Another Other Half: A Look at Michael Angelo Woolf and His “Waifs” (Part 1 of 2)

By Martin Lund

“The father of the modern comic picture -- the man who woke the laughter of a generation [...]
-- died at 1 o’clock yesterday morning,” the New York Times declared on March 5, 1899.[1] The deceased was Michael Angelo Woolf, a now largely-forgotten cartoonist who in his own time, as the obituary’s epithets for him suggest, was both well-known and well-liked. Born in London in 1837, Woolf moved to America at a young age and first pursued an acting career in Philadelphia. At the close of the Civil War, he turned his efforts instead to art and went to France for instruction. After returning to America, and beginning in the magazine Wild Oats in the 1870s, Woolf would focus much of his career in cartooning on drawing his then-famous illustrations of “waifs,” a character type that was inspired by New York City street urchins. Returning to the life of the city’s poor time and time again, in a career that spanned some thirty-odd years, Woolf, a generally liberal and sometimes conservative cartoonist, opened up a world of which many of Harper’s Weekly, Judge, and LIFE’s middle class readers had little first-hand knowledge.[2]

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Woolf in His Own Time

For all the praise that the anonymous obituarist lavished on Woolf by describing him as the “father of the modern comic picture,” he was neither the first cartoonist nor the most influential one in American history to that point, nor even at the time of his death.[3] It is more common to see that last honor go to Thomas Nast, one of Woolf’s contemporaries and a sometime colleague; in the obituarist’s words, Woolf was “Nast’s lieutenant in the latter’s famous crusades”.[4] Nast is perhaps most famous as the originator of the elephant and popularizer of the donkey that still represent the major American parties, or as the “scourge of Tammany Hall,” the corrupt Democratic Party machine in New York City. One of Nast’s biggest claims to fame is that a series of his cartoons, critical of the corrupt Tammany Boss Tweed and his cohorts, caused so much damage to their image that Tweed is claimed to have said: “I don’t care much what the papers write about me–my constituents can’t read! But–dammit–they can see pictures!” Once New Yorkers became fed up with Tweed, and the Boss fled the country in 1873, it was one of Nast’s drawings that ultimately brought Tweed down; the image that helped Spanish authorities identify the fugitive was a Nast cartoon.[5] Woolf, then, was clearly in Nast’s shadow, by virtue both of being less popular and influential, and for introducing fewer notable and lasting motifs into the American cartoonist vocabulary. There might be one exception to this, as will be seen when we get to Woolf’s “waifs,” but for now it is more important to focus on where Woolf was in line with the times.

In much of his work, Woolf expressed opinions similar to Nast’s, especially in his Harper’s work. Like Nast, Woolf produced anti-Tammany work, as for example in a cartoon that showed two men wearing headdresses captioned “Sachem” and looking at a starving “Tammany Tiger” (another symbol popularized by Nast). The Woolf-in-Nast’s-shadow-metaphor can be extended, when one looks to the March 21, 1874, issue of Harper’s. The issue features a full-page temperance cartoon by Nast, depicting a skeletal bartender serving a drink to a negligent father, while the patron's children and wife – weeping, and in widow’s garb – come to try and take him home. The image expresses a theme propounded by the temperance group the Women’s Crusade, that “the male bastion of the saloon takes men away from their families.”[6] Nast’s illustration was followed on the next page by another temperance cartoon, by Woolf, titled “The Social Juggernaut.” The picture shows an emaciated and hooded figure riding an alcohol bottle with liquor-glass wheels, crushing people underfoot as it moves, and pulled by the dogs of Ruin, Despair, and Famine. The alcoholic chariot is accompanied by two other frightening figures, one with snakes writhing across her body and another, with a glass and knife in either hand, a noose around his neck, and the word “murder” written across his forehead. This theme of alcoholic ruin follows the same exaggerated temperance template as Nast, and the anthropomorphic style is remarkably similar to Nast’s and, for example, to Udo Keppler’s 1901 “The tenement – a menace to all,” in which drinking, crime, prostitution, and opium are personified, and spreading out from a tenement into the city.

Michael Angelo Woolf, “The Social Juggernaut.” Harper’s Weekly, March 21, 1874.

Michael Angelo Woolf, “The Social Juggernaut.” Harper’s Weekly, March 21, 1874.

In both the temperance movement and in the later era of progressive slum reform attempts, proponents used both moral suasion and lobbying in their struggles to bring about change, either in problem drinkers or in New York City housing policy.[7] In images such as the ones discussed in this piece, cartoonists with similar ideas and aims focused on the moral suasion aspect, and took contemporary cultural concerns, distilled them into essences, and reflected them back to their readers in terms that were designed to have the highest possible impact. This is an example of what cartoonist and comics and cartooning theorist Scott McCloud calls “amplification through simplification,” a process in which images are reduced to specific aspects so as to be more intense and broader in their invitation of reader identification and engagement. Such amplification is particularly conductive to the production or dissemination of ideological meaning.[8]

As was the case with Nast and many others at Harper’s, Woolf also harbored special prejudice for the Irish and Catholics, as is shown for example in his January 8, 1875 Harper’s cartoon. There, in repetition of popular anti-Catholic sentiment, Woolf has the Pope respond to a placard that trumpets “Compulsory Education to Take Effect Immediately” by saying: “That’s a bad look-out. If they put a stop to Ignorance what is to become of me?”[9] A similar cartoon was published on October 30, 1880, in which Woolf instead of Catholicism took aim at the Democratic Party. Playing on common stereotypes and punning on the Democratic vice-presidential candidate William English, the picture represents the “Exultant Tammanyite” as an Irishman, clearly poor and speaking with a brogue, and represents him as the ordinary Democratic voter, now associated with Tammany.[10] Again, amplification of certain traits (real or perceived) leads, through simplification, to an ideological message.

Michael Angelo Woolf, "Reading the latests news from New York." Harper’s Weekly, January 9, 1875.

Michael Angelo Woolf, "Reading the latests news from New York." Harper’s Weekly, January 9, 1875.

Michael Angelo Woolf, "Exultant Tammanyite." Harper’s Weekly October 30, 1880.

Michael Angelo Woolf, "Exultant Tammanyite." Harper’s Weekly October 30, 1880.

Historian Robert C. Kennedy writes that“Harper’s Weekly consistently condemned the discrimination and violence manifested in the United States against black Americans, American Indians, and Chinese-Americans,” and that the gall its mostly Protestant and Republican contributors showed Irish-Catholics was an exception.[11] But it must be noted that, for all the positive sentiment and ambition that Woolf, Nast, and the others may have harbored, there were many instances where stereotyping took the upper hand and where a naturalized hierarchy of racial relations, with Irish-Catholics at the bottom, was clearly evident. In their work, they created racial caricatures that would have long-lasting effects across the nation.[12]

Michael Angelo Woolf, “The Silver Lining to an Opium Cloud.” Puck, August 12, 1885.

Michael Angelo Woolf, “The Silver Lining to an Opium Cloud.” Puck, August 12, 1885.

To give an example from Woolf’s oeuvre, his August 12, 1885, Puck cartoon, “The silver lining of an opium cloud,” presents Chinese-Americans along then-common lines, focusing on opium smoking as a cause of and refuge from urban problems, and does so by adhering to representational patterns that cast Asians as subhuman.[13] (Note particularly the wife’s left hand, which resembles a claw and foreshadows the vehemently racist depictions of Japanese, who, instead of the Chinese, would become the primary target of American anti-Asian racism around the time of the Second World War, and who would be subject to especially disgusting representations in American comics of those years.[14]) Many more examples could be given here: there is, for example, “A Chinese Execution,” in which is described the “origin of the sky-rocket” –- a stereotypical “Chinaman” is tied to a bamboo pole while his braided “rattail,” doused in nitroglycerine, is set on fire; or “pickaninnies” and other Africans racially caricatured in the extreme and said to live on the “Cannibal Islands”; or the “Enssonsky family” who are mistaken for sharks, because they “always float mit not’in’ but deir noses out of the water!”[15] In much of his work, then, Woolf was comfortable placed within the orbit of the turn-of-the-century white, Protestant, Republican camp, and more than a little comfortable with ethnoracial stereotypes.

Woolf’s Contemporaries and the Problem of the Slums

As noted in the introduction, there was a lack of first-hand knowledge of slum life among most of Woolf’s intended readership. That is not to say, however, that there was a dearth of coverage of it in his day. To the contrary, there were numerous readily available representations of slum life (particularly of the Lower East Side), generally geared toward a middle class audience, that viewed the immigrant masses with disdain or pity. Consequently, according to sociologist Christopher Mele, in much of this work “[t]he apparent attributes of the ghetto (unbridled chaos, unstructured spaces, and a blurring of private and public space) and of its residents (ill-mannered women, shiftless men, and grotesque children all engaged in a vile combination of greed, lust, laziness, and hedonism) presented an anathema to the bourgeois lifestyle.”[16] As the center of New York immigrant working class society,

the Lower East side loomed as a dreadful netherworld, a place to be feared and reviled, inhabited by peculiar, if not dangerous, “Others” whose immoral behavior needed to be controlled or, at best, reformed. Representations of the unwashed masses and the spaces they inhabited were the antithesis of the social world that the bourgeoisie had constructed and were determined to defend.[17]

Much of this literature was sensationalistic in its portrayal, but there were exceptions. Among Woolf’s roughly contemporary chroniclers of New York slum life, two stand out as especially interesting in regard to his work, because of their own visual preoccupations, because of their less sensationalistic angles, and because of their focus on children: Jacob Riis, the muck racking photojournalist and social reformer, and Richard F. Outcault, a fellow cartoonist.

Riis’ 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives, documented life on the Lower East Side in a compassionate, rather than predominantly sensationalistic way, and its popularity helped inspire reforms aimed at increasing the quality of life there. This is a contribution that should not be minimized, but it is still problematic in its framing. To borrow a phrasing from historian Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’ writing about documentary photography in Harlem, Riis’ work is guilty of “the white lie of the realist photographer, a sin of omission”: “These people [in the photographs] make an argument about the way life is lived. The people in a photograph end up as symbols. They are both specific and generic–the photographs capture moments in time and space, but the subjects are transformed into representative specimens.”[18] Although well-meaning, Riis chose his motifs to evoke maximum response –- or shock –- among his mainly middle class audience, and his work was marked by a middle class bias that in its expression ranged “from patronizing to outright racist.”[19]

Children sleeping on Mulberry Street. One of Jacob Riis’ photographs, circa 1890.

Children sleeping on Mulberry Street. One of Jacob Riis’ photographs, circa 1890.

The other Woolf contemporary, Outcault, created “Hogan’s Alley,” an irregular cartoon and sometime comic strip that premiered in 1895 and is often (inaccurately) credited as the first comic strip.[20] “Hogan’s Alley” became a success in large part because of a recurring character popularly called the “Yellow Kid,” a bald, buck-toothed, and jug-eared urchin in a yellow nightshirt. The “Hogan’s Alley” cartoons were often chaotic, overcrowded affairs. Although they are not as dramatically arranged as Riis’ photographs, they are instead replete with exaggerated dialects, ethnic vaudeville stereotypes, and grotesque blackface caricatures, through which the cartoons provided “a satire on urban slum life, peppered with ethnic slurs.” But, while the cartoons addressed urgent urban problems, they did so generally from a middle class perspective on the marginalized lower classes.[21]

R.F. Outcault, “MacFadden’s Row of Flats.” New York Journal, October 18, 1895.

R.F. Outcault, “MacFadden’s Row of Flats.” New York Journal, October 18, 1895.

In both cases, readers are invited to empathize with the urchins, either through sympathy or laughter, as was the case with much slum representation: “Sympathy and pity were reserved for those depicted as the deserving poor, especially children.”[22] Nonetheless –- although both were arguably sympathetic to those living under the conditions they represented -– Riis and Outcault helped perpetuate the popular image of the slums in lower Manhattan and their residents as “different and inferior,” to use Mele’s summation of the prevailing middle-class view at the time.[23] They accomplished this through different means: Riis through occasional staging and Outcault through caricature. But Riis’ Lower East Side and Outcault’s “Hogan’s Alley” were both represented in terms that perpetuated their “anathema” status common to the middle class sentiment that spawned them and to the middle class that consumed them. In the next part, we will look at how Woolf and his waifs were, to a point, different.


Martin Lund is a Swedish Research Council International Post-doctoral Fellow at Linnaeus University (Växjö, Sweden) and a Visiting Research Scholar at The Gotham Center for New York City History.



[1] Author Unknown, “Michael Angelo Woolf Dead. The Father of the Modern Comic Picture and the Artist of Waifs Succumbs to Heart Disease,” The New York Times, March 5, 1899.

[2] Ibid.; Michael Angelo Woolf, Sketches of Lowly Life in a Great City, ed. Joseph Henius (New York & London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1899), vii, https://archive.org/details/skelow00wool; Ian Gordon, Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890-1945 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998), 25. See also Christopher Mele, Selling the Lower East Side: Culture, Real Estate, and Resistance in New York City (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 33: “Those who inhabited upscale homes in the finer neighborhoods of Manhattan rarely ventured onto the Lower East Side or came into personal contact with residents but nonetheless remained (mis)informed of the political, ethnic, and cultural goings-on within the nearby canyons of poorly built tenements south of Fourteenth Street [...] Save for the most experienced of those who actually ventured onto the Lower East Side, most New Yorkers’ contact with the neighborhood came from an abundance of symbols, images, and rhetoric produced by the city’s diverse publishing industry”.

[3] See the magisterial two-volume history of cartoons and comics in David Kunzle, The Early Comic Strip: Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet from c.1450 to 1825, vol. 1, History of the Comic Strip (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973); The Nineteenth Century, vol. 2, History of the Comic Strip (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

[4] Author Unknown, “M. A. Woolf Dead.” Nast, upon his death in 1908, would himself be called the father of the American cartoon in a NY Times obituary.

[5] Edward Robb Ellis, The Epic of New York City (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 350–356.

[6] Robert C. Kennedy, “The Bar of Destruction,” HarpWeek, accessed October 8, 2015, http://www.harpweek.com/09Cartoon/BrowseByDateCartoon.asp?Month=March&Date=21.

[7] Ibid.; Ralph DaCosta Nunez and Ethan G. Sribnick, The Poor Among Us: A History of Family Poverty and Homelessness in New York City (New York, NY: White Tiger Press, 2013), 119–159.

[8] Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (New York: Harper Paperbacks, 1993), 24–59; see also, for example, Jarret Lovell, “Step Aside, Superman... This Is a Job for [Captain] America! Comic Books and Superheroes Post September 11,” in Media Representations of September 11, ed. Steven Chermak, Frankie Y. Bailey, and Michelle Brown (Westport: Praeger, 2003), 164–165.

[9] At the time, Harper’s often took part in the debate about public schooling, which had an anti-Catholic slant to it. For another example, see Robert C. Kennedy, “On This Day: May 8, 1875,” accessed October 29, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/harp/0508.html.

[10] Robert C. Kennedy, “Exultant Tammanyite,” HarpWeek, accessed October 8, 2015, http://elections.harpweek.com/1880/cartoon-1880-Medium.asp?UniqueID=35&Year=1880.

[11] Ibid.

[12] John Kuo Wei Tchen, New York Before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture, 1776-1882 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 221–224.

[13] It can be useful to note in this connection that the Chinese Exclusion Act had been passed only a few years earlier and would be upheld for a long time afterward.

[14] Bradford Wright, Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 45–47.

[15] Michael Angelo Woolf, Ninety-Nine Woolf’s from Truth (New York: Truth Company, 1896), 17, 24, 25, 58.

[16] Mele, Selling the LES, 72.

[17] Ibid., 32.

[18] Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America. (London: Granta Books, 2011), 96.

[19] Deborah Dash Moore and David Lobenstine, “Photographing the Lower East Side: A Century’s Work,” in Remembering the Lower East Side: American Jewish Reflections, ed. Hasia R. Diner, Jeffrey Shandler, and Beth S. Wenger (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 34; Thomas Angotti, New York for Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), 66.

[20] It is worth noting that Outcault’s early work was, as comics scholar Ian Gordon has remarked, “almost identical” to some of Woolf’s work. See Gordon, Comic Strips, 25. Pp. 28–29 show a side-by-side comparison of the two artists’ work. (Gordon has digitized his book and put it up for free download here.)

[21] Roger Sabin, Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels: A History of Graphic Novels (London & New York: Phaidon Press, 2001), 20; Christina Meyer, “Urban America in the Newspaper Comic Strips of the Nineteenth Century: Introducing the Yellow Kid,” ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies 6, no. 2: sec. 27–31, accessed October 29, 2014, http://www.english.ufl.edu/imagetext/archives/v6_2/meyer/#two. See also the informative “Yellow Kid” website hosted by the University of Virginia.

[22] DaCosta Nunez and Sribnick, Poor Among Us, 36.

[23] See Mele, Selling the LES.