren Berlant suggests, is “organized by fantasies of transcending, dissolving, or refunctioning the obstacles that shape their historical conditions” (8) even as that public’s powers to affect change are largely distributed out and deferred to other mediatory medico-legal and social systems. The problem lies in the assumption that empathy alone is a satisfactory intervention. Such emotional energies ultimately permeate the ethical relations of the majority to resonate as a feeling that remains unsaid, an expectation for vocality collapsed within its discourse about itself.

Outcault’s Yellow Kid integrated publics through the satirization of the trauma and negative ecological conditions affecting the disintegration of a kid who miraculously returned unharmed each week. Whether well-off or poor, the public connected to the Kid and, as Ian Gordon suggests, this identification is in part attributable to the ways the comic strip thumbed at “‘intimate emotions’ in simple, repeatable, easily recognizable forms,” a quality that “made them generally accessible [and] a factor that advertising researchers later concluded was the central appeal of comic strips” (23). Berger too is correct when he suggests that the Kid’s popularity relied on how “Americans saw themselves in it,” recognizing a “worldliness and bitterness that we do not now associate with childhood” (32). Our cultural expectation of childhood is not that it is marked by hardship and degradation, and yet U.S. child poverty persists with little sign of abating, part of an uneven national narrative with rates staggeringly disproportionate across regions and social groups.22 Outcault’s scenes position the reader to engage child poverty as a joke, a presentation allowing the discomfiting feelings registered by such depictions to fold the laugh of the urchin back upon itself, and so negate its critique and hail, staging the reader’s identification of the American ragamuffin as an unsettling presence whose abandonment shadows the culture from which he comes.

In much of the ragamuffin literature that preceded the Yellow Kid, the children always come out on top. They light out to the western territories to be made anew, inherit vast fortunes, find religion, marry their childhood sweethearts, or otherwise apply their industriousness to the pursuits of education and wealth. There are significant problems with all of these romanticized scenarios, but what is important is that each narrative tends to resolve itself. Children and society come to terms and the child is wrapped securely in the social fold. None of that happens for the Kid. Nobody rescues him and he certainly doesn’t save himself. Ultimately, he stays right where he always was, in that tenement with the cacophony of the city like a miasma, its summer heat suffocating, the Kid wild eyed and delighted by the madness that surrounds him, his head shaven and deloused, his nightshirt stained with a handprint that is and is not his own.

There is no future for the Yellow Kid and perhaps that is the point, the joke we should have picked up on, because the Kid is a waste, a gross depiction of class prejudice and a marker of the malignancy of willful ignorance. The Yellow Kid did not sentimentalize impoverished children so much as it sensationalized childhood depravity through the aesthetics of an emergent literary form and, in many ways, complemented the yellow journalism of its publishers, who strove to turn tragedy into spectacle for a culture immersed in the rhetoric of disaster.23 There is violence inherent in Outcault’s work, as there is in any endeavor to make comedy out of human anguish, but the disintegrative energies emanating from this violence disclose opportunities to reimagine and so gesture to resolve such narratives of social conflict and crisis. At the turn-of-the-century, child poverty presented a pernicious issue and a grave fact of American national life. The Yellow Kid turned it into a source for mass entertainment. Outcault’s Yellow Kid ridiculed and pantomimed poverty’s threat and, however transiently, subdued the menace of the poor, diluting narratives of biological retrogression and social fitness through a kid that took center-stage, grinning wide with a “Hully Gee,” a cartoon parody of the lived grief of the other.


[1] While there were comic precursors to the Kid, what differentiated Outcault’s work for American audiences was the scope of the Kid’s publication. Pulitzer’s World claimed a Sunday circulation in excess of 600,000 papers and through that organ the Yellow Kid was serialized and reproduced on a mass scale, facilitating comics’ emergence as a ubiquitous form of entertainment in the United States. For a comprehensive history of journalism in the United States see Michael Emery and Edwin Emery’s The Press and America: An Interpretive History of the Mass Media. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1988. For further scholarship addressing the intersection between sensational journalism, the proliferation of print media, and American expansionism see Sidney Kobre’s The Yellow Press and Gilded Age Journalism. Gainesville: Florida State UP, 1965 and David R. Spencer’s The Yellow Journalism: The Press and America’s Emergence as a World Power. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 2007.

[2] Late nineteenth-century humor magazines like the British Punch and its later American counterpart Puck, which featured a variety of satirical illustrations and the already well established and critically important political cartoon, pre-date Outcault’s work. In the same period, English comics like Charles Ross’ and Emilie de Tessier’s Ally Sloper and Alfred Harmsworth’s Comic Cuts showed comics’ potential success in a niche print market. For further discussion on comics’ place in the newspaper supplement and the cultural bridge these provided between lower and upper class society see Christopher N.C. Couch’s “The Yellow Kid and the Comics Page.” The Language of Comics: Word and Image. Eds. Robin Varnum and Christina T. Gibbons. Jackson: Mississippi UP, 2001.

[3] See also Seldes, Gilbert. The 7 Lively Arts. Sagamore: New York, 1957. Seldes writes that comics have long been “the most despised” form of art and, yet, one of “the most popular” (193).

[4] W.J.T. Mitchell discusses the concept of image/text—the co-occurring and mutually reinforcing dynamic between image and text—at length in Picture Theory. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1994. Mitchell’s argument that “[p]erspective is a figure for what we would call ideology—a historical, cultural formation that masquerades as a universal, natural code” (31) is especially important to understanding comics and the Yellow Kid’s rise within turn-of-the-century visual culture. Outcault’s work produces discourse via visual spectacle, essentially harmonizing rhetorics of social oppression through an entertainment form.

[5] See Oscar Lewis’ conceptualization of the “culture of poverty” in Five Families; Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty. New York: Basic Books, 1976. Lewis’ study controversially posits that negative value systems have an impact on the perpetuation of poverty across generations. Since its publications the “culture of poverty” argument has generated significant rebuttals and critiques of the structural causalities of poverty.

[6] Edwards, Alba M. and William C. Hunt. “Children in Gainful Occupations at the Fourteenth Census of the United State.” Department of Commerce Bureau of the Census. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1924. p. 11.

[7] As Painter suggests, many of the socioeconomic disruptions of the early 1890’s resulted from the Panic of 1893. The subsequent economic depression was further exacerbated by predatory industrial monopolies and a lack of labor protections.

[8] According to James Marten, infant mortality rates during the period were also exceedingly high and in excess of “12 percent of children died before their first birthday, and another 5.7 percent died before they reached the age of five” (9). During the period, new and expectant mothers of the impoverished and immigrant classes typically received scant pre-natal healthcare and generally lacked access to a nascent public health system. Such high rates of infant mortality correlated with income inequality and a general lack of resources.

[9] For scholarship addressing the ways visual art and pastoral painting helped forward turn-of-the-century beliefs about childhood innocence see Burns, Sarah. “Barefoot Boys and Other Country Children: Sentiment and Ideology in Nineteenth-Century American Art.” The American Art Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1 (1988), pp. 24-50. Burns, addressing the ways visual art presented the country youth as an idyll identifies the romanticization of the child as projecting “a false front which concealed, or refused to take account of, the social realities surrounding the largely urban or suburban audience toward which nostalgic literary and visual products were directed” (24). Burns views this culture work as “a strategy for social control, based on venerated traditions and beliefs” and that fantasized it “might help redeem civilization…from an awful fate” (48).

[10] In response to so many prevalent social issues, the Progressive Era saw dynamic reforms across a variety of social domains. Jane Adams’ work at Hull House and the founding of the National Child Labor Committee in 1904, for instance, focused squarely on the issue of child and family welfare, social issues that would remain at the forefront of public consciousness. Despite the uneven development of state and city ordinances, Progressive reformers championed an educated youth capable of becoming socially contributory citizens. A crucial step in mitigating youth labor abuses came in the Keating-Owen Act of 1916, which prohibited the interstate commerce of goods manufactured by youth (age fourteen was the limit on factory workers and age sixteen on mine laborers). However, the act was overturned by the Supreme Court’s decision in Hammer v. Dagenhart, 247 U.S. 251 (1918). It would not be until the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 that the federal government adopted national legislation to eliminate the abuses of children in industry.

[11] Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996. Riis’ interventions, along with photojournalists like John Tidwell and Lewis Hine, helped define public perceptions of poverty and social crisis in the turn-of-the-century United States. These photojournalists, like their Victorian forbearers John Thomson and Oscar Rejlander, helped legitimize the school of social photography as a platform whose visuality necessitated the encounter between subject and reader and engaged the public in arguments for social change. For more on photography and its representational strategies in the nineteenth-century see Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, MIT Press. 1992. and Tagg, John. The Burden of Representation: Essays of Photographies and Histories. Amherst: Massachusetts UP, 1988.

[12] Following Outcault’s departure from Pulitzer’s World in 1896 the duty of drawing the Yellow Kid fell to George Luks, who continued the series for the World while Outcault drew it for Hearst’s Journal, effectively creating two Yellow Kids. In time, the Kid’s penchant for fantastic adventure extended from imaginary play in the streets of New York to more global dimensions and Outcault, in his work for the New York Journal, developed a series titled “Around the World with the Yellow Kid” in which the Yellow Kid found himself adventuring via steam ships and hot air balloons through foreign lands like England, Italy, and Egypt. While the Yellow Kid was not invading foreign countries his exploits nonetheless appear to reflect the expansionist ethos of the period.

[13] Details of Yellow Kid theme-parties can be found in The Galveston Daily News. (Houston, Texas, Sunday, December 20, 1896; pg. 14; Issue 271. Also see Dumont, Frank. The Yellow Kid Who Lives in Hogan’s Alley: A Burlesque. New York: De Witt, 1897.

[14] In the years following the Yellow Kid, serial cartoons in the newspapers became all but a requisite feature in Sunday editions. Young and old readers alike welcomed the domestic comedies of Rudolph Dirks’ Katzenjammer Kids (1897), George McManus’ Brining Up Father (1913), and Sidney Smith’s The Gumps (1917). Titles like Frederick Burr Opper’s Happy Hooligan (1900) paved the way for the slapstick antics of Budd Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff (1907) and anthropomorphized characters like George Herriman’s Krazy Kat (1913). The comic form evolved in myriad ways over the course of the early twentieth-century and continued to reproduce figurations of the ragamuffin and child adventurer seen most notably in the surreal works of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumber Land (1905), as well as R.F. Outcault’s own Buster Brown (1902), and later in Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie (1924).

[15] Mary Wood’s web-based essay provides an insightful and thoroughgoing historical analysis of the Yellow Kid and his place in print culture. In discussing Outcault’s tendencies towards racialization and pickaninny caricatures, Wood writes that “[t]he African-American for Outcault is another tool in making a joke, not a real participant in the merrymaking. Outcault creates a world defined by class tensions in the city, but suggests that white working class readers still need someone to stand upon, uniting all white readers through the one thing they have in common” (np).

[16] Outcault’s Vaudeville stylization made use of a tumult of movement in many of his scenes and his manipulation of African American youth as minstrel-like characters no doubt helped to manufacture the link between his comic and the stage. For further discussions on Vaudeville entertainment see Robert W. Snyder’s The Voice of the City: Vaudeville and Popular Culture in New York. New York: Oxford UP, 1989. and Bernard Sobel’s A Pictorial History of Vaudeville. New York: Citadel Press, 1961.

[17] By the conclusion of the Spanish-American War in August 1898, the United States laid claim to Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. For further discussion on American expansionism in the Progressive Era see Gould, Lewis L. America in the Progressive Era. New York: Pearson, 2001., Kaplan, Amy. The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2002., and LaFeber, Walter. The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion 1860-1898. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1998.

[18] One such cartoon addressing Pulitzer’s and Hearst’s ongoing feud was drawn by Barritt, Leon. “War.” Vim. New York. Vol. 1, No. 2. 29 June 1898. Library of Congress. Loc. AP101.V55 1898 (Case X) [P&P]. In Barritt’s cartoon the two publishing magnates are ironically depicted as adult-children and garbed in yellow kid attire, vigorously shoving against giant child’s blocks that spell out the word “war.” For further reading on the life William Randolph Hearst and the life of Joseph Pulitzer, as well as the competition between the two see Ferdinand Lundberg’s Imperial Hearst: A Social Biography. New York: Equinox Press, 1936., W.A. Swanberg’s Citizen Hearst. New York: Scribner’s, 1961., George Juergens’ Joseph Pulitzer and the New York World. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1966., and W.A. Swanberg’s Pulitzer. New York: Scribner’s, 1967.

[19] “Recruiting Stations Busy: Besieged All Day By Would-Be Volunteers.” New York Times. April 27, 1898, p. 3.

[20] For more on the dimensions of sublimity and ideology see Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. New York: Verso, 2009.

[21] See Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. New York: Norton, 1989. Essentially, Freud posits that the joke often discloses a repressed desire or psychosocially censured issue. Jokes coordinate cultural understanding and align social groups through the joke’s supplementary function as it acknowledges the object of repression even while deferring its presence.

[22] According to data compiled by the National Center for Children in Poverty, as of 2016 roughly forty-one percent of U.S. children under the age of eighteen live in low-income families. Nineteen percent of that figure are classified as living in poverty. See Koball, Heather and Yang Jiang. “Basic Facts about Low-Income Children: Children under 18 Years, 2016.” National Center for Children in Poverty. Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health. January 2018. Also see Fontenot, Kayla, Jessica Semega, and Melissa Kollar. “Income and Poverty in the United States: 2017. United States Census Bureau. U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration Bureau. Sept. 2018.

[23] For further reading on the relationship between literary fiction and the sensational journalism of the period see Roggenkamp, Karen. Narrating the News: New Journalism and Literary-Genre in the Late Nineteenth-Century American Newspapers and Fiction. Kent: Kent State UP, 2005.

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—. “Moving Day in Hogan’s Alley.” New York World. May 3rd, 1896. Reproduced from the Billy Ireland Museum’s online digital archives at Ohio State University.

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