How Philly's 'Marge' Buell - and 'Little Lulu' - paved the way for female cartoonists

Photos – user-contributed – Marge+286
Marjorie Henderson Buell, with a Little Lulu doll, posing in 1939 for the Philadelphia Record.

Comics and cartoons have played a pivotal role in shaping culture and influencing public opinion, and Philadelphia’s foundational role in the history of U.S. cartooning is beyond dispute. Some academics credit Benjamin Franklin for the very first print political cartoon: the iconic “Join or Die” snake that first appeared in the May 9, 1754, issue of Franklin’s Philly-based Pennsylvania Gazette.

Another Philadelphia cartoonist — born 150 years after the debut of Franklin’s cartoon — spent her life breaking barriers in the male-dominated U.S. cartooning industry, demonstrating women’s equal capacity for crafting engaging comics.

Marjorie Henderson Buell (best known by her pen name, “Marge”) was born in Philadelphia in 1904. Marge broke ground as the first widely acclaimed female cartoonist while maintaining creative oversight of her work. In an industry filled with external influences and pressures, this was no small task, and her autonomy facilitated the creation of a business empire through which she profited immensely.

Both Marge’s artistic acumen and entrepreneurial spirit emerged early in her life. She began drawing original cartoons in her early teens. As a schoolgirl, she sold individually crafted paper dolls as well as Christmas cards. Her entry into publishing came early when the Philadelphia Ledger printed one of her cartoons in 1920. She was 16.

Eschewing higher education for a career as a cartoonist right after high school, Marge achieved enormous commercial success throughout her 20s. Audiences loved her brand of humor, enjoying her single-panel cartoons, which appeared regularly in publications such as Collier’s, Life, and the Saturday Evening Post.

Her first syndicated strip, The Boy Friend, debuted in 1925 and ran for two years. The most high-profile and long-lasting creation of her career, however, emerged 10 years later. Little Lulu first graced the pages of the Saturday Evening Post on Feb. 23, 1935 (six years before Wonder Woman made her first appearance defeating evil-doers alongside her fictional male counterparts).

Replacing Carl Anderson’s recurring character Henry in the Post, Little Lulu attracted legions of fans as the magazine’s most recognizable cartoon. Lulu’s embodiment of children’s logic manifesting in absurd scenarios captured the humorous potential of syndicated comic strips.

After a nine-year run publishing Little Lulu in the Post, Marge took her character on to even greater fame in 1944. Lulu appeared in her own comic books and in films produced by Paramount. She also became the face of major marketing campaigns, most notably for the Kleenex brand.

Marge had mostly given up drawing Lulu by 1947, with art duties for the comic series taken up by the talented John Stanley. She retained creative control for decades, however, earning a fortune from the character’s frequent depiction in television shows and in merchandising.

In the early 1970s, Marge retired, selling the rights to Little Lulu to Western Publishing. Having lived for much of her professional life in Malvern, Marge eventually moved to Ohio with her family, where she passed away in 1993 from lymphoma.

Patrick Glennon is a communications officer at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

On May 17, HSP will honor historian Jill Lepore of Harvard University with the Founder’s award. The society will recognize Lepore’s enormous contribution to the history of women’s rights with her book “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” which positions the groundbreaking comic superhero within the larger historical context of gender relations in U.S. society. The Founder’s award, begun for HSP’s 175th anniversary celebration, recognizes individuals for exemplary work that enriches the historical record and advocates for the utility of historical pursuits.