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.
Note: This interview originally appeared in Hogan’s Alley #10. Throughout the interview, click on illustrations to enlarge.
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.