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[Detail] Krazy Kat goes a-wooing. 1916.

Collection Overview

Origins of American Animation includes 21 animated films (and two film fragments) which span the years 1900 to 1921. The films include clay, puppet, and cut-out animation, as well as pen drawings. They show how early animated films were connected with newspaper comic strips such as Keeping Up With the Joneses, Krazy Kat and The Katzenjammer Kids. The collection shows the development of animation and reflects the attitudes of early twentieth-century America.

Special Features

These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection, although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930

Related Collections and Exhibits

These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection.

Search for animated films using the keyword search, or by selecting from the Subject Index, Alphabetical Title List or Chronological Title List.

For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.

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U.S. History

The films in Origins of American Animation provide an opportunity to examine a number of historic events in the early-twentieth century. Topics range from U.S. involvement in World War I and Prohibition to cultural phenomenon such as consumer culture and the relationship between vaudeville and the motion picture industry.

1) World War I

When Germany and Great Britain entered into a war in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson announced that the United States would remain neutral. Investments with the English and strained diplomatic ties with the Germans, however, prompted the U.S. to declare war against Germany on April 2, 1917. Two propaganda films from the following year reflect the different roles of the U.S. in the European conflict.

An advertisement for war saving stamps, W.S.S. Thriftettes (ca. 1918), features a funeral procession for the German Kaiser while imploring the audience to "Save and buy" war stamps and "Hurry the end of the war." Meanwhile, AWOL-All Wrong Old Laddiebuck (1918), points out that military actions don't officially end with the restoration of peace.

AWOL-All Wrong Old Laddiebuck features a troop of U.S. soldiers ready to return home after Germany's surrender in November 1918. One impatient soldier declares that everyone should have been discharged "the minute the armistice was signed."

His colleagues, however, counter that they're obligated to remain on base until they are instructed to leave. The first soldier refuses to wait for his superiors and heads off base without permission. He meets up with a woman known as "MISS AWOL" and rides with her, wreaking havoc across the countryside.

After a series of mishaps, including an appearance in a local court, the soldier returns to camp. The rest of his battalion, however, turn their backs on the deserter. The soldier is then imprisoned while everyone else celebrates their return home by jumping and leapfrogging on their way out. As the soldier angrily shakes the bar of his jail cell, the bars form the ominous letters, "AWOL."

  • According to these films, how can U.S. civilians and soldiers contribute to the war effort?
  • What do you think is the difference in these contributions?
  • What do you think is the role of the federal government in both of these efforts?
  • How does W.S.S. Thriftettes compare to print ads for War Savings Stamps such as "Size Up Your Savings" and "The Circus Poster"?
  • What do you think is the effect of the fact that AWOL-All Wrong Old Laddiebuck never actually defined the term, AWOL, as "absent without leave"?
  • What message would this film have for civilian audiences?
  • Why do you think that it was important for soldiers to remain on base even after the end of the war?

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2) Consumer Culture

Late-nineteenth-century industrialization created a culture of high consumption and low self-esteem. Advertisers regularly marketed products on their ability to improve the consumer's social standing and cultural worth. Successful ad campaigns often increased a product's demand and kept the consumer prepared to buy into the next new trend.

"Pop" Mormand satirized this consumer culture in his comic strip, "Keeping Up With the Joneses," a chronicle of Ma and Pa McGinnis's quest to become as refined as their neighbors. Harry Palmer later adapted the strip in a series of animated cartoons, represented in this collection with two related films.

Men's Styles (1915) begins with Pa McGinnis spotting an ad for an exclusive hat in a men's fashion magazine. Pa travels to a store featuring "The Latest London Lid" and declares, "To keep up with the Joneses, I gotta have one of them new kellys."

Ma McGinnis later teases her husband about his purchase. Pa, however, dismisses her insults as proof that "women folks don't appreciate art in millinery." He places the hat under his bed and awakes to find that a cat used it to give birth to a litter of kittens. The final intertitle declares, "The latest in hats is the latest in cats."

The companion piece, Women's Styles (1915), focuses on the female fashion sense. Pa criticizes his daughter for wearing trendy, revealing, "hyphenated dresses." He turns to his cook and wife for support but discovers that both women have embraced "this reckless display of limb." The film ends when Pa buys extremely dark glasses to protect himself from seeing the disturbing fashion trend.

  • Why do you think that fashion is the means for "keeping up with the Joneses"?
  • How does each family member do their part to "keep up"?
  • What do you think are the implications if a family does not "keep up"?
  • Why do you think that Ma disparages Pa's new hat?
  • Why do you think that Pa is disturbed by the new dress styles?
  • What do you think that these responses imply about the affect of advertising on both the individual and society?

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3) Vaudeville

Vaudeville entertained middle-class audiences throughout the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries by offering a variety of entertainers on a single stage. Actors, comedians, singers, dancers, musicians, athletes, and other performers presented a series of attractions on any given night. Motion pictures arrived in the vaudeville theatres in 1896 and quickly became the biggest draw on the bill. Two films in this collection demonstrate how new animation techniques could extend traditional vaudeville magic performances.

The Enchanted Drawing (1900) features an illustrator sketching a man's face, a wine glass, a bottle of wine, and a cigarette on a large pad of paper. Trick photography allows the artist to remove each object from the page, use it, and return it to the page.

The face in the drawing responds to every trick--either becoming upset when items are removed from the page or becoming happy when he can enjoy the alcohol and cigarettes on the page.

Fun in a Bakery Shop (1902), on the other hand, presents a similar premise within a larger sketch. A baker enters the scene and throws a lump of dough at a scurrying rodent. The dough sticks to a barrel and the baker becomes a sculptor through trick photography, using the dough to fluidly create a series of funny faces. When the baker completes the caricatured image of an Irishman, his colleagues start to laugh and then throw him headfirst into a barrel of flour.

  • What do you think is the role of slapstick comedy in these films?
  • How do these films compare to other comic vaudeville sketches represented in the American Memory collection, American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment 1870-1920?
  • Why do you think that both films rely on trick photography?
  • How do you think that audiences might have responded to these films?
  • Why do you think that movie theaters ultimately replaced vaudeville theaters?
  • What other conventions of film and early animation might have come out of the vaudeville tradition?

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4) Prohibition

The temperance movement gained momentum as a religious and political cause in the late-nineteenth century. Efforts to prohibit the sale and consumption of alcohol within local communities ultimately led to a national ban in October 1919 with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment of the Constitution. The U.S. officially remained "dry" throughout the 1920s, but prohibition also increased crime with the continued sale and distribution of alcohol through bootleggers and speakeasies (illegal saloons). U.S. Treasury agents often confiscated alcohol and fined and imprisoned offenders but their actions accounted for little more than a drop in the bucket. The Eighteenth Amendment was finally repealed in 1933.

An untitled film from Tony Sarg's Almanac (currently identified in the collection as the first part of The First Circus) critiques Prohibition through a satirical reference to Charles Darwin's Descent of Man. The introduction explains, "Forty five years ago today Charles Darwin wrote his book 'Descent of Man' from Monkey. . . . At the same time he unknowingly discovered the original Prohibition Agent."

The film features two monkeys discovering and sharing a bottle of liquor. When a larger monkey chases them away and drinks the rest of the bottle, the original monkeys cry over their loss.

  • Sarg's cartoon appeared four years before the 1925 "Scopes Monkey Trial" in which teacher John Scopes was found guilty of teaching the theory of evolution--an idea that allegedly disputed the notion of creationism. Why do you think that Sarg chose to use Charles Darwin's Descent of Man to critique prohibition?
  • What does the film suggest about groups such as the temperance movement attempting to influence social behavior through political and legal means?
  • What is suggested by the conclusion of the film, in which the larger ape drinks the monkey's alcohol?
  • How might the excitable illustration in The Enchanted Drawing and the drunken rabbit in Mary and Gretel relate to Prohibition?
  • How does this cartoon compare to songs about prohibition in the American Memory collection, California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties?

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Critical Thinking

Man's hand drawing on paper with pencil.

The artist's hand in Men's Styles (1915).

Man drawing on paper on easel.

The artist in The Enchanted Drawing (1900).

Origins of American Animation offers a variety of ways to examine the early days of films and its relationship with popular culture. The films in this collection can be used to trace the development of animation during the early-twentieth century and to understand its roots in comic strips. Other animated motion pictures provide an opportunity to assess the role of consumerism in the United States and to analyze the depiction of ethnicity in popular culture.

Chronological Thinking Skills

Pioneers of early animation were required to create thousands of separate line drawings to complete a one-reel film. Between 1914 and 1920, however, technological advances simplified the animation process and yielded economic stability and artistic growth for animators. This collection's Chronological Title List can be used to examine the development of animation in the early-twentieth century.

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Historic Comprehension: Comic Strips to Cartoons

A cat in a hat and a mouse standing in a clearing surrounded by trees.

The audience reads Krazy Kat's dialogue in Krazy Kat, Bugologist.

Some early animated characters made the leap from the newspaper comics page to the movie screen. Rudolph Dirks started chronicling the adventures of twins Hans and Fritz in The Katzenjammer Kids for the New York Journal in 1897. The series was first adapted for the stage in 1903 and spawned a number of plays and cartoons throughout the years. Policy and Pie (1918) features the pranks of the Katzenjammer Kids. After their surrogate father, the Captain, buys a life insurance policy and lists their mother as a beneficiary, Hans and Fritz put toads in their mother's freshly baked pie to make the Captain think that she's trying to poison him.

Two other comic strips represented in this collection started in newspapers in 1913. Arthur "Pop" Momand's comic strip, Keeping Up With the Joneses, was the basis for the 1915 satires Men's Styles and Women's Styles. Like the comic strip, these films focused on the McGinnis clan's continuing efforts to adhere to new cultural trends.

George Herriman's Krazy Kat, on the other hand, chronicled the odd adventures of the title cat and its amorous admirer, Ignatz Mouse. The films in this collection, Krazy Kat Goes A-wooing, Krazy Kat, Bugologist, and Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse (all from 1916) offer three of the duo's adventures.

The same year that the Krazy Kat films reached the screen, Tom Powers's "Phable" series also transformed itself into an animated series. The difference, however, was that films such as The Phable of a Busted Romance, The Phable of the Phat Woman, and Never Again! The Story of a Speeder Cop didn't feature common main characters. One of the few recurring elements in the pieces were personifications of emotions such as "Joy" and "Gloom."

  • Why do you think that comic strips developed into animated cartoons?
  • How did the narrative and stylistic elements of comic strips translate into animated cartoons?
  • How do you think that these cartoons changed or expanded the comic-strip characters?
  • Do you think that both forms of media targeted the same audience? Why or why not?
  • Can you think of any contemporary cartoons that originated in comic strips?
  • Why do you think that comic strip characters later become animated?
  • How did early animation reflect conventions of comic strips?

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Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Animating the Prehistoric

In 1858, the first nearly-complete dinosaur skeleton was excavated from a pit in Haddonfield, New Jersey. The project became the basis for the founding of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and sparked an interest in dinosaurs and fossil hunting. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution appeared a year later in his book, On the Origin of Species. The notion of "survival of the fittest" and a prehistoric populace including dinosaurs became familiar features of popular culture in subsequent decades.

One dinosaur surrounded by other dinosaurs.

Gertie dreams of dinosaurs in Gertie on Tour.

Winsor McCay introduced the first dinosaur to the vaudeville stage in 1914. Gertie, an animated dinosaur projected on a screen behind her creator, responded to McCay's whip cracks and commands and allowed him to climb her back for the finale. A print of the live-action and animated sequences circulated in vaudeville theaters and Gertie quickly became a national sensation. This collection contains an excerpt from McCay's 1921 animated sequel, Gertie on Tour, in which the playful dinosaur temporarily derails a train before dreaming "of other days when she was the life of the party" with her dinosaur friends.

Other animators kept their dinosaurs in a prehistoric age but that didn't stop them from commenting upon contemporary culture. Willis O'Brien's The Dinosaur and the Missing Link, A Prehistoric Tragedy (1917) presented a tale of three stone-age suitors competing for the affections of Miss Araminta Rockface. The stone-age story contains plenty of modern references such as a character bringing a bouquet of cactus and Ms. Rockface requesting, "Won't you come into the drawing room? I should offer you tea, but tea has unfortunately not yet been discovered."

Theophilus Ivoryhead ultimately wins out over his rivals after it appears that he killed Wild Willie, the Missing Link. An irate dinosaur, however, caused Willie's untimely extinction after the dim ape mistook the lizard's tail for an edible snake. The prehistoric humans fare slightly better with animals that outwit, but never really hurt them.

A performer balancing on a dinosaur's head and tail before an audience, stonehenge in the background.

A dinosaur performs near Stonehenge in The First Circus.

Tony Sarg offered a different take on the relationship between prehistoric man and their animal counterparts in The First Circus (1921). The film's intertitle announces, "In 1871 P.T. Barnum started his now world famous circus . . . . But he was small potatoes compared to Stonehenge Circus 30,009 years ago." An audience looks on as anachronistic acrobats wielding sticks use a dinosaur for a trampoline and a tightrope.

Four years after Sarg's films, the famous Scopes trial tested the theory of evolution in a Dayton, Tennessee courtroom. Biology teacher John Thomas Scopes was ultimately convicted of teaching the theory of evolution in a Tennessee high school and fined $100. Both evolutionists and fundamentalists claimed the case as a victory for their side.

  • Why do you think that Gertie's 1914 debut on the vaudeville stage was so popular?
  • Why do you think that animators were interested in depicting dinosaurs? What advantages did the medium offer?
  • What is the significance of Gertie's dreams of being around other dinosaurs in the sequel?
  • How do these different films depict the relationship between prehistoric humans and animals? Why do you think that this relationship might have been a resonant topic?
  • What is the significance of the fact that Wild Willie, the Missing Link, is killed in The Dinosaur and the Missing Link . . .?
  • Fifteen years after creating Wild Willie, O'Brien created one of the most famous early-movie monsters, King Kong. How does the great ape of the motion picture compare to the prior primate?
  • What is the purpose of combining elements of the prehistoric with elements of contemporary culture?

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Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making: Ethnicity in Animated Films

Media often reflects and influences the culture in which it appears. Political cartoons and animated films in particular, rely upon common stereotypes and caricatures to convey an idea in a limited amount of space. A number of films in this collection depict various classes and ethnicities in different lights. Please note that when viewing these works, it is important to keep in mind the cultural climate in which these films first appeared.

The Katzenjammer Kids film, Policy and Pie (1918), focuses on the adventures of a German-immigrant family while a caricature of an Irishman appears at the end of the film, Fun in a Bakery Shop (1902). The Irish are also represented in the film, The Phable of a Busted Romance (1916), when a workman named Dennis O'Shay returns a purse to its wealthy owner. He imagines possible rewards before receiving a Canadian dime for his effort.

A white and black boy standing in front of a barn.

Bobby Bump and his black companion in Bobby Bump Starts a Lodge.

The collection's only representation of African Americans occurs in Bobby Bump Starts a Lodge (1916). Bobby offers to initiate his black friend into a club but sets him up for a goat to hit him from behind. The boy turns around to stop what he thinks will be a paddle and butts heads with the goat--only to knock the goat unconscious. Bobby chases his friend into the woods until they run into a bear. The black child saves Bobby after he promises to let him into the lodge. The boys plan to be initiated into their lodge by submitting to being hit by the goat. When the goat approaches them, however, both children jump out of the way.

  • What do you think that Bobby Bump Starts a Lodge (1916) implies about race relations in the early-twentieth century? What does the film imply about exclusive clubs?
  • What is the significance of the animator's use of children to discuss race relations at a time when the segregation of African Americans was still in effect? Do you think that social expectations (and segregation) were different for children and adults?
  • How do the films featuring German Americans and Irish Americans reflect the social standing of these ethnic groups in the early-twentieth century?
  • What do you think is the tone and intent of these depictions?
  • How do you think that audiences might have responded to these depictions?
  • Why might social and racial tensions have been such a popular topic for humor?

Research Capabilities: Tony Sarg

A search on Tony Sarg in American Memory produces a backstage photograph of Tony Sarg's Marionettes and a program for the troupe's production of a play about "Christopher Columbus."

These materials can serve as a catalyst to research the biography of this talented puppeteer and animator in order to better under the development of his work represented in this collection in Tony Sarg's Almanac.

  • Why do you think that Sarg became involved in film-making?
  • How do you think that Sarg's work with marionettes influenced his animation style?
  • Did Sarg work in any other media?

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Arts & Humanities

The films in Origins of American Animation allow an opportunity to examine a variety of elements that go into the creative process of developing and interpreting animated motion pictures. This collection can provide the basis for discussions on the visual personification of emotions and imagination and can serve as a guide for developing and illustrating original comic strips and animated films.

Personification: Joy and Gloom

Line drawing of woman in skirt hitting man over the head with stick.

A joyful female figure hits gloom over the head in The Phable of the Phat Woman (1916).

Line drawing of man in car firing gun at a hot-air baloon that says "JOY" on it.

A plane of Gloom shoots down a Joy balloon in Never Again! The Story of a Speeder Cop (1916).

It is perhaps due to the time, spacial, and stylistic constraints of comic strips and animation, that such pieces rely heavily upon visual symbolism. Two films by Raoul Barre (based on Tom Peters' "Phable" comic strip) use personification to depict the struggle between two emotions, joy and gloom, furthering the plots of the films. The Phable of the Phat Woman (1916) features a woman trying to lose weight. The smiling female figures of joy engage in a series of slapstick moments with the hunched-over, bearded male figures of gloom at each step of the woman's efforts exercising, dieting, etc.). On two occasions, the gloom figures actually run into the joy figures with a car.

This motif continues in Never Again! The Story of a Speeder Cop (1916), the tale of a police officer trying to stop speeders along a road. As cars rush by the bewildered cop, joy and gloom attack each other in a car, a hot-air balloon, and an airplane. When the officer finally quits the force because he is worn out by the experience, three figures of gloom follow him into the precinct and pile on top of one another as he turns in his badge.

Joy and gloom are also represented in slightly different incarnations throughout AWOL-All Wrong Old Laddiebuck (1918). When a soldier refuses to stay on his base, "Miss AWOL" arrives for him in a car with the word, "Joy," written on its door. The couple travels across the countryside and, after a series of mishaps, they're arrested and taken to Judge Gloom's court. The offense, the police officer reports, is "Joy riding."

  • What do you think is the purpose of illustrating a physical conflict between joy and gloom?
  • Why do you think that these emotions are appropriate for each of these situations?
  • Why do you think that these emotions often appear driving automobiles and running into things?
  • Can you think of any other emotions that could be personified in these animated films?
  • How are these types of emotions represented in other visual media (painting, photographs, live-action film)?
  • How do these representations compare with animated cartoons?
  • Are there personifications of emotion in an contemporary cartoons?

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Morality Tales

Cartoons have the ability to entertain and influence a young audience. Two films in this collection from Wallace Carlson's "Dud" series attempt to use humor and gentle scares to demonstrate how children should behave.

Boy smoking cigaretter with dog.

Dud smokes a pipe in He Resolves Not to Smoke.

In, He Resolves Not to Smoke (1915), Dud becomes fascinated with smoking and blowing smoke rings and he steals a man's pipe to try this himself. The smoke from the pipe transforms into a ghost that carries him into the sky and leaves him on the moon. Dud falls off the moon and wakes up on the floor of his room but his dream is frightful enough to make him declare, "Jimminy crickets . . . but that uz an awful one! I ain't never goin' to smoke. I ain't."

Dud Leaves Home (1919) features imaginary ghosts in a different setting. The young boy runs away from home after his mother punishes him for breaking her bank to buy his girlfriend an ice cream. Dud reconsiders his plans, however, when ghosts visit him at night. He becomes so scared that he runs home and winds up receiving a spanking from his mother.

  • Why do you think that Dud is scared into making a decision in both films?
  • Is Dud in any real danger in either film?
  • How do you think that children might respond to these stories? Do you think that they might think about the consequences of smoking or stealing any differently after seeing these films?
  • Do you think that there are any similarities between the ghosts of the "Dud" series and "Joy" and "Gloom" in Raoul Barre's "Phables"?
  • What do you think is the role of each non-human entity in these films?
  • How do these films compare to the 1904 "Buster Brown Series" (from the American Memory collection, Inventing Entertainment) about a mischievous boy and his dog?
  • Use the characters of Dud and his ghosts to write a new cautionary tale for children.

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Representation in Animation: Fantasy and Feelings

Animated films are an ideal medium for representing the farthest reaches of the imagination. An illustrator can present whatever he or she sees in the mind's eye without relying on special effects or trick photography. This collection features a number of characters that primarily dwell in the realms of fantasy.

Two centaurs holding hands in a clearing amidst trees.

Lovers horsing around in The Centaurs.

Browse the Subject Index of this collection to examine familiar themes such as courage, dreams, love, and success.Talking animals in Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse and Bobby Bump Starts a Lodge, romancing creatures such as the half-human, half-horse characters of The Centaurs, and the stone-age suitors in The Dinosaur and the Missing Link. . . . all sprang to life from an illustrator's pen. Even when these films don't feature humans, however, they attempt to speak about the human condition.

  • Why do you think that animators often employ animal and fantasy figures within their stories?
  • What does the use of fantastic creatures and settings allow a storyteller to do?
  • What do you think is the underlying tone of the films in this collection?
  • How are an audience's expectations and reactions different when offered a fantastic story instead of a realistic one?
  • What are the advantages of discussing the human condition through fantastic stories?
  • Do you think that animation is as effective a medium for conveying emotion as is live-action film?
  • Do you think that contemporary animated films are different from these early examples? If so, how and why?

Creating Comic Strips and Flip Books

Select an animated film in this collection that originated on the comics page (for example, the "Katzenjammer," "Phable," and "Keeping Up With the Joneses" series). Break down the plot of the cartoon and recreate it in a five-to-six panel comic strip, making sure that it stays true to the original premise. (This is similar to "reverse engineering" a machine by taking it apart to see how it works.)

  • What is the tone of the story (humorous, dramatic, etc.)?
  • How do you think that the tone of the story is reflected in the illustrations?
  • What do you think are the essential actions of the story that should appear within the panels of the comic strip? (In other words, how do you get from point A to point B in five steps or less?)

Create a five-to-six-panel comic strip, featuring original characters and a unique storyline. Select one major action or scene from this comic strip to try some original animation in a flip book. A flip book can be a book of sketch pages or a stack of paper on which a single image is slightly altered to convey a sense of motion when presented, or "flipped," in order. Keep the following questions in mind throughout this project.

  • How does the story of a comic strip change when additional images are added to animate it?
  • What does the extra time that is added through this process allow for the story that would not otherwise be possible?
  • What are the differences between turning a comic strip into an animated film and into a live-action film?
  • How do these films compare to comic strips or comic books that are adapted from films?
  • What do you think are the differences in these media and how should these differences be accounted for in the development of a story?

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