From Blondie to Cathy, with stops along the way for everything from Miss Lace to Torchy Brown, newspaper funny pages are rife with female protagonists. Lady Bountiful, created by cartoonist Gene Carr (Just Humans, The Baxter Beasleys), has been cited by many comics historians and …
commentators as the very first. Maybe she is. It’s certainly difficult to think of any that were in print before her 1902 debut.
Tho it’s no longer in such widespread use in America, the term “Lady Bountiful” had a good deal of meaning to Americans at the time. She’d been a prominent character in the play The Beaux’ Stratagem, by George Farquhar, first performed in 1707. Her name survived as the exemplar of a well-to-do woman who devotes a good portion of her assets to the betterment of her less fortunate neighbors. Carr’s Lady Bountiful, an independently-minded woman of means, was true to her name. She would, among other things, befriend an endless succession of street urchins and try (with varying success) to lift them into a state of gentility comparable to her own, complete with soft-spoken respect, gentle ways and, of course, good manners.
Lady Bountiful first appeared as a filler in the Sunday comics section of William Randolph Hearst’s papers, in episodes about the same size and shape as the later daily strips. In 1903, as part of the continual talent raids between Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, Carr was hired away and Lady Bountiful started appearing in The New York World instead. It may be that she wasn’t important enough to sue over, as Hogan’s Alley had been and as Buster Brown soon would be. But before long, she was appearing in full pages in The World’s funnies section, Funnyside, in addition to being used as a filler. On May 3, 1903, she was on Funnyside’s cover.
The lady quickly transcended her newspaper origins. As early as 1902, Hearst published “Lady Bountiful” sheet music as newspaper supplements, with Carr’s artwork on the cover. Lillian Russell, among the most famous entertainers of the time, based a vaudeville skit on her. She appeared in the movies, at least in a silent comedy short, as early as 1903, but the names of the actors haven’t survived. She also appeared in a reprint volume in 1917.
This incarnation of Lady Bountiful’s series ended in 1905. But she continued appearing in Carr’s other strips, such as Winsome Willie and The Stepbrothers, which created a good deal of public interest in the character. On Feb. 28, 1915, she was back in a series of her own, which lasted until 1919. On November 28, 1926, The Philadelphia Ledger’s syndicate (War on Crime, Hairbreadth Harry) brought her back for one last go-round.
That one ended in 1929. After that, America was caught in the throes of the Great Depression, and the public could no longer work up much interest in kind, well-to-do people who act like they haven’t a care in the world.
62 strips various