BY JENNIFER BOYD
FOR THE LORIS SCENE Jboyd73@outlook.com
The beloved Raggedy Ann doll has been woven into our childhoods and hearts for almost 100 years, and this iconic doll has been seen in print, cartoons, movies, and books all over the world. Although there were myths and controversies surrounding this American treasure, she still remains an important part of our culture to this very day.
John Barton Gruelle, better known as Johnny, was born in 1880 in Arcola, Ill. His father, R.B. Gruelle, was a member of the famous Hoosier Impressionists movement. At an early age, his father gifted Johnny with the love of drawing and the art of storytelling.
Although he admired the beauty of his father’s landscape paintings, he felt his talent was in cartooning. In 1901, he landed his first paying job at The People, a tabloid gossip newspaper in Indianapolis.
He fine-tuned his “chalk-plate” portraits, and in April 1902, he moved to the accredited Indianapolis Sun. While working at the newspaper, he moonlighted at the Detroit Peninsular Engraving Company.
In 1908, he won a national comic drawing contest, which lead to a job at the prestigious New York Herald. His “Mr. Twee Deedle” Sunday cartoon became a huge hit among all ages, which secured commissions from several monthly and weekly publications. “McCall’s,” “The Ladies’ World,” and “Physical Culture” were among the publications that opened their pages to his work.
A doll is born
While he and his young wife, Myrtle, were visiting his parents, he took a break from drawing to plunder for inspiration in the family’s attic. It was there he came across an old doll his mother had stitched together for his sister, who already had a family of her own. He gave the raggedy doll to his young daughter, Marcella, who asked her grandmother to stitch a face upon the blank canvas.
The Raggedy Ann doll was born. She lovingly gave the doll a triangle nose, brown hair, and button eyes. The old doll was immediately adopted into their family and became a best friend to his precious daughter.
He began drawing Raggedy Ann with a storyline, and in 1915, a patent and trademark was granted to market the doll. He watched Marcella play with her doll for hours, which became the inspiration for “The Tales of Raggedy Ann.”
Seeing the love his daughter had for the doll warmed his soul. Unfortunately, the two playmates would soon be separated by death, and a father would lose his muse.
The Gruelle family became outspoken adversaries of vaccine use in public schools. At the time, children and parents had no choice but to accept the series of shots, given to them during school hours, to prevent the small pox illness. Gruelle’s association with “Physical Culture” Magazine gave him the platform necessary to voice his opinion of vaccination, which was stern and unapologetic, to say the least.
Soon after his daughter’s 13th birthday, she was given the series of vaccines in school. She became ill from the shots that proved to be fatal. Alan R Yurko, CPPCC, Sc. of the Idaho Observer said, “Marcella’s death was not an immediate reaction. She died a very slow and subtle death. In the months after her unconsented inoculation, she became lethargic and lost her appetite. Marcella became feverish, fatigued and hypotonic [loss of muscle control] as her body and nervous system fought hard against the poisons forced into her bloodstream. At the end, she was as limp as a ragdoll.”
Her death sparked an outrage within the family and community. Gruelle was asked to comment on his feelings regarding her death in “Physical Culture” Magazine and he drew his famous cartoon of a monster holding a scale.
Under the satire, Gruelle printed, “Having recently lost our only daughter through vaccination (in public school, without our consent), you may realize how terribly HUMOROUS the subject of vaccination appears to Mrs. Gruelle and myself. Of the seven physicians called in on the case, six pronounced it in emphatic terms MALPRACICE. The seventh did not commit himself, being the head of the school board and a firm advocate of vaccination.”
In 1922, Gruella honored his daughter by marketing the doll with Marshall Field, and publishing “Raggedy Ann Stories” with P.F. Volland Company. Although her hair changed to a bright red, the doll kept its charm and whimsical design. He eventually added a brother to her story, named Raggedy Andy, which became a beloved storyline. He dedicated his life to making others smile.
He continued sketching for newspapers and magazines, including “Good Housekeeping,” “Cosmopolitan,” “Life,” and “College Humor” until his death in 1938. His characters, dolls, books, and comic strips will continue to be cherished all over the world. Although he and his family experienced the horrific death of their daughter, they turned the loss into a teachable moment in history.
Today, many people collect the Raggedy Ann doll. The logo has been placed on everything from plates to high chairs. Some of the early dolls have sold for more than $3,000, making it a highly sought-after antique.
Many parents are again questioning the use of vaccines and whether they harm or help children. Although Johnny Gruelle did not create the loving doll to be the poster child for non-vaccination, it will indelibly be remembered as being affiliated with the movement. He, on the other hand, will forever be known as “The Raggedy Ann Man.”