“Little Lulu,” the black-eyed girl in the bright red dress whose antics played out in the nation’s “funny pages” for almost half of the twentieth century, has taken up residence at the Schlesinger Library. The papers of Marjorie Henderson Buell, Lulu’s creator, came to the library thanks to the generosity of her sons, Lawrence Buell, the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard, and Frederick Buell, a professor of English at Queens College, City University of New York.
“Our decision to donate the Marjorie Henderson Buell papers to the Schlesinger Library was swift and unambiguous,” says Lawrence Buell. “The Schlesinger is incomparably the best place at which to do research into the life and work of the first woman cartoonist to achieve international fame. We are certain that ‘Marge’ herself would have approved our choice enthusiastically.”
This rich collection of her papers touches on many important topics, including how women are represented in the media; women in nontraditional careers; women in business; and women’s balancing of work and family.
The eldest of three artistic sisters, Buell was born in 1904 and grew up in Philadelphia. Her mother was an amateur cartoonist, and her father, a lawyer, was a raconteur who homeschooled his three daughters through the fourth grade. At the age of eight, Buell was selling drawings to her friends, and in high school she worked out of her studio in a converted chicken coop and sold cartoons to the Philadelphia Ledger. By 1929, under the pseudonym “Marge,” she had two syndicated strips, “The Boy Friend” and “Dashing Dot,” featuring worldly-wise young flappers with sleek bobs, long legs, and short skirts.
Lulu was born in 1935, when the Saturday Evening Post asked Buell to create a successor to the magazine’s “Henry”—Carl Anderson’s stout, mute little boy—who was moving on to national syndication. The result was Little Lulu, the resourceful, equally silent (at first) little girl whose loopy curls were reminiscent of the artist’s own as a girl. Buell explained to a reporter, “I wanted a girl because a girl could get away with more fresh stunts that in a small boy would seem boorish.”
A little subversive (in the third strip, Lulu, wearing a phony mustache, stands in a line of men waiting to enter a “Men Only” theater), but always the picture of innocence, Lulu was a hit. In 1944, she began a fifteen-year run as the star of advertisements for Kleenex tissues. By 1950, Buell was presiding over a merchandising empire that included Little Lulu dolls, lunch boxes, magic slates, coin purses, bubble bath, pajamas, and candy, some of which are included in the collection.
Buell, who died in 1993, imagined in Little Lulu a self-reliant role model for girls. “She knew she had created a feisty character and liked it, and she was very proud of having created a popular nonviolent cartoon,” says Lawrence Buell. She was also proud of her entrepreneurial success. From business contracts to dozens of drawings to a National Geographic photo of the oceanographic research ship the Lulu, all aspects of Marjorie Henderson Buell’s long career are represented in her papers, now housed in the library.
Kathryn Allamong Jacob is the Johanna-Maria Fraenkel Curator of Manuscripts at the Schlesinger Library.