On Christmas Eve, 1880, an Arcola painter-illustrator and his wife welcomed John Gruelle to the family. John sank roots into the professional illustration trade himself at age 25 when he sold cartoons to an Indianapolis newspaper. In 1911, young John’s fortunes took an upward turn that changed his life. He won the New York Herald‘s cartooning contest and embarked on drawing a feature cartoon called Mr. Twee Deedie for the paper.
One of the characters, a little girl, dragged a rag doll around throughout her adventures. As the doll acquired a personality and agency, she helped pioneer a funny pages tradition: the supporting character who, like Nancy or Popeye, became the star and a pop culture merchandising colossus. More than a hundred years after her creation, Raggedy Ann remains iconic, despite being a mere rag doll in an age of whiz bang gadgets and media-powered characters bred in the giggling and gurgling bubble gum-colored cauldrons at Disney and Nickelodeon.
Gruelle’s heirs kept Raggedy Ann and her brother Andy thriving via dozens of illustrated books, films, toys, TV, stage productions, and the dolls themselves. There was even a museum in Arcola at one time. A spot of controversy arose in the Eighties when Macmillan, publisher of Raggedy Ann books, tried to update the look at attitudes of the stories. That included revising the racist and sexist elements in the Raggedyverse. It also meant trimming the word count for the limited attention spans of modern readers. Lately, the poor dolls have been drafted into anti-vaccination conspiracy theories due to false stories surrounding Ann’s origins.
Nonetheless, Ann and Andy have stuck their triangular noses to the grindstone and powered on into a second century. This weekend, a great many children will receive one or the other or both dolls, while legions of collectors may score some much-desired memorabilia.