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History Lesson: The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

Doug Motz Doug Motz History Lesson: The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum
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One of Columbus’ most well hidden treasures is about to have a re-launch that should make it as well known locally as it is in cartooning circles. Originally founded in 1977 and housed in two rooms of the Ohio State University School of Journalism, the Billy Ireland Cartoon & Research Library will open its’ new doors inside a fully renovated Sullivant Hall on Friday November 15.

Billy Ireland. Photo courtesy Walter Nice.

Starting from humble beginnings with a gift of artwork and papers from OSU alumnus Milton Caniff, the library has grown to include more than 300,000 original cartoons, 3,000 linear feet of manuscript materials and an astounding 2.5 million comic strip clippings and newspaper pages making it the largest library of its kind in the United States.

In an NPR Talk Of The Nation interview in 2006, Neal Conan posed the following question to founding curator Lucy Shelton Caswell.

CONAN: Now, when people visit the center, do they get a chance to actually look at these originals and touch them?

Ms. CASWELL: Absolutely. That’s what differentiates us from a museum, it’s one of the things. We operate like any rare-books library. And we’re happy to take your information, and you tell us what you’re interested in seeing, and we’ll bring out the Little Nemos in Slumberland or the Price Valiants or the Pogos or the original editorial cartoons – whatever it is that you’re interested in seeing.

Our original collection came from Milton Caniff, who is our founding donor, and then we’ve worked very hard over the succeeding years to have people donate materials to us. We don’t have the resources to compete in the auction markets, so we want everyone to know that this is the best place in the country for their original cartoon art and manuscript materials to reside because we’re going to take care of it and make it available to people who want to look at it.

The new museum in Sullivant Hall. Courtesy OSU Library.

Before moving into Sullivant Hall, the library was housed in a basement area of the Wexner Center for the Arts with the only landmark identifying the entrance being a trash can against the west wall of Mershon Auditorium and under the “scaffolding” walk-way between the Wex and Mershon. Now in their new home, the “Billy” (as I’ll very affectionately call it) will be able to showcase rare works and highlights from its own vast holdings.

Some of the initial works that will be on display in the Treasures from the Collections of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum exhibition (11/16/2013 – 12/31/2013) will include original artwork for Dick Tracy, Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, Bone and other favorites as well as editorial cartoons, magazine cartoons, comic books, animation and a variety of published materials. Visitors will be invited to open drawers to perhaps discover a sketchbook by British artist James Gillray or a Little Orphan Annie decoder badge from the 1930s.

All of these festivities will coincide with the tri-annual Festival of Cartoon Art. This program began in 1983 and is a multi-day event that celebrates and promotes the craft of cartooning and attracts participants from around the world.

So who is Billy Ireland and how did the library come to bear his name?

According to the 2010 Ireland of the Dispatch catalogue accompanying an exhibition of his work at the OSU Main Library, Lucy Caswell writes that:

Billy Ireland was born in Chillicothe, Ohio, January 8, 1880. A self-taught artist, he graduated high school and came to Columbus in 1898. He was hired as a cartoonist for the Columbus Dispatch. The Dispatch was purchased in 1905 by Robert F and Harry P Wolfe, brothers who owned a shoe manufacturing factory. The young cartoonist became close personal friends with the two, especially Robert F, and he eventually held stock in the business.

Billy had a real gift for drawing and several newspapers tried to hire him away from Columbus. But as a proud child of Chillicothe, it has been suggested that he never wanted to be more than an hour or so from home. He drew political cartoons throughout the week for the Dispatch that echoed the leanings of the paper but he also illustrated many of his deeply held concerns such as making Quail the State Bird, getting the KKK out of Columbus and even working to clean up the riverfront of Columbus.

When is Columbus Going to Clean Up His Front Yard? Authors collection.

Various Billy Ireland cartoons. Courtesy OSU Library and authors collection.

Sparrow Views of our Bizy Corners. No. 26. Courtesy OSU Library.

In some ways, he was a futurist anticipating the Short North with cartoons imagining shops, restaurants and an artists’ colony downtown. He was also insightful enough to recognize in cartoon form that much of Columbus’ strength is derived from the myriad young people who come in droves to study here every year.

The Passing Show. Courtesy OSU Library.

He is perhaps best remembered in Columbus for his Sunday feature titled The Passing Show. It was first published on February 9, 1908 and was drawn every week until his untimely death on May 29, 1935. He regularly included “hobbies” of the well to do about town, interesting corners of the city, and even himself as the self-proclaimed “janitor” of The Passing Show.” In nearly 30 years of them, he never drew the title page the same. He regularly lauded the good works of his own favorites with a segment he entitled “Flowers for the Living” (To celebrate his 25th anniversary at the Dispatch, cartoons were solicited from his fellow cartoonists at other newspapers and he was given his own Flowers for the Living tribute on June 10, 1923)

The Passing Show also regularly featured seasonal themes and included gentle local gossip. He also presented those causes he was in favor of such as funding good schools, “boosting” Columbus, OSU football (including a sassy personification of the beloved “Carmen Ohio”), chronicling downtown development, and always working for the conservation of nature He had a very interactive conversation in print and drawing with his adoring readership. In fact, it was not uncommon to find subscribers in his office watching him draw, suggesting topics and presenting him with natural oddities for him to consider memorializing in his column.

He was so wildly popular that on January 10, 1928 he was awarded a Silver Loving cup by the local Real Estate Board emblazoned with the title of “First Citizen of Columbus”.

One of the greatest achievements attributed to Billy Ireland was convincing the State legislature to outlaw quail hunting and to make the quail our state bird. Along that line, in 1928, he was also honored along with Chicago Tribune cartoonist John McCutcheon by the planting of a twin sugar maple “cartoonists tree” at the Dawes Arboretum for his long time support of the conservation of nature.

He was also generous of his time and talent to young cartoonists. It’s fitting that the Billy collection was founded by Milt Caniff (Terry and the Pirates) because Billy actually gave Milt his start as a cartoonist. Milt came to the Dispatch looking for a job in 1925 and Billy asked him to craft a drawing that would make him “jump.” Apparently it did for Billy gave him a job at The Columbus Dispatch and he continued to work there until the depression forced the newspaper to cut him from the roster. Milt once considered changing his career as a cartoonist to become and actor to which Billy famously replied: “Stick to your inkpots, kid, actors don’t eat regularly.”

Somehow in the midst of all of this drawing and taking time out for his own hobbies of golfing and traveling he also found time to create several books of his own cartoons including Teck Haskins at Ohio State, Columbus Men Worthwhile presented in Cartoon and the some year book – Club Men of Columbus for the Roycrofters company.

Club Men of Columbus (left). Columbus will do his part! Courtesy authors collection.

Humorist Will Rogers, who came to be a great friend of Ireland’s, went around telling people, “I take two newspapers, the New York Times and the Columbus Dispatch for Billy Ireland’s page.”

James Thurber describing Billy Ireland for the New Yorker in 1952 wrote that he had: “… silvery hair, although he was only forty two years old, twinkling – it’s the only word for them – blue eyes, and a healthy pink complexion, all of which conspired to give his round face a genial glow. He was rotund, and not tall, like the jolly figures of myth, from Santa Claus to the beaming Mother Nature who often appeared in his cartoons… When he died, at the early age of fifty-five, he had long been one of the city’s most beloved landmarks, and it was almost as if the statehouse had been quietly taken down during the night and moved away.”

In 2009 the Ohio State University Board of Trustees approved the naming of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum in recognition of a $7 million gift from the Elizabeth Ireland Graves Foundation to support the renovation of Sullivant Hall, an historic building located at a main gateway to the university’s campus. The project is estimated to cost $20.6 million. Elizabeth Ireland Graves is Billy’s granddaughter.

In summing up the life of Billy Ireland, his biographer Lucy Caswell wrote the following:

During the twentieth century, much of America developed into a homogenized nation of super highways, shopping centers and fast food outlets. Those things which made cities and towns unique were ignored and many people lost their sense of place and history. Billy Ireland was certain where his roots were, deep in the soil of Ohio, and he felt no need to apologize for this. His friends testified that he left the world a better place: he entertained his readers; he sought to preserve nature’s beauties; he was a generous and loyal friend. He was a newspaperman who used his work to improve the life for his contemporaries. He was a cartoonist who changed his community for the better and inspired others to follow his career.

For me, Billy Ireland is a true unsung hero of Columbus and in a large way continues to fascinate me. It is my firm belief that to truly understand the social history of our city from 1900 – 1935, you must read The Passing Show. In it, Billy Ireland tells the story of our city from the perspective of someone who loves it enough to point out it’s flaws, celebrate it’s successes and laugh along with all of the outrageous situations people here often find themselves in.

I highly encourage the readers of Columbus Underground to visit our newest civic treasure: The Billy Ireland Cartoon and Research Library or as I will continue to call it: the “Billy.”

For further information please check out:

Billy Ireland 2nd edition by Lucy Shelton Caswell, OSU Libraries 2007

Club Men of Columbus illustrated by Billy Ireland 1919

The Dawes Arboretum Planting of Cartoonist Tree 1939

Teck Haskins at “Ohio State” by Billy Ireland 1909

The opening of The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum galleries to the public on November 16, 2013. During the Grand Opening Festival of Cartoon Art, November 16-17, 2013, the galleries will have extended hours from 10 am to 5 pm. From November 19, 2013, the galleries will be open regular hours, Tuesday through Sunday from 1 pm to 5 pm. Sullivant Hall, 1813 N High St, Columbus OH 43210. For more information, visit Cartoons.osu.edu.

Visit the Columbus Historical Society at COSI, 333 West Broad St., Columbus, Ohio. Their upcoming book sale will be Wednesday, December 4, 2013. Reservations are now on sale for the Jan 21, 2014 Historical Dinner Club featuring the Jai Lai Restaurant. More information at ColumbusHistory.org.


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