Russell Johnson and “Mister Oswald”: A Tale of Two Proprietors
“Dual careers” hardly begins to describe Russell Johnson, who produced the Mister Oswald strip for an astonishing 62 years while also running a hardware store. Rob Stolzer talked with the late creator about his durable strip and the changing world in which it existed.
I spent January of last year in Johnson, Vermont, a small town in the north-central region of the state. Soon after arriving in Johnson, I found that I needed some hardware supplies, so I set out for the local hardware store. Stepping inside, I was transported back in time. The store was long and on the narrow side. The old wooden floors were worn from decades of use, creaking in areas as I walked. The selection of stock was similar to what you might find in a more modern store or a do-it-yourself superstore, but the items were displayed as they probably had been for years and years. Not only was I transported back in time, but I also felt as if I was transported into the pages of Mister Oswald, Russell Johnson’s masterful comic strip about Oscar S. Oswald, a hardware store owner. I figured that in an establishment this old, there was a chance that the store owner was familiar with Mister Oswald, so I asked. Mr. Beard proudly replied that their store opened the same year that Mister Oswald began, in 1927. A hardware store in Johnson, Vermont, which opened the same year that Mister Oswald, created by Russell Johnson, began? Fate seemed to be hard at work. Mister Oswald might very well be one of the best comic strips that scarcely anyone knows about. I had been collecting comics-related material for nearly twenty years before I found out about Russ Johnson’s creation. In 1993, I was in a quaint town in Illinois, one known for its antique shops. As I wandered around one shop, I ran across a book that I had never heard of before, titled Forty Years with Mister Oswald. I cracked open the gray hardcover from 1968 and glanced through the book. The cartoons, I noticed, all related to the hardware business, and they were done in a charming big-foot style of cartooning, a style I enjoy quite a bit. But I didn’t enjoy what I perceived to be a hefty price tag for the book, especially for a comic strip that I had never heard of before. So I put the book back on the shelf and headed for the door. As I walked out of the shop, a what-the-hell attitude overtook me. I turned around, leafed through the book once more, and purchased it. That’s how I came to be introduced to Russ Johnson’s magical world of Mister Oswald and his often-trying hardware business. Mister Oswald began life in October 1927, running only in Hardware Retailer, a trade magazine for hardware store owners. Johnson had been doing cartoons for the magazine since 1925, while at the same time helping his father run his hardware store in Gibson City, Illinois. Two years later, in the October issue of Hardware Retailer, a twelve-panel, Sunday page-format strip appeared, titled “It’s a Sad Store, Mates.” We see a bespectacled man sporting a neat mustache and a prominent paunch, who is eagerly awaiting the day’s business in his hardware store. One after one, folks come in the shop, asking about everything except purchasing hardware goods. Mister Oswald isn’t formally named until the tenth panel and, by the end, we find him in a padded cell with delusions of being “Santy Claus.” Luckily for us, Mister Oswald made a fast recovery and persevered for decades to come. Mister Oswald is a veritable time capsule of one segment of our social history. For those of us who love those old mom-and-pop establishments and mourn their seemingly daily disappearance, Johnson’s comic strip preserves a history of what once was. Through Mister Oswald we get to see how one sector of retailing, the hardware business, changed over the years. We get to see firsthand how World War II affected a small retail store, as many goods and workers were in short supply. We are introduced to many store workers, who often act as a foil to Mister Oswald. There are also those salesmen, who in the day of traveling door-to-door often refused to accept anything less than an order from a shopowner. And then there are the customers. Anyone who has worked in retail is familiar with the old adage, “the customer is always right.” As those same former retail workers recall, the customer is often wrong. That relationship between Mister Oswald and his customers provided enough fodder to last for more than sixty years. I interviewed Johnson in his home in Gibson City, Illinois, on July 29, 1995. He was then 101 years old and six years removed from his retirement on Mister Oswald. By the time he hung up his drawing pen at the age of 95, he had worked on his strip continuously for 62 years, a record for a creator working on a single comic strip. He passed away on September 7, 1995, slightly more than a month after the interview. Larry Day took over Mister Oswald after Johnson’s retirement in 1989 and continues it to this day in the pages of Do-It-Yourself Retailing, the same magazine of old but with a new name. Many thanks go out to Larry for providing a great deal of information and some wonderful reproductions. — Rob Stolzer
Rob Stolzer: This year is the one-hundredth anniversary of the American comic strip, and you were here when the comic strip began. You were here during the golden age of the comics, during Terry and the Pirates, Little Nemo, Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie. I wonder—
Russell Johnson: I don’t know which ones I would prefer. It seems like it’s gone in or it’s out. I heard some people beefing because they didn’t leave a 15 percent tip at the restaurant. I was thinking that back in 1920, the usual tip was 10 cents. We usually left a dime for the waitress.
Stolzer: That was a lot of money. What caused you to start Mister Oswald? It sounds like you were pretty busy.
Johnson: I was drawing cartoons and putting them in the window of the hardware store. My aunt was writing articles for magazines for side money and she saw my cartoons in the window. So she sent a letter to a hardware magazine, Hardware Retailer, whose editor was looking for cartoons. He immediately came over. First, he wanted some samples. So after I sent him some samples, he came and asked me if I’d be interested in drawing a cartoon for him. Of course I was interested! Tickled to death! I did two pages of cartoons for him. That was in 1925. For three years, I drew cartoons and pictures. I drew a cartoon of a man opening up the hardware store and being solicited all day, no customers. All he had was solicitors, traveling men, kids wanting advertisements, things like that. I called him “Mister Oswald” because the name seemed to be sort of a dumb person. The editor said that I had such a wonderful reception from his readers that he wanted me to continue it. Now, if I had known he was going to run it this many years, I probably would have called him something else besides “Oswald,” but that’s what he was. That’s how he got his name.
Stolzer: It sounds like you were a self-taught cartoonist. Did you ever do any of the mail-order cartoon courses? Did you always draw?
Johnson: Before my dad opened the hardware store, I went to Chicago and I had a job working for Montgomery Ward. I was with Montgomery Ward when World War I started. I had been a fan of the Katzenjammer Kids, and they had a ship called the Cupid. They had a Treasure Island lifestyle, like a [Robert Louis] Stevenson novel, and I loved the thought of the ocean. I played with a lot of boats when I was eight or ten years old. I wanted to be on the ocean. So when the war broke out, I thought, “Here’s my chance.” I enlisted in the Navy. My first disillusionment with the Navy was when they issued me a suit of dungarees. Dungarees?! I never saw any sailors that wore these for uniforms! They put me to work building a rifle range, north of the Great Lakes. For three weeks we built that range, carrying sod, digging gravel, making cement . . .
Stolzer: Not exactly the ocean [laughter].
Johnson: I thought, well, after three weeks, that would be my training and I would be out on the ocean. I didn’t know it then, but after we had the rifle range built, they issued us 400 rounds of ammunition to go out there and practice. Twenty rounds standing, 20 rounds kneeling, 20 rounds squatting…five different positions, and we would shoot 20 times each. I had always done a lot of hunting when I was a kid on the farm, so I was a pretty good shot. So I had, the first day, 80 bull’s-eyes. I didn’t know it at that time, but I was getting the best scores, and they were going to make posters out of them. So they sent me to school to teach guys to shoot. After school, they sent me to Charleston, South Carolina. I was on a rifle range, on an island, and I had an idea that if the war was still going on, I’d still be on shore! [laughter] The only boat I ever got on was a carrier from Charleston to the island. Talk about innocent of life! When I got out of the service, I went to night school to learn cartooning. I had Carl Ed and Billy DeBeck. Those were my two main guys, and they taught me all I know.
Stolzer: I brought some original strips with me. I thought you might enjoy seeing them.
Johnson: My originals are upstairs. Last year, I was down in the basement at 7:30 at night, and for some reason I fell. I couldn’t get up. I tried all night to get on my feet, and I never did make it. I had to wait until the cleaning lady came at 10:30 the next morning. I spent about 14 hours on that basement floor. So they decided I shouldn’t go upstairs or downstairs anymore. I’m stymied. My originals are all hanging in that room upstairs where I did all my work. But they moved me downstairs. I’m really cramped. I don’t like it, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ll tell you…it’s not very nice to get to where you can’t do things anymore. I guess I should be happy to live that long.
Stolzer: Did you know many of the other cartoonists?
Johnson: I never was very friendly with any of them. The only ones that I ever knew were the instructors Carl Ed and Billy DeBeck. You know Hal Schumacher of the Daily News? The political cartoonist?
Johnson: He was in my class.
Stolzer: Was this around 1920? That would have been around the time DeBeck started Barney Google.
Johnson: I’ll tell you, Billy DeBeck was a genius! That’s all there was to it. He could draw, and he had good ideas. It’s just too bad he died so young.
Stolzer: He died very young. How long did you have him as a teacher?
Johnson: I suspect it was one winter [term].
Stolzer: Then you came back to Gibson City in the mid-’20s?
Johnson: Yeah, my dad had a hardware store. First, my dad was a farmer. When I went to work for Montgomery Ward, he was a farmer. Then when World War I broke out, he sold out everything and bought a hardware store. My mother’s brother lost his job in Gibson and helped my dad in the store. In those days, I would say a third of the volume was harness and harness repair. A lot of the four- and five-dollar horse collars were sold every day. My dad didn’t have more than one employee for a long time and it began to get out of hand. Well, he spoke to me and asked if I would take a six-month leave of absence and come and help him. I had my job at Montgomery Ward. I had been drawing cartoons for the store news and I was in the personnel department as well. I got the chance to go to all the departments. I got to thinking about how wonderful it would be for me to come down here and departmentize my dad’s store. So I came down here and started to work for that store. I loved that old store. Boy, it was really great! I made a lot of cartoons for the window. Every Tuesday, I put a new cartoon in the window, and people would be waiting to see what the new cartoon would be. I was also sending out a little newspaper. I was really enjoying it. Then my aunt saw the cartoon and the editor wanted to keep Oswald going. Oswald’s been going ever since. A local boy’s got the job now, Larry Day. He’s a really wonderful artist and he’s working for Leo Burnett, an advertising agency in Chicago, and draws Oswald on the side. He has a lot of illustrations and paintings in the Chicago Tribune on Sunday. He does watercolors for articles.
Stolzer: You did Mister Oswald every month, and you also did other cartoons. How did you manage to do that and run a hardware store full time?
Johnson: Sometimes I wondered about that! [laughter] Not only did I draw Mister Oswald, but I started doing a lot of advertising cartoons. I drew a full page for the Sporting Goods Journal, and I also drew two strips for the Armstrong Power Co., one for their retail stores and one for their wholesale outfit. I had the hardware store and my dad died in 1930, so I had to take it over. I not only had the hardware store, but my brother-in-law came down and started a shoe store. He pooped out on it and left me with the shoe store. So I had the hardware store, the shoe store, a bottled gas route and the strip! Sometimes I wondered how the dickens I did all that!
Stolzer: Did you ever think about trying to do newspaper cartoons?
Johnson: Well, I had made a couple of attempts, and they always told me they weren’t funny enough.
Stolzer: Was that in Chicago?
Johnson: Yeah, I gave it an effort. I still remember one of the illustrators for one of the syndicates thought I was very good. He gave my name to the editor there and they asked for some samples. But they decided it wasn’t funny enough. My cartoons are, well…I had the talent for Gibson City.
Stolzer: The syndicates don’t always know a good thing when they see it. Mister Oswald was a tremendous comic strip.
Johnson: I lived that strip. I carried a little book around with me all the time. My wife complained about me looking at the book every once in a while, because I was living with all those people all the time. All those make-believe people, all those employees, I was living with them. When we would go to restaurants, they were at the table with us. I think I had some pretty good ideas.
Stolzer: I think so, too. I found the book in an antiques store maybe three years ago, and I thought the work was wonderful! I’m not a hardware person, but I think it gives a lot of insight into the hardware business. It provides a great look at a slice of our past with a lot of humor. When do you think you did your best work?
Johnson: Well, I drew the strip until I was 95 years old. If anything I was enjoying it and doing a better job all the time. I think it got better. I may be wrong, but I think it was a lot better than when I started it.
Stolzer: Is there any chance that a second book will come out?
Johnson: Larry Day is getting together a book of the cartoons. I worked with him on it for a while, to get the thing rolling. He called me just earlier this week. He had just sent the material for another book to a publisher in Massachusetts, so we’re not giving up yet. We showed the dummied book to the publisher of the magazine, and he liked it very much. He talked about publishing the book. Then he called me later. He said he’d checked with the printer and they wanted $44,000 for 10,000 books, and he said they didn’t have that kind of money.
Stolzer: I know you have a lot of fans. Don Petterson sent me a letter with some photocopies of an article that was done on you in the Comics Buyer’s Guide. This is from the 1970s, and I know that there are still many of your fans out there. In your book, the strips go up to 1968. Did you introduce many more characters after the book, or were they pretty much the same cast?
Johnson: I think it was pretty much the same. You see, I don’t if you noticed it or not, but most of the cartoons in the book are all on one page. In 1962, I was in Indianapolis, and the editor told me that they had had so many requests for the page opposite the cartoon. When I got back home, I got to thinking, “Gee whiz, if they get requests for advertisements on the page opposite the cartoon—why don’t they run cartoons for three pages?” So I submitted a cartoon with three pictures on each page, nine altogether. So instead of a half a page available to these advertisers, you have another page and a half! They were tickled to death, and that’s the way they ran them. From 1962 on, the cartoon ran on three pages. Those three pages make it difficult to put out another book, because they have to be cut out and re-pasted in strips from left to right. People won’t read up and down. That’s the problem on the book. It’s going to take a lot of extra work.
Stolzer: Is the strip’s new artist keeping the strip in your style?
Johnson: He’s getting better. He’s been at it since 1989. I’m six years away from my retirement. He’s had it for six years. He’s getting a lot better each time. His handicap was that he didn’t have the retail experience. He never worked in retail stores, so his ideas were different than mine would be. But he’s doing better. As I say, he’s a wonderful artist, but he has a lot of work to do. His work looks a little like he’s doing it for the money. His work doesn’t look like he loves it like I did. My Mister Oswald cartoons, I think, show that my heart was in the hardware business.
Stolzer: Speaking of the hardware business, did you really have a salesman like Hotair?
Johnson: I had a lot of salesmen, about four or five regular hardware salesmen. They all gave me ideas for Mr. Hotair.
Stolzer: He’s based on more than one person.
Johnson: Different ideas from different salesmen. I don’t think there was any salesman who really resembled Hotair, with his derby hat. There were different employees. Herman was in there. Herman was a great idea. He was about four feet tall and he’d been thrown out of the hardware store about a half-dozen times. I don’t know why . . . something he says to Mister Oswald.
Stolzer: He has a very large family. Where did you get the idea for Herman?
Johnson: I don’t know. I just wanted a goat; somebody to take the blame for everything, and I thought Herman…as I said before, I lived with Herman. During World War II, Herman went to work for Mister Oswald. He had a wife. There was no danger of him being drafted because he had a wife and eight kids, he was only four feet tall and he was 4-F. So I had a man who was the goat, you might say. He always said the wrong thing. Remember his daughter Utopia? She went to high school, and she wanted to join the Rose Club, and she found out that the rich girls kept her out of it. Herman decided he would run for the school board. There were a lot of steps that I took with him. Oswald resented all the time he was taking to electioneer for the job. I thought it was a good thing, because that’s one of the things we have every place: The poor children are trying to get into the upper crust, and the rich children keep them out. Oswald told Herman he didn’t have a chance to be elected because he was running against their best customer…what was his name? Manny Acres. He tells Herman, “If you get elected, I’ll wash the window every week for a month.” In the last picture of that cartoon, I showed Mr. Oswald washing the window. Herman was indeed congratulated for being elected. So Herman’s been on that school board all this time. It’s been a good idea. There are lots of ideas that I’ve had with it.
Stolzer: Did Mister Oswald only ever run in black and white?
Johnson: Yes, that was all it ever did, black and white. The cover we have of the book shows Herman’s whole family in color, all the kids at the table. His wife is feeding the little one, Quince. I think it’s a very attractive cover. It’s something that attracts the eye, the family at the dinner table. The color is one of the things adding to the cost of the book.
Stolzer: Are you still following the comics today?
Stolzer: What are some of the comics you like today?
Johnson: My favorite comic strips? I think they’ve deteriorated considerably because of the reduction in size. They’re getting almost entirely in gags, showing the heads talking to each other. There are no backgrounds, and they can’t help it. They’re putting too many strips on the page. They used to put a strip all the way across the page. Then they could put some detail in it. Those were good.
Stolzer: You mentioned Billy DeBeck before—here’s a piece of DeBeck’s original art. How about Gasoline Alley? Do you remember that one?
Johnson: You’re darned right I remember Gasoline Alley!
Stolzer: A good friend of mine is the current artist on Gasoline Alley.
Johnson: [Inspecting the DeBeck Bunky original] He didn’t put much background in on this one. This looks like Fred Lasswell.
Stolzer: Lasswell probably did some work on this one. The lettering, I think, is Lasswell’s, and maybe some of the artwork also. I know Lasswell is still drawing Snuffy Smith.
Johnson: Well, he’s got guys drawing for him.
Stolzer: Last I heard, he’s still doing it himself.
Johnson: Is that right?
Stolzer: He had some assistants, but the last I heard, he was drawing it himself. He does all of his lettering on the computer now. [Pulling out a Gasoline Alley original] This is the newer Gasoline Alley, done by my friend Jim Scancarelli. The Tribune doesn’t carry Gasoline Alley anymore. They dropped it, unfortunately. He does some very nice work on it.
Johnson: Yes, that’s very good. It’s not quite as good as King’s, but it’s still quite nice. King did a wonderful job.
Stolzer: Yes, he was a great cartoonist.
Johnson: [Looking at a Sidney Smith The Gumps original] I’ll be darned, there’s Min. Sidney Smith signed the first million-dollar contract, for the Chicago Tribune. That night, going home to Lake Geneva, he had that automobile accident and was killed.
Stolzer: He was a great cartoonist. The strip was never the same after that. Do fans try to contact you about Mister Oswald?
Johnson: I get people asking me to sign the book. Back when the book originally came out, you could send it anywhere in the United States or Canada for 23 cents. That’s all it cost. Last month, some guy from Indianapolis mailed me a book to be autographed. So I autographed it for him and mailed it back, and the postage on that one book was $2.20. That’s ridiculous!
Stolzer: I read in an article that you were selling your book for about four dollars.
Johnson: $4.95. They didn’t make much effort to sell it. I don’t know how many books they had printed. As soon as it came out, they had me come over to Indianapolis and autograph 133 books to give away to all the top hardware men. They ran two or three ads in the magazine, $4.95 plus postage and handling. It had no information about what postage and handling would be, so how would you order the book? What would you do? I was told a lot of times that the only thing they read in the magazine was Mister Oswald, so a lot of people wanted to see it. I wanted to put down at the bottom of the cartoon, “The Oswald book is now ready,” because so many people kept asking me when there would be a book. But the managing editor wouldn’t let me do it. He said it would commercialize the cartoon. They didn’t make much effort. After they got through giving them away, they sent me about 3,800 books. I put them in storage in Champaign, and I autographed books in the hardware store here. I had no problem getting rid of all those books.
Stolzer: Almost 4,000 books. That’s a lot of Mr. Oswald fans! Speaking of which, could I get you to autograph my book, please?
Johnson: Sure! It won’t be the kind of autograph I could do when I was younger, but I’ll do my best.
Stolzer: I’ll take whatever kind of autograph I can get, thank you. Do you ever sell any of your original art?
Johnson: Oh, yeah! They’re pretty well picked over. Nearly all of them are gone.
Stolzer: What was this one hand-colored for?
Johnson: My grandkids did that one.
Stolzer: How much do you get for an original?
Stolzer: What do you do with yourself these days?
Johnson: I watch TV more than anything else. I was watching a ballgame when you came up.
Stolzer: Are you a big baseball fan?
Johnson: I keep track of the teams. Of course, this baseball strike kind of messed things up.
Stolzer: Did you hand-letter all the time?
Johnson: Yeah. Recently, after I started making the strip three pages, I started putting the same heading all the time.
Stolzer: Did you ever have any help on the strip at all?
Johnson: Once when I had the chicken pox, I had my secretary ink it for me. That was the only time I had help.
Stolzer: How did it come out?
Johnson: Not very good [laughter].
Stolzer: One of my favorite things that you did was how you drew your backgrounds. [Russ laughs] When I was looking at your book, I would think, “He must have spent so much time drawing kegs of nails and shelves with all the materials on them.” That must have taken a lot of time.
Johnson: I just liked to do it.
Stolzer: When you were submitting strips to the newspapers, what kind of comic strips did you submit?
Johnson: I think that was my mistake: I wasn’t trying to be funny, I was trying to establish a story. I think that was one of the reasons my strip was turned down. If I’d spent a little more time trying to tell jokes, I’d have been better off. I was always trying to create a story. In the strip that I did for The Sporting Goods Journal, two guys had a sporting goods store, and their names were Adam and Steve. Then there’s the Armstrong Car Company, and for their Wholesaler I had Buster Bunk and the Boys. For the retail store, Sell ’em & Son.
Stolzer: When did that strip run?
Johnson: In the 1930s.
Stolzer: Boy, you were very busy! How long did it usually take you to do one strip?
Johnson: Well, that would be hard to say, because I never did sit down to do a whole strip in one sitting. I would do a little at a time. I always had many irons in the fire. I would say that during the first years, I didn’t get more than minimum wage for the job. [laughter]
Stolzer: Did you ever think about stopping the strip? Did it ever get to be too much to do with the hardware store?
Johnson: Golly gee whiz, I would have stopped everything else before I stopped that! That was my love! I just loved that job.
Stolzer: Is the building that was your hardware store still downtown?
Johnson: No, it’s gone. No more store. When I quit the hardware business, I tried to sell the store, but I couldn’t find anyone with enough money. I sold it out. I sold the building to the newspaper.
Stolzer: When did they tear the building down?
Stolzer: So from then on you worked exclusively on the comic strip?
Johnson: From then on, I enjoyed life.
Stolzer: How old were you when you sold the hardware store?
Johnson: In 1953, I was 60 years old. I’m 101 and a half now.
Stolzer: Have you heard about the postage stamps commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the comic strip?
Stolzer: I brought them along with me—I thought you might like to see them. They had a very hard time picking out the strips to commemorate.
Johnson: Well, what do you know? [laughter] Mister Oswald missed out, didn’t he?
Stolzer: Did you read the Chicago Tribune’s comic strips when you were growing up?
Johnson: Yeah, especially when I worked in Chicago. I always did read a lot of comic strips. I think it’s a crime that they had to turn them into nothing but pictures of heads talking to each other.
Stolzer: I teach in the art department at one of the universities in Wisconsin, and in the spring we’re going to have a show of comic-strip original artwork. Would you mind if I put one of your originals in the show?
Johnson: Why would I mind? I’m sorry that some of the good ones are gone.
Stolzer: Well, these are beautiful.
Johnson: My last cartoon was turned down. After all the years I did the cartoon, they finally turned one down. I had the old landlady go into the hardware store to watch her serial because her own TV had gone on the blink. So she went in there to sit down and watch it. Johnny had a TV customer who came along, and he was bothering her. Herman told Johnny that this old lady had AIDS. Johnny ran over and asked, “Is it true that you’ve got AIDS?” And she said, “Yes—one in each ear!” They were afraid that people with AIDS would object to it.
Stolzer: That was your last cartoon?
Stolzer: Did you ever do any type of artwork besides cartooning?
Johnson: No. My love was cartoons, from when I was still in grade school.
Stolzer: Is Hardware Retailer still in Indianapolis?
Stolzer: I think I’d like to get some copies. I’d like to see what the strip looks like. It’s interesting: Mister Oswald is a full page, and in the ’50s and ’60s, most of the Sunday pages were half-page. So you were very lucky to be able to do a full page. Those guys couldn’t do this kind of detail. Did you used to get up to Chicago very often?
Johnson: Oh yeah, my wife lived in Chicago. In fact, when I was working at the hardware store down here, I would go to Chicago every weekend to see her.
Stolzer: That must have been a much longer drive back then. There were no interstates.
Johnson: Five hours. I could think of a lot of ideas while driving.
Stolzer: Thank you very much for your time, Mr. Johnson.
Johnson: I hope you feel that your trip was worth it.
Stolzer: Oh, very much so! It was an honor to meet you.