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It is the time of year where toys, books and games have just taken center stage. Characters like Elmo, Barbie and the Teenage Mutant Turtles have graced our circulars, television sets and store shelves since...well, September!
As we recover from the contestant multi-media stream of holiday ads and shopping, it’s an appropriate time to reflect on a preeminent cartoon figure of holidays past. Little Lulu, creation of Chester Countian Marjorie Henderson Buell, first debuted on the last page of the Saturday Evening Post on February 23, 1935. From that day on, Little Lulu became an enduring American icon.
Buell was born in Philadelphia in 1904 but her Chester County roots were deep. She grew up on her parents 60-acre farm in Malvern, attended what is now West Chester Friends Schooland graduated high school from Villa Maria Academy in Malvern.
Her commercial artistic career began at the age of ten, when she made and sold paper dolls to her friends for a penny a piece. The precocious youngster’s growing business expanded at age eleven, when she peddled her own line of Christmas cards to her playmates. By the young age of sixteen, her first published cartoon appeared in the Philadelphia Ledger.
Her career was quickly born. After attending the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Buell published her cartoons in a variety of national magazines, including Life, The Country Gentleman and Collier’s.Then living in Frazer, Buell married Bell Telephone Executive C. Addison Buell in 1936. Later records list her again as a resident of Malvern.
When Buell first introduced Lulu Moppet, or “Little Lulu” as we know her now, she was an instant hit.People loved the mischievous and endearing little girl with her unmistakable curly hair. Without captions, the cartoons playfully conveyed the wit of Little Lulu as she outsmarted her occasional boyfriend, Tubby, and his East Side Gang.For ten years, she graced the prized back page of the Saturday Evening Post.
When asked in a 1937 Saturday Evening Post interview if the character was based on her childhood, Buell responded “yes and no.”She “had the same corkscrew curls, pipe-stem legs and attitude towards life” but never got away with the pranks as Little Lulu did.“Justice,” she quipped, “always caught up with me.”
For decades, Buell owned the rights to Little Lulu and extended the little trickster’s career far beyond the Saturday Evening Post.Although Buell gave up drawing the character herself in 1947, Little Lulu appeared in games, books, clothing and had a long run in a Kleenex Ad campaign from 1944 to 1960.
After Buell sold the rights in the late 1960s, the Little Lulu comic book series appeared around the world in a variety of languages including Arabic, Japanese and Finnish. In the 1990s, you could even catch a glimpse of the impish character on HBO -- a modern rendition of the cartoon performed with Tracy Ullman’s voice.
In 1993, Buell died at the age of 88 in Elyria, Ohio. But today, Little Lulu’s legacy is not just about fun and games. Buell inspired a new generation of female comic book artists. Friends of Lulu was a non-profit organization that promoted cartoon readership and artistry among females. The group even hostedthe Women Cartoonists Hall of Fame and the Lulu of the Year award, a prize that honored the work of one comic who embodies the organization’s values. The organization folded in 2011.
With such astounding careers, the influence of both Buell and her Little Lulu live on in American popular culture. In fact, her legacy endures at the Chester County Historical Society, where several copies of her books are on exhibition.
Rob Lukens is president of the Chester County Historical Society. For information visit www.chestercohistorical.org.