Costumes of American Literary Characters: Buster Brown


Figure 1.--Buster Brown usually wore a yellow or red Buster Brown tunic suit. This illustrator has dressed him in a fancy Little Lord Fauntleroy suit.

Although now known mostly as a coroprate symbol for a shoe company, Buster Brown was the best known boy character in 20th-Century America. He was an emensly popular cartoon chracter created by R.F. Outcault who had earlier created the Yellow Kid. He was also the subject of popular films. Buster was a charmingly mischievous boy, always carefully dressed and with nangs and long blond hair. He was often accompanied by his sister, Mary Jane, as well as his faithful bulldog--Tige. His antics while sometimes naughty were never meam-spirited and always ended with a little motal homily to have a moral influence on the youthful readers of the Sundau comics. He was normally the well dressed younger boy with friends that were rougher and not as well dressed. Buster was also made into the subject of popular films. He was also used to market a wide range of clothing. Because of his charateristic clothing, his include a range of clothing items. Buster Brown shoes was the jost enduring. Buster's girl friend was Mary Jane which became the American term for strap shoes even though Buster also wore them. Buster gave his name to his trade-mark bangs, collar, and suit. Curiously Mary Jane gave her name to the strap shoes, although both Buster and Mary Jane wore them.

Cartoon Character

The cartoon in has an interesting history. The first carttons date from the 18th century and were political in nature. The comics as we known them today date to the 1860s and some of the first popular cartoon characters were kids--primarily boys.

Cartoons

Cartoons date to Wilhelm Busch's "Max und Moritz" which was introduced in German papers in 1865. This strip had a direct influence on Rudolph Dirks who would plagiarize the strip for the Katzenjammer Kids.

Newspaper strips

Comics in America started as reprints of the Sunday "funnies". The Yello Kid, The Katzenjammer Kids and Buster Brown were a few of the earliest. The earliest comic publishers were the newspapers that published the original "funnies" The New York Journal and The Herald were two of these early publishers. In 1902 Cupples and Leon was founded, from this point they would grow to be the biggest comic book publisher in the first three decades of the 20th century. The origins of the newspaper comic strip itself can be directly traced to William Randolph Hearst and his fondness for this original American art form. Over a century ago, the San Francisco Examiner, where Hearst began his career, published what are possibly the first comic characters to regularly appear in a newspaper. The "Little Bears" were charming, playful little illustrations that appeared only in the Examiner. Hearst acquired the New York Journal, his second newspaper, in 1895 and one of his first moves was to lure artist Richard Felton Outcault, creator of "The Yellow Kid" comic, away from Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. The Yellow Kid was a bald, grinning youngster who satirized current events.


Figure 2.--Outcault usually drew Buster with a wide-brimmed sailor hat, red tunic suit and bloomer knickers, short red socks, and strap shoes.

R.F. Outcault

R.F. Outcault's The Yellow Kid was enormously popular in America at the turn of the century. In 1895 at the same time that Outcault's first panels were being published, the newspapers were experimenting with four color inks. Quite a bit of experimentation is required to get proper colors and when an engraver for the World wanted to try a new yellow he chose to spot it in the coming Sunday's paper on the "kid's" frock, and the kid became known as "the Yellow Kid". Tired of the legal difficulties and looking for new avenues, Outcault left the Journal in 1901 and created for the New York Herald a forgotten strip called "Poor Li'l Mose" before finally creating the eternally famous "Buster Brown". Buster Brown the comic strip, first appeared in color in 1902. Buster and his dog, Tige, remained a popular comic and soon became even more famous as the emblem for a shoe company, a textile firm, and others. Hearst would lure him back to the Journal and he would remain there until 1920 when he discontinued the strip to concentrate his efforts on painting. Having owned the rights to Buster Brown, he became an immensely wealthy man. He sold the right to merchandize an amazing diversity of products using the Buster Brown imagee. The most lucrative was the shoe compamy, but there were many other products. He exhibited his works in several galleries and museums. Outcault pioneered the comic in both Pulitzer's World and Hearst's Journal, where "The Yellow Kid" proved to be immensely popular--and immensely effective as a circulation builder. Hearst aggressively expanded his comic roster, adding such artists as Frederick Burr Opper, creator of "Happy Hooligan," and Rudolph Dirks, creator of "The Katzenjammer Kids," the latter of which is the oldest comic in syndication today. I believe Buster Brown was also drawn by Gus Meins, but I have few details on him. R. F. Outcault's creation the Yellow Kid was the first important cartoon about a boy. He demonstrated that the Sunday comics could sell newspapers and other forms of merchandise, and firmly established the comics as a permanent part of the American newspaper. The Yellow Kid, coupled with the artist's subsequent creations, Kelley's Kids, Pore Li'l Mose, Buddy Tucker, and Buster Brown, has firmly established R. F. Outcault as one of the most important comic artists of all time.

Buster

Buster Brown himself was a mischievous, but beguiling child. He had long blond hair which he wore in his characteristic bangs. He was always emaculately dressed by his adoring mother, as was Mary Jane, who along with his bulldog that often accomapnied him. He had some playmates who dressed more like the average kids of the day. They never teased him, however about his clothes. Buster's pranks were never really evil and always ended with a little homily directed at the young reader. Buster continued appearing in the comic strips in one form or another until World War I when he began to lose popularity. He was perhaps a shade too well behaved and his clothes began to look old fashioned. He began to look like a rich kid and the family appear almost snobbish--affecting his popularity. Critics believe that the affectation and sentimentality in the strip finally sealed Buster's future. The last Buster Brown comic strip was published in 1926.

Mary Jane

I had thought that Mary Jane was a little playmate. A HBC reader, however, tells us that Mary Jane was his sister. Another reader tells us that she was definitely a little playmate, not his sister. She had sausage curls, a frilly dress, and knee or three-quarter white socks. Like Buster, she wore strap shoes. Buster Brown shoes marketed these shoes as Mary Janes which became a popular term for them in America.


Figure 3.--The Buster Brown shoe company also sold stockings and stocking supporters. Note that Buster is wearing long stockings in this pin, given to children visiting the stores. His suit here has sailor styling.

Advertising

Buster Brown, the comic strip, first appeared in color in 1902. Buster and his dog, Tige, remained a popular comic and soon became even more famous as the emblem for a shoe company, a textile firm, and other companies. The strip was discontinued in 1920. But Buster Brown did not disappear. He became an American advertising icon. Buster was not the first comic character to be used in advertising, but he surely was the most important in the early days od adveryising. Having owned the rights to Buster Brown, Outcault became an immensely wealthy man. He sold the right to merchandize an amazing diversity of products using the Buster Brown image. The most lucrative was the shoe compamy, but there were many other products. He is of course best known for shoes, but was used to advertize much more including stocking supporters, breasd, newspaoers, clubs, and much more. The Buster Brown characters are still used by Brown Shoe Company, Buster Brown Apparel, Inc., and Gateway Hosiery.There were many ways that Buster was used in advertising. One popular way was stick pins which were given out to childrens whose parents bought shoes and stocking supporters.

Comic Story Lines

We do not have very much ingformatuion on the kinds of story lines in the Buster Brown cartoons. Basically they involved some innocent prank and how Buster got into trouble. A key part of the strip was Buster being punished for his micheviousness. The strip was in many ways a mini-morality play. I know that they the strip sometimes touched upon clothing and hair styles. I do not think, however, that Buster ever got teased by his friends--but they clearly did not want to wear one of his suits. Some sample plot lines include the following. "Buster Brown's Sweetheart" (Buster Brown, 1906 Sunday) R. F. Outcault. Jane is coming, so Buster gives Tige a bath in the bathtub. He Fools Tige" (Buster Brown, 1906 Sunday) / R. F. Outcault. Buster puts a wolf skin rug on the floor, and Tige rips it to pieces. "Laugh and the World Laughs With You" (Buster Brown, 1915) R.F. Outcault. Tige gets a toothache, the dentist gives him laughing gas and he laughs the tooth out. Other titles include: "Tige Hears a Ghost Story." Buster Brown : Mary Jane and Tige / by R.F. Outcault. -- 1906?; "The Silhouette Man"; "Accidents will Happen"; "Tige Hears a Ghost Story"; "Nervousness is Awful So is Dear Little"; "Busterand Tige at the Turkish Baths"; "Who Owes the Band?"; "Buster the Photographer"; "Such a Stuck-Up Pair of Girls"; "Buster and Tige at Coney Island"; "Down by the Deep Blue Sea"; "Grandpa Grouch's Hat"; "Auto Racing"; "Looks Like Rain & Things"; "Buster and Tige Inspect the Circus"; and "At the Aquarium". On the comic strips poor Buster often wound up with a spanking, not fully cpmprehending what he had done wrong. This was less common in the film versions.

Katzenjammer Kids

About this time Rudolph Dirk’s "Katzenjammer Kids" made their appearance and were an instant success. They were much more mischievous and of there was more slapstick humor in the strip, perhaps a bit more exciting than Busdter's adventures. (It should be noted that Buster Brown and the Katzenjammer Kids were always punished. Crime must not pay, even childish pranks.) As a boy, I rather thought that this was A German comic strip, but ikt was entirely American. I am not even sure that any German newspapers ever carried it.


Figure 4.--A series of Buster Brown commedies were made in 1925-29. Buster appeared sporting bangs, a floppy hat, a classic Buster Brown tunic suit wioth wide collar and floppy bow with short socks and strap shoes. Note that both Buster and Mary Jane wear the strap shoes that were eventually named for her.

Movies

Buster Brown was also the subject of a popular series of films, the Buster Brown Commedies during 1925-29. They were all silent films. Later talkies were also made. Buster was played by Arthur Trimble, he is a child actor I know very little about. The series of "Buster Brown" comedies were sort-of low rent Our Gang films. Snapily attired Buster found himself in innocuous misadventures along side his faithful canine companion, Tige was no longer a bulldog. Tige. (Petey to Our Gang/Little Rascals fans.) Unlike Our Gang, the series was obviously aimed at very young audiences and offered very little for adults. I have no doubt that youngsters of the day were thoroughly entertained by Buster Brown. I'm not sure how our modern generaton would take to it, certainly they wouldn't be to impressed with his outfit. One sample plot line is "Look Out Buster" in which Tige is being hunted by dog catchers for quarantine, and ends up foiling a gang of robbers in the process. There were apparently other Buster Brown movies. Images exist of Jimy Marln who was another child star who played Buster Brown. Unfortunately I have no information about these films.

Radio

From the mid-1940s to 1952 Jerry Maren played "Buster Brown" on Smilin' Ed's Buster Brown Gang. The network radio show was broadcast first at 8:30 am and was heard in the late morning in the eastern and central states. There was a repeat broadcast 3 hours later for the remainder of the country. Jerry for both shows wore the complete outfit of "Buster Brown," the trademark of the shoe manufacturer that sponsored the program. Jerry was a "midget" whose first major role was the Lollipop Guild scene in the movie The Wizard of Oz. The following excerpt from Richard Lamparski, "Whatever Became of...", 11th Series, (New York, 1989, Crown), gives an interesting sidelight on Jerry's career as "Buster Brown": Of this time, Jerry says, "Every week it cost me four cab rides because there was a two-hour gap between shows. I could hardly kill it by shopping or going to a restaurant. What do you do on a Saturday morning when you're dressed like 'Buster Brown'?"

Costuming

Many Buster Brown illustrations show him with Dutch boy bangs, wide-brimmed sailor hat, wide white collar, floppy bow, a Buster Brown tunic, short socks, and strap shoes. There were, however, many variations. Even the cartoonist sometimes gave Buster's tunic sailor styling. Some illustrators even put him in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit. Buster Brown may have had more influence on boys' clothing than any other boys' literary character, perhaps more than Little Lord Fauntleroy. The famed tunic suit with a wide white collar and above the knee knickers became known as a Buster Brown suit. The collar was known as a Buster Brown collar. The bangs Buster wore became known as Buster Brown bangs. Buster's costumes in the classic Buster Brown movies was very close to Outcault's costume character.

Illustrations

Many Buster Brown illustrations show him with Dutch boy bangs, wide-brimmed sailor hat, wide white collar, floppy bow, a Buster Brown tunic, short socks, and strap shoes. There were, however, many variations. Even the cartoonist sometimes gave Buster's tunic sailor styling. Some illustrators even put him in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit.

Clothing influences

Buster Brown may have had more influence on boys' clothing than any other boys' literary character, perhaps more than Little Lord Fauntleroy. The famed tunic suit with a wide white collar and above the knee knickers became known as a Buster Brown suit. The collar was known as a Buster Brown collar. The bangs Buster wore became known as Buster Brown bangs. In addition the strap shoes he and friend Mary Jane wore became known as Mary Jane shoes. This was interesting as both Buster and Mary Jane wore them. This term appears to have developed after the Buster Brown Shoe Company came out with a line of sturdy oxfords for boys and named the strap shoes Mary Janes. While the Buster Brown suit passed from fashion in the 1920s, the one strap shoes evoloved in to a girl's fashion classic. Marketing strap shoes as "Mary Janes" may well have affected the image of the shoes in America. We note that about this time, American boys stopped wearing strap shoes and closed-toe sandals, evern though boys in Europe continued wearing them.


Figure 5.--Jerry Maren, a midget, was another star who played Buster Brown. Notice his suit here has front buttons. The classic Buster Brown tunic was nver worn with front buttons.

Movies

Buster's costumes in the classic Buster Brown movies was very close to Outcault's costume character. The movie was in black and white, but his tunic suit was presumably red. He wore the knickers above the knee, although the cartoon character wore them below the knee. His short socks and strap shoes were just like the cartoon, although his cap was not the wide-brimmed sailor cap depicted in the cartoon. He was usually accompanied by his dog Tige which in the Buster Brown Commedies was the same dog that appeared in Our Gang as Petty. Subsequent movie versions usually depicted Buster with his classic Dutch boy bangs. The wide white collar and floppy bows were also usually included. The tunic usually worn, however, is sometimes not depicted accurately. One movie version had buster in a kind of front buttoning outfit rather than a proper tunic.

Merchandizing

Buster Brown was one of the most successful early efforts to market a cartoon character. His face in the 1900s was everywhere. The marketing rights to the popular character were licensed for a wide variety of other products. While not the first cartoon chracter, Buster Brown was the first one to be used for modern mass marketing--an early introduction to modern American mass marketing.

Variety of products

Buster Brown enjoyed a great success for many years, especially in the 1900s and 1910s. Buster's beguiling little face and bangs as well as Tige’s muzzle were used to advertise many products. Some were logical extensions of the comic strip, such as shoes, hats, boys’ suits, buttons. Some were more of a streach, auch as cigars and whiskey. Heavens knows what would have happened tompoor Buster if he would have ben caught with cigars or whiskey.

Corporate Symbol

It was shoes that are the best known use of the Buster Brown character for marketing. Beginning at the World's Fair in 1904, Buster Brown became a household name in children's footwear. John A. Bush, a sales executive with Brown Shoe Company, came up with the idea that Buster Brown would be a perfect symbol for the compny's line of children's shoes. Brown Shoe Company was named for the company's founder George Warren Brown and not Buster. Bush persuaded the company to purchase the rights to the name from Outcault. The company then introduced Buster Brown Shoes to the public in 1904 during the St. Louis World's Fair. Bush went on to become president of the firm in 1915 and Chairman of the Board in 1948. Bush promoted the brand with national print, radio, outdoor, and eventually television advertising. The company eventually came out with a line of sturdy oxfords for boys. They named the strap shoes that both Buster and Mary Jane wore as "Mary Janes". I am not sure just when they did this. The name stuck with the public and Mary Janes became an American term for strap shoes and a staple in any well-dressed little girl's wardrobe. Today, Buster Brown remains one of the most recognized children's footwear brands, and is featured at mid-tier and department stores across the United States. It was not just Buster Brown shoes that were sold, but related products like socks and stocking supporters. Buster Brown shoes were produced by Frank Maynard. A recent introduction of a new logo and related promotional programs continue Buster Brown's reputation as one of the most famous brands of children's footwear in the United States.

Buster Brown Suits

Buster Brown suits were popular for younger children in the early 20th Century. I'm not sure who introduced the style or precisely when. I'm not sure if it was a style picked up by the Buster Brown comic strip or an entirely new style created by the cartoonist. It does appear, however, to have been most popular after the turn of the century. Toddlers at that time often wore dresses or smocks. One of a boy's first suits was often a Buster Brown suit. Buster Brown suits were worn by boys from about 5 to 8 years of age, but some mothers dressed older boys in them for a few additional years.







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