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GIF rotating through many comic book covers
Comic book covers from the collections of The Henry Ford. See them in our Digital Collections here.

Comic books, like all things, change as they age and not necessarily for the better. Whether from the golden, silver or modern age, comic books are all printed on paper that is made from wood pulp. Lignin (a substance found in wood) breaks down and causes the paper to become increasingly acidic, discolored and brittle. Those of you who collect comic books have certainly seen and handled extremely brittle and discolored books. Conservators refer to this the inherent instability of wood pulp paper as “inherent vice.”

If you wish to preserve your comics, you need to take measures to combat this inherent vice by minimizing factors that accelerate deterioration. Steps that you can take to fend off inherent vice include:

  • Limiting exposure to high levels of moisture, either in the form of water or high humidity. Both can damage comics and accelerate degradation.
  • Avoiding exposure to ultraviolet and visible light, which can cause inks to fade and paper to become yellow.
  • Using inappropriate non-archival storage or display materials, such as PVC vinyl plastic bags or boxes, inexpensive wood pulp cardboard boxes, wood pulp mat boards, wooden boxes or wooden frames. Contact with these can cause discoloration.
  • Avoiding frequent handling.

 

In this video, recorded live in the conservation lab at The Henry Ford, Chief Conservator Mary Fahey demonstrates how to store, display, repair, and preserve your comic books.

What can be done to preserve comic books?

Take measures to limit exposure to moisture by placing books in archival bags or sleeves made from polypropylene, polyethylene or polyethyleneterephalate (Mylar).

Never store comic books directly on the floor.

Avoid storing books in attics, basements or other damp areas. If no alternative is available, use watertight polyethylene or polypropylene boxes and add a few silica gel packets conditioned to 45-50% relative humidity. The packets will need to be changed periodically.

Limit exposure to light including visible and invisible ultraviolet light. If you wish to display your comics, consider display methods that limit light exposure by avoiding display near windows and turning off the lights when you are not in the room. If you choose to display your books in a lighted showcase case, LEDs on a timer are the best option since they emit minimal ultraviolet light and minimal heat. At The Henry Ford, we have noticed that Mylar covers appear to block some of the damaging effects of light, providing some protection from fading.

All books should be bagged and boarded or encapsulated (see image below) for storage, display and handling. This protects them from dirt and moisture, minimizes flexing and stress of the fragile paper, and protects from the oil and salt in people’s hands. The use of archival materials and methods for storage and display can have a big impact on the longevity of your collection.

Hand sliding comic book onto a board with plastic over top

The use of acid-free, lignin-buffered mat board, boxes and paper inserts are recommended. These products are made from cotton, and generally contain calcium carbonate, which helps to neutralize the acid that is formed in the comic books as they age. They do cost a bit more, but are well worth it. The Henry Ford uses a variety of display and storage methods for comic books. Some examples include:

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popular culture, conservation, comic books, collections care, by Mary Fahey

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Postcard, “Disneyland,” 1975.
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Welcome to Disneyland!

Disneyland was created from a combination of Walt Disney’s innovative vision, the creative efforts and technical genius of the team he put together, and the deep emotional connection the park elicits with guests when they visit there. Walt Disney himself claimed, “There is nothing like it in the entire world. I know because I’ve looked. That’s why it can be great: because it will be unique.” Here’s the story of how Walt created Disneyland, the first true theme park.

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Souvenir Book, “Disneyland,” 1955. THF 205151

Disneyland is much like Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Florida, but it’s smaller and more intimate. To me, it seems more “authentic.” It’s like you can almost feel the presence of Walt Disney everywhere because he had a personal hand in things.

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Walt Disney posing the Greenfield Village Tintype Studio, 1940. THF 109756

In creating Disneyland, Walt Disney challenged many rules of traditional amusement parks. We’ll see how. But first…since he insisted that everyone he met call him by his first name, that’s what we’ll do. From now on, I’ll be referring to him as Walt!

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Souvenir Book, “Disneyland,” 1955. THF 205155

DISNEY INSIDER TRIVIA: Do you know where Walt Disney’s inspiration for Main Street, USA, came from?

ANSWER:
Born in 1901, Walt loved the bustling Main Street of his boyhood home in Marceline, Missouri. Marceline later provided the inspiration for Disneyland’s Main Street, USA.

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Map and guide, “Hollywood Movie Capital of the World,” circa 1942. THF 209523

After trying different animated film techniques in Kansas City, Walt left to seek his fortune in Hollywood.

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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Valentine, 1938. THF 335750

There, he made a name for himself with Mickey Mouse (1927) and—10 years later—the first full-length animated feature film, Snow White. Walt innately understood what appealed to the American public and later brought this to Disneyland.

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Handkerchief, circa 1935. THF 128151

DISNEY INSIDER INFO: Here’s how Mickey Mouse looked on a child’s handkerchief in the 1930s.

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“Merry-Go-Round-Waltz,” 1949.
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Walt claimed the idea of Disneyland came to him while watching his two daughters ride the carousel in L.A.’s Griffith Park. There, he began to imagine a clean, safe, friendly place where parents and children could have fun together!

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Herschell-Spillman Carousel.
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DISNEY INSIDER INFO: That carousel in Griffith Park was built in 1926 by the Spillman Engineering Company—a later name for the Herschell-Spillman Company, the company that made the carousel now in our own Greenfield Village in 1913! Here’s what ours looks like.

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Coney Island, New York, circa 1905 –
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DISNEY INSIDER INFO:
For more on the evolution of American amusement parks, see my blog post, “From Dreamland to Disneyland: American Amusement Parks.”

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1958 Edsel Bermuda Station Wagon Advertisement, “Dramatic Edsel Styling is Here to Stay.” THF 124600

The decline of these older amusement parks ironically coincided with the rapid growth of suburbs, freeways, car ownership, and an unprecedented baby boom—a market primed for pleasure travel and family fun!

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Young Girl Seated on a Carousel Horse, circa 1955. THF 105688

Some amusement parks added “kiddie” rides and, in some places, whole new “kiddie parks” appeared. But that’s not what Walt had in mind. Adults still sat back and watched their kids have all the fun.

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Chicago Railroad Fair Official Guidebook, 1948. THF 285987

Walt’s vision for his family park also came from his lifelong love of steam railroads. In 1948, he and animator/fellow train buff Ward Kimball visited the Chicago Railroad Fair and had a ball. Check out the homage to old steam trains in this program.

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Tintype of Walt and Ward. THF 109757

After the Railroad Fair, Walt and Ward visited our own Greenfield Village, where they enjoyed the small-town atmosphere during a special tour. At the Tintype Studio, they had their portrait taken while dressed up as old-time railroad engineers.

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Walt Disney and Artist Herb Ryman with illustration proposals for the Ford Pavilion, 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. THF 114467

DISNEY INSIDER TRIVIA: Walt Disney used the word Imagineers to describe the people who helped him give shape to what would become Disneyland. What two words did he combine to create this new word?

ANSWER: Walt hand-picked a group of studio staff and other artists to help him create his new family park. He later referred to them as Imagineers—combining the words imagination and engineering. This image shows Walt with Herb Ryman—one of his favorite artists.

DISNEY INSIDER INFO: For a deeper dive on an early female Imagineer, see my blog post, “The Exuberant Artistry of Mary Blair.”

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Postcard viewbook of Los Angeles, California. THF 7376

Walt continually looked for new ideas and inspiration for his park, including places around Los Angeles, like Knott’s Berry Farm, the Spanish colonial-style shops on Olvera Street, and the bustling Farmer’s Market—one of Walt’s favorite hangouts.

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Times Square – Looking North – New York City, August 7, 1948. THF 8840

Walt also worried about how people got fatigued in large and crowded environments. So, he studied pathways, traffic flow, and entrances and exits at places like fairs, circuses, carnivals, national parks, museums, and even the streets of New York City.

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Souvenir Book, “Disneyland,” 1955. THF 205154

Studying these led to Walt’s first break from traditional amusement parks: the single entrance. Amusement park operators argued this would create congestion, but Walt wanted visitors to experience a cohesive “story”—like walking through scenes of a movie.

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Souvenir Book, “Disneyland,” 1955. THF 205152

Another new idea in Walt’s design was the central “hub,” that led to the park’s four realms, or lands, like spokes of a wheel. Walt felt that this oriented people and saved steps. Check out the circular hub in front of the castle on this map.

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Disneyland cup & saucer set, 1955-1960. THF 150182

A third rule-challenging idea in Walt’s plan was the attractor, or “weenie” for each land—in other words, an eye-catching central feature that drew people toward a goal. The main attractor was, of course, Sleeping Beauty Castle.

To establish cohesive stories for each land, Walt insisted that the elements in them fit harmoniously together—from buildings to signs to trash cans. This idea—later called “theming”—was Walt’s greatest and most unique contribution.

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Halsam Products, “Walt Disney’s Frontierland Logs,” 1955-1962. THF 173562

DISNEY INSIDER INFO: This Lincoln Logs set reinforced the look and theming of Frontierland in Disneyland.

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Woman’s Home Companion, March 1951. THF 5540

DISNEY INSIDER TRIVIA: Which came first, Disneyland the park, or Disneyland the TV show?

ANSWER: To build his park, Walt lacked one important thing—money! So, he took a risk on the new medium of TV. While most Hollywood moviemakers saw TV as a fad or as the competition, Walt saw it as “my way of going direct to the public.” Disneyland the TV show premiered October 27, 1954—with weekly features relating to one of the four lands and glimpses of Disneyland the park being built.

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Child’s coonskin cap, 1958-1960. THF 8168

The TV show was a hit, but never more than when three Davy Crockett episodes aired in late 1954 and early 1955.

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Souvenir Book, “Disneyland,” 1955. THF 205153

Disneyland, the park, opened July 17, 1955, to special guests and the media. So many things went wrong that day that it came to be called “Black Sunday.” But Walt was determined to fix the glitches and soon turned things around.

DISNEY INSIDER INFO: For more on “Black Sunday” and the creation of Disneyland, see my blog post, “Happy Anniversary, Disneyland.”

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Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom guidebook, 1988. THF 134722

Today, themed environments from theme parks to restaurants to retail stores owe a debt to Walt Disney. Sadly, Walt Disney passed away in 1966. It was his brother Roy who made Walt Disney World in Florida a reality, beginning with Magic Kingdom in 1971.

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Torch Lake steam locomotive pulling passenger cars in Greenfield Village, August 1972. THF 112228

DISNEY INSIDER INFO: In an ironic twist, a steam railroad was added to the perimeter of Greenfield Village for the first time during a late 1960s expansion—an attempt to be more like Disneyland!

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Marty Sklar speaking at symposium for “Behind the Magic” at Henry Ford Museum, November 11, 1995. THF 12415

In 2005, The Henry Ford celebrated Disneyland’s 50th anniversary with a special exhibit, “Behind the Magic: 50 Years of Disneyland.” The amazing and talented Marty Sklar, then head of Walt Disney Imagineering, made that possible.

DISNEY INSIDER INFO: Check out this blog post I wrote to honor Marty’s memory when he passed away in 2017.

During these unprecedented times, Disneyland has begun its phased reopening. When you feel safe and comfortable going there, I suggest adding it to your must-visit (or must-return) list. When you're there, you can look around for Walt Disney's influences, just like I do.

Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

#THFCuratorChat, popular culture, Disney, by Donna R. Braden

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June 1955 magazine advertisement for the release of Lady and the Tramp. THF145583

Although this animated feature film received mixed reviews when it was first released on June 22, 1955, Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp has since become a classic.  It is beloved for its songs, its story, its gorgeously rendered and meticulously detailed settings, and its universal themes of love and acceptance—not to mention that scene with the spaghetti!  Numerous story artists and animators contributed their talents to creating this film, but it would take years before Walt Disney would finally give it his nod of approval. 

Unlike other Disney animated films of the time, Lady and the Tramp is not based upon a venerable old fairy tale or a previously published book.  Its origins can be traced back to 1937, when Disney story artist Joe Grant showed Walt Disney some sketches and told him of his idea for a story based upon the antics of his own English Springer Spaniel named Lady, who was “shoved aside” when the family’s new baby arrived.  Walt encouraged Grant to develop the story but was unhappy with the outcome—feeling that Lady seemed too sweet and that the story didn’t have enough action.  For the next several years, Grant and other artists worked on a variety of conceptual sketches and many different approaches. 

In 1945, the storyline took a drastic turn, which ultimately led to its final film version.  That year, Walt Disney read a magazine short story called, “Happy Dan, the Cynical Dog.”  Here, in the story of a cynical, devil-may-care dog, Walt found the perfect foil for the prim and proper Lady.  By 1953, the film had evolved to the point that Walt asked Ward Greene, the short story’s author, to write a novelization of it.  It is Greene—not Joe Grant—who received credit in the final film.  Walt couldn’t resist adding a personal tidbit to the story.  According to his telling of the story, the opening scene came from his own experience of giving his wife a puppy as a gift in a hat box to make up for having forgotten a dinner date with her. 

Interestingly, the spaghetti-eating scene was almost cut, as Walt Disney initially thought it was silly and unromantic.  But animator Frank Thomas had such a strong vision for the scene that he completed all the animation for it before showing it to Walt, who was so impressed he agreed to keep in the now-iconic scene.

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1955 charm bracelet of the dogs in Lady and the Tramp, likely a souvenir obtained at Disneyland. THF8604

Since the dogs were the main characters of the film, it seemed only natural to both show and tell the story from the dogs’ point of view.  The animators studied many real dogs to capture their movements, behaviors, and personalities, while the scenes themselves were shot from a low “dog’s-eye-view” perspective.

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A depiction of Main Street, U.S.A. at Disneyland from the 1955 Picture Souvenir Book to the park. THF205154

The film’s setting—early 20th century small-town America—referenced Walt Disney’s own return to his roots, particularly his growing up in the small town of Marceline, Missouri.  As the setting was coming to life on film, a real live 3D version of it was being constructed at Disneyland, Walt Disney’s new park in Anaheim, California.  Disneyland opened a mere three weeks after the film was released.

Although the setting hearkened back to the past, the filmmaking technique that Walt chose was typically state-of-the-art.  As Walt marked the growing interest in widescreen film technology, he decided this would be the first of his animated films to use CinemaScope.  To fill in the extra-wide space of this format, the animators extended the backgrounds—resulting in settings that are unusually breathtaking, detailed, mood-setting and, when the story called for it, filled with dramatic tension.  Unfortunately, many theatres were not equipped with CinemaScope, so Walt decided that two versions of the film had to be created, forcing layout artists to scramble to restructure key scenes for a standard format as well.  CinemaScope ultimately proved too expensive and did not last past the early 1960s.  But its influence on Lady and the Tramp lives on—a testament to Walt’s commitment to filmmaking innovation.

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Although souvenirs related to Lady and the Tramp are hard to come by these days, I was thrilled to find these salt-and-pepper shakers and collectible pins over several visits to Walt Disney World.

I saw Lady and the Tramp when it was re-released in theatres in 1962.  I was nine years old at the time and I was completely enraptured.  The details and setting—from the frilly ladies’ dresses, dapper men’s suits, and overstuffed furniture inside Lady’s house to the horses’ clip-clopping down the cobblestone streets—seemed like old photographs come to life.  Taking in these details on the big screen as a girl, I was transfixed.  Is this where my interest in history began?

After seeing Lady and the Tramp at the movies, I also became obsessed with wanting a dog.  Not just any dog.  I wanted Lady, or a cocker spaniel as close to Lady as I could get.  I dreamed of her, drew pictures of her, transferred her personality onto the stuffed dogs I inevitably got as presents.  When I was in eighth grade, my parents finally relented.  One day my Mom surprised us and took us kids down to the animal shelter to get a dog.  It wasn’t a cocker spaniel.  But we did find a little golden-haired puppy that was a fine substitute. 

I don’t know that I thought much of Tramp when I was a girl.  He was wayward, a nuisance, too different.  But from my older perspective, I see that Lady meeting, and ultimately falling for, Tramp was really a symbol of what happens in your life.  Forced out of your comfort zone, broadening your horizons, seeing things from new perspectives, taking life’s curves with grace until, rather than resisting it, you accept it—even embrace it. 

Who knew, when I was a girl, that this movie was not just about dogs but about life? 

Note: The complete story of the making of Lady and the Tramp, including Joe Grant’s contributions, can be found in the bonus feature, “Lady’s Pedigree: The Making of Lady and the Tramp,” in the 50th Anniversary DVD of Lady and the Tramp.

Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. 

by Donna R. Braden, popular culture, movies, Disney

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An early version of Kermit the Frog appeared in Henson’s
Sam and Friends TV puppet show, but Kermit became a breakout star during The Muppet Show. THF304042

It’s hard to believe that May 16, 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of Jim Henson’s passing. His influence can still be seen in so many places: on-demand TV shows, movies, and specials; related books, toys, games, and other merchandise; and modern-day puppets, puppet performances, and puppeteers.

In his lifetime, Henson’s titles included puppeteer, writer, director, producer, and entrepreneur. But titles can be misleading because he was so much more than these. A brilliant innovator, he continually questioned the status quo, broke boundaries, and experimented with new ideas. By stretching the known capabilities of both puppetry and the medium of television (and, then, of motion pictures), he created a new art form. And, in the process, he inspired us—the viewers—to use our imaginations, to take ourselves less seriously, and to treat others with greater tolerance.

Jim Henson (born 1936) was drawn to the arts at a young age, including an early fascination with puppetry. When he entered college, he thought about majoring in fine arts. But he found—buried in the course list of the home economics department at his school—a class on puppetry. So, even though most of the students majoring in home economics were females learning domestic skills for future homemaking, he decided that would be his major.

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Henson was inspired by early radio and TV puppets, including Charlie McCarthy, a “cheeky” boyish dummy voiced by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen.
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As a freshman in college, Henson developed his own TV puppet show called Sam and Friends, which appeared briefly twice each evening. While working on this show, Henson started questioning many long-standing puppetry traditions. Why not, for example, use the entire frame of the TV screen as the actual puppet theater stage rather than bringing a separate puppet stage into the TV studio? Wouldn’t it follow, he then asked, that the puppet operators could work from off-camera rather than appearing to viewers on the screen?

Henson moved from there to questioning the puppets themselves. Why not make them more lifelike, with flexible fabric-covered foam rubber rather than the traditional carved wood? Why not use rods to move their arms—rather than the more traditional strings—to give them greater flexibility? Why not make the puppets’ mouth movements more precise to match their dialog—enhancing their believability and letting their full range of emotions be conveyed through words as well as actions? Finally, why not give the characters distinct personalities? Better yet, imbue their personalities with whimsy, playfulness, and humor. As Henson continued to refine his ideas and his characters, an entirely new kind of puppet was born—part puppet, part marionette, and all Henson. He called his new creations Muppets.

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During his early career, Henson studied the artistry of traditional wood-carved marionettes when he spent time in Europe.
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The publicity that Henson gained with his Sam and Friends show led to his invention of a host of new Muppet characters for a range of TV commercials. By this time, the 1960s, it seemed that people were coming to appreciate humor, irony, and satire more than the serious “hard sell” that had been the norm.

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Adding life-size Muppets like Big Bird to the regular cast of Sesame Street increased the show’s popularity.
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Though he was initially reluctant to collaborate on a TV show aimed specifically at kids, Henson experienced their first major breakthrough with Sesame Street, which premiered in 1969 (for more on Sesame Street, see this post).

But Henson’s greatest claim to fame came with The Muppet Show (1976-81)—produced in England because American TV networks wrongly assumed that Muppets would just appeal to kids. Hosted by his somewhat “bolder” alter-ego, Kermit the Frog (whom he controlled and voiced), this show introduced millions of viewers to Henson’s unique blend of humor and imagination. The Muppet Show would go on to air in more than 100 countries, win several Emmy awards, and lead to several spin-off motion pictures.

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The song “Rainbow Connection,” first written to provide depth and humanity to Kermit the Frog’s character for the 1979 film,
The Muppet Movie, has gone on to become a sort of Muppets anthem. THF182956

Jim Henson went on to contribute his talents and ideas to new fantasy/adventure films, most famously aiding in the creation and articulation of Yoda for the 1980 film, The Empire Strikes Back. He tried his hand with a few of his own fantasy/adventure films, including The Dark Crystal (1981) and Labyrinth (1986)—both of which were destined to become cult classics. He also created two additional popular TV series—Fraggle Rock (1983-87) and the Saturday morning animated show, Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies (1984-91). Just before his passing, Henson worked with The Walt Disney Company to develop the themed attraction, Muppet*Vision 3D at Walt Disney World.

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Fraggle Rock characters Wembly and Boober in a pickle-shaped vehicle from a 1988 McDonald’s Happy Meal promotion.
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Inspired by a flashback sequence in the film,
The Muppets Take Manhattan, Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies were represented in the McDonald’s 1994 Happy Birthday Happy Meal promotion. THF319291

Today, Jim Henson’s Muppets delight children of all ages. Henson once claimed that, with puppets, you can deal with subjects in a way that isn’t possible with people. The Muppets may not be people, but they certainly reflect who we are as people, providing a mirror to our thoughts, hopes, and dreams.

Jim Henson had plenty of his own dreams. He wanted to make a difference in the world, to change people’s lives in positive ways—through laughter, delight, and imagination. Henson once said that, “I decided that there are many situations in this life that I can’t do much about: acts of terrorism, feelings of nationalistic prejudice, cold war, etc. So what I should do is concentrate on the situations my energy can affect.” Wise and timeless words for the times we live in today!

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Appearing in short segments on
Sesame Street, ultra-serious Bert and fun-loving Ernie demonstrate to kids that good friends can be tolerant of each other’s differences. THF309817, THF309818

During his lifetime, Henson was deeply committed to encouraging, mentoring, and recognizing the talents of a new generation of puppeteers. In 1982, he established the Jim Henson Foundation to promote and develop puppetry in the United States. Today, the Jim Henson Foundation’s web site is the go-to place to find out what’s happening in contemporary puppet theatre and currently features extensive listings of online puppet shows to “help people collectively navigate the COVID-19 Health Crisis.” Instructions for making your own puppets are included here as well. Through his efforts, and those of his family who carry on his vision, Jim Henson’s legacy has ensured that puppetry is no longer relegated simply to home economics classes but has become a highly respected art form.

Jim Henson and his legacy live on, through Muppet programs and specials; Muppet operators and performers; those who have cherished memories of growing up with Muppet characters and pass these on to younger generations; new audiences who have discovered the old classic characters and shows; and the modern-day puppeteers Henson has inspired.

At a special tribute by the Muppets for Jim Henson back in 1990, Robin the Frog (Kermit’s nephew) remarked that, “Jim Henson may be gone, but maybe he’s still here too, inside us, believing in us.”

I like to believe this is true.

Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

Additional Note: Just down the road from The Henry Ford, The Detroit Institute of Arts recently brought out on exhibit a 1969 version of Kermit, donated to them by Jim Henson himself in 1971. See more here.

movies, TV, popular culture

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An image from the set of
The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation.

For many people—especially those who grew up between the decades of the 1970s through the 1990s—the sight of a boombox often prompts the thought: “I wonder how heavy that thing would feel, if I carried it around on my shoulder?” Boomboxes are infused with the promise of human interaction, ready for active use—to be slung from arm to arm, hoisted up on a shoulder, or planted with purpose on a park bench or an empty slice of asphalt in a city somewhere.

Here at The Henry Ford, we recently acquired a trio of classic boomboxes to document stories about the growth of mobile media and the social communication of music in American culture.

The Norelco 22RL962 was developed in the mid-1960s by the Dutch company, Philips. A combination radio and compact cassette player, it had recording and playback functions as well as a carrying handle. While it was generally thought of as the first device that could be accurately called a “boombox,” the Norelco failed to gain mass traction. The core issue wasn’t due to poor performance from a technological standpoint, but rather the bad sound quality of the tapes. In 1965, the American engineer Ray Dolby invented the Dolby Noise Reduction system, which led to clean, hiss-free sound on compact cassette tapes. His invention sparked a revolution in hi-fi cassette audio.

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The ubiquitous compact cassette tape.

In the early 1970s, Japanese manufacturers began to make advancements in boombox technology as an outgrowth of modular hi-fi stereo components. Living spaces in Japan were typically small, and there was a desire to condense electronics into compact devices without losing sound quality.

Later that decade, the improved boombox made its way to the United States, where it was embraced by hip hop, punk, and new wave musicians and fans—many of whom lived in large cities like New York and Los Angeles. In many ways, the boombox was a protest device, as youth culture used them to broadcast politically charged music in public spaces.

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An early image of the Brooklyn Bridge and New York Skyline. THF113708

Boomboxes literally changed the sonic fabric of cities, but this effect was divisive. By the mid-1980s, noise pollution laws began to restrict their use in public. The golden years of the boombox were also short lived due to the rising popularity and affordability of personal portable sound devices like the Sony Walkman (and later, the MP3 player), which turned music into a private, insular experience.

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The JVC RC-550 ”El Diablo” boombox. THF179795

JVC RC-550 “El Diablo”

This boombox was built for the street, and it is meant to be played loud. Its design is rugged, with a carrying handle and protective “roll bars” in case it is dropped. Many classic photos from the early years of hip-hop depict fans and musicians carrying the El Diablo around cities and on the subway in New York.

The JVC RC-550 is a member of what sound historians refer to as the “holy trinity” of innovative boomboxes. While the origins of its “El Diablo” nickname are uncertain, it is believed to stem from the impressive volume of sound it can transmit—or its flashing red sound meters. It is a monophonic boombox, meaning that it has one main speaker and it is incapable of reproducing sound in stereo. A massive offset 10-inch woofer dominates its design, coupled with smaller midrange and tweeter speakers. As with most boomboxes of this time, bass and treble levels could be adjusted.

An input for an external microphone led to the RC-550 being advertised as a mobile personal amplifier system. Brochures from the Japanese version show the boombox being used by salesmen to amplify their pitches in front of crowds, as a sound system in a bar, and by a singing woman accompanied by a guitarist. Recording could take place directly through the tape deck, or through the microphone on top, which could be rotated 360-degrees.

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JVC 838 Biophonic Boombox. THF177384

JVC 838 Biphonic Boombox
The JVC 838 is important for its transitional design. It was one of the first boomboxes to incorporate the symmetrical arrangement of components that would become standard in 1980s portable stereos: visually balanced speakers, buttons and knobs, and a centered cassette deck.

As boombox designs evolved, they began to include (almost to the point of parody) sound visualization components such as VU meters and other electronic indicators. In many cases, these were purely for visual effect rather than function. The needle VU meters on the JVC 838 however, were accurate.

A unique feature of the JVC 838 boombox is its “BiPhonic” sound—a spatial stereo feature that creates a “being there” effect through its binaural speaker technology, resulting in “three-dimensional depth, spaciousness, and pinpoint imaging.” The box also includes an “expand” effect to widen the sound even further.

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Sharp GF-777 “Searcher.” THF177382

Sharp “Searcher” GF-777
The Sharp “Searcher” GF-777 is an exercise in excess. Often referred to as the “king of the boomboxes,” it was also one of the largest ever produced. Weighing thirty pounds (minus ten D-cell batteries) and measuring over one foot tall and two feet wide, it took a certain amount of lifestyle commitment to carry this device around a city.

The Searcher played a key part in the performance and representation of hip-hop music. Its six speakers include four woofers individually tuned for optimal bass transmission and amplitude. It appeared in a photograph on the back cover of the first Run-DMC album, found its way into several music videos, and was photographed alongside breakdancing crews. 

Many people used this boombox as an affordable personal recording studio. Two high quality tape decks opened the possibility for people to create “pause tapes” – a way of creating looped beats through queuing, recording, rewinding, and repeating a short phrase of music. A microphone input and an onboard echo effect meant people could rap or sing over top of music backing tracks.

Much like Thomas Edison’s phonograph, the boombox came full circle, allowing people to record and play back music for public and communal consumption. And while they may not mesh with our ideas of what a “mobile” device is in our age of smartphones and streaming services, their reach permeated popular culture in the 1970s well into the 1990s. Sometimes acting as portable sound systems, sometimes used as affordable personal recording studios—carrying a boombox through the streets (wherever you happened to live) was as much a fashion statement and lifestyle choice as it was a celebration of music and social technology.

Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications and Information Technology at The Henry Ford.

portability, technology, communication, music, radio, by Kristen Gallerneaux, popular culture

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This full-color, large-format book is a compilation of Buster Brown comic strips that originally ran in the
New York Herald in 1903 and 1904. THF297428

You may not know his name, but you’re likely familiar his work. Richard Outcault, a talented comic illustrator with a keen eye for marketing, found his ultimate success with the character Buster Brown in the early 1900s.

Born in Lancaster, Ohio, in 1863, Richard Felton Outcault showed an early interest in art. As a teenager, he attended the McMicken School of Design (now the Art Academy of Cincinnati) and found work painting decorative scenes for a Cincinnati safe manufacturer. By 1889, Outcault had taken a position as an artist at Thomas Edison’s West Orange, New Jersey, laboratory, working primarily on corporate exhibitions.

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Richard Outcault created this illustration for Edison’s exhibit at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. It depicts the Menlo Park laboratory complex in 1879, when Edison first demonstrated his experimental lighting system. THF236600

Around 1890, Outcault left West Orange for New York City, where he began contributing mechanical drawings to technical publications like Electrical World and Street Railway Journal. He also submitted comic illustrations to some of the popular weekly humor magazines that had emerged in the 1880s, including Judge, Life, and Puck.

As public interest in comic publications grew, new advances in color printing technology became available, and newspaper publishers saw an opportunity to cash in. In 1893, the New York World introduced a weekly color comic supplement that, at first, reprinted illustrations from the humor magazines it mimicked. Richard Outcault joined the staff of the World as a cartoonist and published his first original comic for the paper in September 1894.

The Yellow Kid
By 1896, one of the recurring characters in Outcault’s comics – a little baldheaded boy wearing a bright yellow nightshirt – had become a sensation. World readers began buying the paper every Sunday to check in on the adventures of the “Yellow Kid,” who the paper also licensed for merchandising. The Yellow Kid became the face of a wide range of products, from cigarettes and packaged foods to fashion accessories and household appliances.

The Yellow Kid’s popularity demonstrated the commercial value of comics and helped establish the medium as a newspaper fixture. Richard Outcault likely never benefitted directly from the licensing of the Yellow Kid – at that time, newspapers owned the rights to the images published in them, and copyright law didn’t protect characters – but he noted the marketing potential of a popular comic character.

Buster Brown
With the success of the Yellow Kid, Outcault himself became something of a commodity. Demand for his comics kept him busy, and Outcault continued illustrating for several newspapers and magazines through the turn of the century. In 1902, he introduced Buster Brown, a mischievous 12-year-old boy from a well-heeled Manhattan family. Readers went crazy for Buster Brown’s shenanigans (and for his pet dog, Tige). Outcault had another hit on his hands.

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Richard Outcault was a pioneer in the strip style of comic illustration, with sequential image panels and accompanying text (often in speech bubbles) that contributed to the narrative. By about 1900, this format had become standard for comics. THF297493

This time, he managed to profit from it. Though he never owned the legal rights to Buster Brown, Outcault licensed the character’s name and face to hundreds of companies. Buster Brown promoted everything from bread and cigars to toys and – perhaps most famously – shoes.

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This bank is just one example of the hundreds of products manufactured during the first quarter of the twentieth century that bore Buster Brown’s likeness. Buster’s canine companion, Tige, sits at the horse’s feet. THF304975

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The St. Louis-based Brown Shoe Company (now Caleres) is probably the best-known Buster Brown licensee. Buster and Tige promoted the Brown company’s shoes – commonly called “Buster Browns” – into the 1990s.
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Americans purchased these branded products for decades after Outcault introduced Buster Brown. The character became a household name that outlived its comic strip, which was last published in 1921. By then, Richard Outcault was focusing less on illustrating and more on marketing. Eventually, he stepped away from comics altogether, returning to painting before his death in 1928. Eighty years later, the comic industry formally recognized Outcault’s important career, inducting him into its hall of fame at the 2008 San Diego Comic Convention.

Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content at The Henry Ford

popular culture, newspapers, drawings, communication, by Saige Jedele

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One of the comic book titles that came under attack in the 1950s
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The popularity of comic books has always ebbed and flowed.  But there was a time when their very survival was at stake.  Back in the 1950s, Cold War hysteria and the fear of Communist infiltration into American society led to a deep concern about, and intense scrutiny of, comic books.  This was the one medium at the time that went directly from manufacturer to child, bypassing adult supervision. 

An American psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham fanned the flames of adult concern at the time.  Dr. Wertham worked with juvenile delinquents and found that the one thing they all seemed to have in common was their devotion to comic books.  Beginning in 1948, he went on an anti-comic book crusade, writing and speaking out against the detrimental effects that he claimed comic book reading had on young people.  

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Dr. Wertham’s
Seduction of the Innocent book, 1954 THF277193

Dr. Wertham summed up his arguments in his 1954 opus, Seduction of the Innocent.  This 400-page indictment of the comic book industry warned parents and educators that comic books were not only a harmful form of popular literature but also a serious cause of juvenile delinquency.  In the book, as in his lectures, he cited examples of violence, sexual themes, drug use, and other adult fare that he had found within the pages of actual comic books—asserting that reading this material encouraged similar behavior.  According to Dr. Wertham, these examples were especially evidenced in the extremely popular crime and horror titles published by the EC comic book company at the time. 

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Comic books with covers like this one, showing violence and scantily clad women, were among those that Dr. Wertham denounced. THF141552

Seduction of the Innocent created a sensation, as Dr. Wertham put forth a potent combination of professional expertise and moral outrage.  It confirmed the growing fear by many parents that their children’s attachment to comic books was permanently harming their willingness to conform to societal rules and hindering their ability to become law-abiding citizens in America’s democratic society.

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1951 Superman comic book predating the Comics Code Authority’s stamp of approval THF141569

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1965 Superman comic book with its Comics Code Authority stamp of approval in the upper right corner THF305329

The national attention focused upon the comic book industry led to a simultaneous U.S. Congressional inquiry in 1954.  As things were looking bleak for the comic book industry, the publishers decided to band together and self-censor their own titles by adopting a new Comics Code Authority (or CCA).  According to CCA regulations, each company was required to include a Stamp of Approval on the cover of every one of its issues as a sign that it had met compliance with the Code.

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December 1954 issue of Mad when it was a comic book, just before it was converted into a magazine THF141567

As a result, EC titles were soon taken off the shelves.  In fact, this company would have been completely wiped out except for its popular Mad magazine, which became highly successful in its own right.  Even though the other comic book companies honed their stories closely to the guidelines of the Code, the damage had been done.  Comic books were held in disdain for years to the point that, by the early 1960s, their very survival was at risk.  We can thank, in large part, Marvel Comics’ new approach to stories and superheroes for their remarkable comeback.    

Dr. Wertham was later discredited for “manipulating, overstating, compromising, and fabricating” evidence.  And, before long, parents found that comic books were minor in their concern about harmful influences on America’s youth, as they seemed like nothing compared to the new Hollywood teenage films, paperback novels, and rock ‘n’ roll music!  Only later did people better understand that teenage angst and rebellion were very normal parts of growing up.

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Teenage movies like the one shown in this 1959 poster made comic books seem tame by comparison. THF109455

Through the ensuing decades, few comic books dared veer from the Code’s regulations that forbade depictions of graphic violence, advocated alignment with societal norms, and dictated that all comic book stories end on an upbeat note.  But by the late 20th century, these norms had changed enough that the earlier regulations had lost much of their relevance.  The two major comic book companies—Marvel and DC—finally dropped the CCA in favor of their own rating systems—in 2001 and 2011, respectively.

For a time, comic books went on trial.  But they managed to survive and adapt.  Ironically, later studies revealed that comic books actually played a positive role in enhancing literacy, inspiring imagination, providing new career outlets, and leading to lifetime hobbies.

Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.  See her other blog posts, Hooked on Comic Books and Battle of the Superheroes: DC vs. Marvel.

books, popular culture, by Donna R. Braden, comic books

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DC’s superhero stories, like this 1961 issue of
The Flash, invariably ended happily—with problems resolved and loose ends neatly tied up. THF305327

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Marvel superheroes often questioned both their superpowers and their general existence, as suggested on this dramatic cover of issue#50 of The Amazing Spider-Man.*

The Flash, the Hulk, the Thing; Batman, Ironman, Spider-Man; the Legion of Super-Heroes, the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy.  On and on it goes.  The list of comic book superheroes can seem almost endless.  How do you tell them apart?  To get you started, it helps to know their origin—their company of origin, that is.  With a few exceptions, all comic book superheroes trace their origins back to the talented writers and artists who created them at only two companies—DC and Marvel.  From their beginnings, these companies differed radically in their approach to superheroes, and these differences can still be discerned today. 

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Superman comic book, 1951 THF141569

DC Comics

Comic book superheroes originated back in the 1930s with Superman.  This superpowered alien was the brainchild of two shy but talented teenage boys from Cleveland, Ohio—Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.  Pooling their drawing and writing talents, they devised the story of a he-man they simply called “The Superman,” who crash-landed on earth from another planet.  To keep his true identity safe, Superman needed to adopt a secret identity.  Enter Clark Kent, a meek, mild-mannered reporter with a personality remarkably similar to the two boys who had created him. 

Siegel and Shuster originally thought their character would lend itself to a great newspaper comic strip.  But they had no luck selling the idea to newspaper publishers, so they reluctantly agreed to sell their story in 1937 to the just-formed Detective Comics, Inc. (later shortened to DC).  Comic books—especially those featuring single characters rather than simply being collections of comic strips—were as yet an untested medium and both the young creators and the publisher took a risk.  Superman first appeared in Action comics (published by National Allied Publications, another corporate predecessor to DC) in June 1938.  Surprising everyone involved, he was immediately so popular that the publishers decided to feature him in his own comic book the very next year.  This marked the first time a comic book was devoted to a single superhero character. 

During the hard times of the Great Depression, Superman’s unprecedented popularity can be attributed to both his secret and his super identities.  Clark Kent represented the regular, unassuming common man that people could relate to, while they could happily dream and fantasize about being as infallible and invincible as the larger-than-life Superman.

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Wonder Woman comic book, 1948 THF141561

The formula was potent and durable.  Superman established the essential vocabulary for all DC comic book superheroes to come.  He, like superheroes who came after him, represented courage, humility, steadfastness, and a natural sense of responsibility to serving others in need.  He placed lofty principles above personal advantage, seeking nothing for himself.  As the Great Depression shifted to the patriotic World War II era, new DC superheroes like The Flash and Wonder Woman similarly placed the greater good above their own personal needs.  They never questioned their role in defending American democracy.  And, following the DC formula, they always triumphed in the end.

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During the late 1940s and 1950s, young readers were more likely to purchase a comic book about the humorous adventures of teenager Archie Andrews than one about a superhero. THF141542

During the 1950s, sales of comic books declined, especially those about superheroes.  Not only were adults concerned about the harmful effects of comic books on children, but superheroes seemed to lose their sense of purpose.  During the war years, it had been easy to know which side they were on.  What were they fighting for now?  Who exactly was the enemy?  Only Superman’s popularity continued apace, due to the popular TV series, The Adventures of Superman, which aired from 1951 to 1957.  It was through this series that the American public came to know Superman as championing “truth, justice, and the American Way.” 

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The Legion of Super-Heroes, a group of super-powered teenagers who join together to fight villains in the 30th century, have been popular DC superheroes since 1958. THF305330

By the late 1950s, DC superheroes were making a comeback, with both new and revived characters and a host of new supervillains for them to face.  New stories were created to fit the times, usually focusing either on scientific advancements (always seen as a positive force) or science fiction.  DC superheroes were competent, in control, and single-minded in their devotion to simply being heroic.  They solved any problem they encountered in a well-ordered world—a world that, for each character, had to be internally consistent.  Stories were comforting, positive, optimistic, reassuring, rational, and moral.  Superheroes used their powers responsibly, inevitably siding with established authority.

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This DC series, which started way back in 1941, featured Superman and Batman teaming up to battle villains. THF305328

The popularity of DC superheroes continued through the 1960s, spiking again with the trend-setting Batman TV show (which aired 1966-68), as well as their being featured on Saturday morning cartoons, in Broadway productions, and through related merchandise.  By this time, DC had settled on a standard and successful formula for its superhero stories: colorful and dramatic covers that grabbed kids’ attention, then a focus on plot development that would inevitably lead to a happy ending.  Little room was left for developing individual characters.  The editors at DC felt that this formula appealed to kids and young teenagers—their core market.  Why mess with success?

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Tales to Astonish #60, from 1964, featured two stories of classic Marvel superheroes: Giant-Man (introduced in 1962 as Ant-Man) with his female partner the Wasp, and The Incredible Hulk, re-introduced after his own series had been cancelled the previous year. *

Marvel Comics

In the late 1930s, following quickly upon the success of Superman over at DC, Timely Comics (later to become Marvel) introduced The Human Torch and Sub-Mariner.  The ultra-patriotic Captain America followed them during the World War II era.  But Marvel superheroes truly came into their own in the early 1960s. 

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The Comics Code Authority stamp of approval
THF141590 (detail)

The public attack on comic books in the 1950s had put a damper on the comic book industry, forcing several companies to go out of business.  It was risky even being in the business at the time.  But partly because he figured he had nothing to lose at that point, talented Marvel writer (and later visionary editor) Stan Lee tried a new approach to superheroes that would change the course of comic books forever.  He decided he could work within the constraints of the industry’s new self-censorship board, the Comics Code Authority, while at the same time dealing with more serious topics and stories. 

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This Marvel Collectors’ Item Classics from 1965 marked the first time that early classic Marvel stories were reprinted—in this issue, Fantastic Four #2 (January 1962); The Amazing Spider-Man #3 (July 1963); the Ant-Man story from Tales to Astonish #36 (October 1962); and Journey to Mystery featuring The Mighty Thor #97 (October 1963). *

The new superheroes that Lee created had relatable personalities, human flaws, and real-life problems.  Their stories were purposely aimed at a new audience of older teenagers, who were wrestling with their own insecurities and feelings of alienation.  These stories also questioned the scientific advancements of the Atomic Age that DC had embraced as positive forces in people’s lives.  What if science ran amok?  What if things went horribly wrong? What if there were dire consequences?  Many Marvel superheroes, in fact, gained their superpowers because of horrific scientific accidents. 

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Even though the Human Torch and the Thing were both members of the Fantastic Four, in this issue of Strange Tales from 1964, a villain named the Puppet Master manipulated them into fighting each other. *

It started with the Fantastic Four in 1961—Lee’s answer to an assignment to come up with a team like DC’s recently created and very popular Justice League of America.  Lee had long thought that typical superheroes were too perfect, that “the best stories of all…are the stories in which the characters seem to be real.  You feel you know them, you understand them, you can relate to them.”  This “Fantastic” superhero family had four distinctive personalities.  Furthermore, they did not act like the polished, restrained, polite superheroes with which comic book readers had long been familiar.  They argued, mistrusted each other, had tempers, expressed opinions, led complicated lives.  Rather than the public cheering them on in the stories, people feared and were suspicious of them. 

The Fantastic Four were a revelation—like no other superheroes that had come before.  Older teenagers—for whom DC superheroes had come to seem shallow and one-dimensional—found them original, realistic, exciting.  One fan remarked that turning from the Justice League and Superman to the Fantastic Four was like “stepping through a gateway into another dimension.” 

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The Green Goblin, one of The Amazing Spider-Man’s most hated enemies, planned to reveal Spider-Man’s secret identity to the world in issue #39 from August 1966, but in the process, he dramatically revealed his own true identity. *

Marvel quickly followed the popularity of the Fantastic Four with The Incredible Hulk (1962), who not only turned into a brutish monster as the result of a nuclear accident but didn’t even look, act, or sound like a superhero.  In 1963, Marvel introduced its most quintessential superhero—The Amazing Spider-Man, an ordinary teenager beset by ordinary teenage problems who, having acquired super-powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider, only reluctantly sets out to fight crime and villains.

Dr. Strange
Dr. Strange, introduced in Strange Tales in 1963, gained his own title in 1968 and made regular appearances across the Marvel universe. *

A quick succession of superheroes followed, each character with his or her own manner of speech, personality, values, and quirks.  By the late 1960s, Marvel had woven together an integrated mythology of all its superheroes, in which stories continued, superheroes made guest appearances in others’ stories, and characters could be heroes one day and become villains the next (and vice versa). 

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Marvel’s The Silver Surfer was introduced as a tortured soul, permanently exiled to Earth on a surfboard-like craft as punishment for betraying the evil Galactus on his home planet. *

The Marvel formula, as laid out with Fantastic Four in 1961, became the standard.  Stories and characters often focused on alienated and even neurotic individuals with character flaws, inner struggles, and personal grudges.  Endings weren’t always happy or satisfying.  Superheroes didn’t always get along or leverage their powers to help others.  In Marvel superheroes, readers recognized their own failings, struggles, and anxieties.  As opposed to DC’s black-and-white world, the Marvel world was gray—more like the real world.

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This DC comic book series, about a group of misfit and alienated superheroes, was conceived in the Marvel mode but was never as popular as Marvel’s stories of similar outcast groups of superheroes like The X-Men. THF141602

Since the 1960s, most superhero stories in comic books have become darker, more complex, and more serious—often tackling social issues with a gritty realism.  This trend has brought DC and Marvel stories, characters, and mythologies closer together in content and tone, though the differences between them are still definable because these are so deeply embedded in their DNA.

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The King Kon Comic & Fantasy Convention, which ran from 1984 to 1986, was the first regular comic book convention in the Detroit area after the demise of the multi-genre Detroit Triple Fan Fair (that had run from 1965 to 1977).  King Kon was a predecessor to the current annual extravaganza, Motor City Comic Con, which began in 1989. *

Superheroes can now be found pretty much everywhere, from Comic Cons to an expanding array of movies, TV shows, mobile games, action figures, and other merchandise.  Their worlds are constantly growing, expanding, and changing.  It’s easy to get confused.  But don’t worry. If you’re trying to make sense of it all, start with the superheroes’ origins.  Are they DC or Marvel?  Knowing that will set you off on the right track.

Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.  See her other blog posts, Hooked on Comic Books and Comic Books Under Attack.  Items marked with an asterisk (*) are from the author’s collection.

TV, popular culture, by Donna R. Braden, comic books

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Astonishing Tales, vol. 1 no. 29, 1975, featuring Guardians of the Galaxy - a reprint of their first appearance (1969) in Marvel Super-Heroes vol. 1 no. 18. THF305338

It started the summer I turned 14, when some neighbor kids told us they were moving and wanted to find a good home for their sizable stash of D.C. comic books. My four brothers and I had a hard time turning that down! The next thing we knew, several boxes of comic books arrived on our doorstep—opening a magical door into a world previously unknown to me.

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Archie, vol. 1 no. 102, July 1959. THF100874

Up until that time, I’d only read younger kids’ comic books—like Archie, Richie Rich, and Little Lotta. But these were different, these D.C. comics that recounted the exploits of such larger-than-life superheroes as Superman, The Flash, and my personal favorites—the teenage Legion of Super-Heroes.

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Adventure Comics, featuring Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, vol. 1 no. 343, April 1966. THF 305335

My Mom was rather horrified when she learned of our new “acquisition.” She pictured us wasting our summer away reading these comic books rather than doing things that were—as she called it—more “constructive.” I must admit that I did spend many hours that summer immersed in the pages of those comic books. But in no way would I call it wasting my time. Through those comic books, I learned about how stories can be told through a series of pictures, how pictures can illuminate ideas and feelings, and how all of this can fuel a young reader’s imagination.

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First issue of Spider-Man I purchased, vol. 1 no. 88, September 1970 (author’s collection).

One evening a few years later, my comic book world shifted. My best friend introduced me to the backstory of Spider-Man—a completely different kind of comic book superhero created by Marvel, a completely different kind of comic book company. Spider-Man had problems. And flaws. And continual feelings of self-doubt. Here was a superhero who was reluctant, questioning, always feeling like a failure even when he just happened to save the world. On top of that, he was a teenager—just like me! Who couldn’t relate to that? I was forever done with Superman. So long, D.C.! Hello, Marvel!

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Spider-Man, vol. 1 no. 96, May 1971 – an unprecedented issue at the time. It did not display the Comics Code Authority stamp of approval like virtually all comic books at the time because it involved a drug-related story (author’s collection).

I soon branched out to other Marvel comic books. I became especially enamored with the stories of Dr. Strange, whose mystical world fascinated me and whose page after page of colorful psychedelic graphics captivated me even without the stories. I also went through a Silver Surfer period, appreciating his feeling of alienation from all human beings who inhabited Planet Earth. I tried many additional titles, but Spider-Man remained my perennial favorite.

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Dr. Strange, vol. 1 no. 171, August 1968, displaying typically striking graphics on the cover (author’s collection).

As I entered college, my passion for comic books came along with me. I rode my new 10-speed bicycle down miles of back roads to visit used comic book stores and attend the occasional comic book show. I joined a comic book enthusiasts’ group with fellow students, where we traded likes, dislikes, and back issues. I made inventories, kept needs lists, bought enthusiasts’ magazines, and traced the lineage of my favorite titles by searching for back issues. This was all in the days before the Internet, eBay, and Comic Cons, and most communication was accomplished through the mail.

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Silver Surfer, vol. 1 no. 1, August 1968 (author’s collection).

When I began my job as a curator here at The Henry Ford in 1977, my interest in comic books finally waned. Maybe I didn’t need that brand of escapism or that kind of outlet for my imagination anymore. Maybe I was too busy to take the time to delve into the stories. Comic books themselves changed. I remember feeling frustrated by Marvel’s trend, during the late 1970s, with story cross-overs throughout the entire network of their comic book titles to encourage more comic-book buying. Who had the patience and perseverance for that? Or the money, as the price of comic books soared at that time, from 15 cents in the late 1960s to 40 cents by 1980? This is also about the time that Spider-Man went mainstream, with a newspaper comic strip (starting 1977) and a Saturday morning cartoon (premiering 1981), both aimed at kids much younger than me. It seemed weird that, suddenly, I shared a common bond with my little five-year-old nephew—although he acted suitably impressed when I pulled out some of my old Spider-Man comic books for him, which by then seemed like ancient relics.

I might have let go of my comic book passion for good, but some project at the museum would always pull me back. For example, during my writing of the museum book Leisure and Entertainment in America (1988), I acquired a group of early comic books for the museum’s collection.

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Tales from the Crypt, vol. 1 no. 43, September 1954 - an early 1950s horror comic book title whose shocking content alarmed parents and helped lead to the comic book industry’s self-censorship board, called the Comics Code Authority. THF141540

When we decided to include a section on how people imagined the future in the Your Place in Time: 20th Century America exhibit, I acquired a range of comic book titles that focused upon futuristic themes.

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Spider-Man 2099, vol. 1 no. 1, November 1992 – a futuristic re-imagining of the original character (note steep $1.75 price by this time). THF305334

To my delight, the topic of comic books will be included in the upcoming filming for The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation. And next summer, the Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes traveling exhibit is headed our way in 2020. Here I am, more than a half-century later—and still hooked on comic books!

Back when I was a kid, many parents (including my own) worried about the harmful effects that reading comic books had on youth. In retrospect, I’d have to say that they were completely wrong. For me, comic books expanded my world immeasurably. They encouraged me to read, to write, to draw, to tap into my imagination. Maybe this started with those early Archie comic books. It certainly grew when that stash of D.C. comics landed on our front doorstep. But it blossomed and permanently formed who I am today when I entered the Marvel Universe.

Happy 80th birthday, Marvel!

Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

popular culture, by Donna R. Braden, comic books

Nostalgia for those who experienced it—and a hip mid-century modern revival for others.

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The Visits with Santa experience in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation this year is a throwback to the 1960s. Kids can tell Santa their wishes as they sit next to him under a colorful kiosk made by Ray and Charles Eames for the IBM pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.  Nearby is a cozy 1960s living room vignette—complete with a La-Z-Boy chair, television set, and an aluminum Christmas tree from the era.

This mid-century modern theme coincides with the opening of our newest permanent exhibit in the museum, Mathematica, also designed by Ray and Charles. Several components of Mathematica were featured inside that IBM Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair, so we were excited to bring those two experiences together for this year’s holiday programming.

The scene provides a bit of nostalgia for those who experienced the 1960s—and a hip mid-century modern revival for others. Let’s look at some blasts from the 1960s Christmas past.

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Aluminum trees brought a modern look to a mid-1960s Christmas.  THF170112

The early 1960s brought a fresh, new look to Christmas tree aesthetics.  A completely modern look--the aluminum Christmas tree.   It made a shiny, metallic splash in living rooms all over America.  More than a million trees were sold during the decade.   A tree choice that eschewed the traditional pine- or fir-scented Christmas experience when it landed on the Christmas scene in the 1960s, now conjures up images of a retro Christmas past.

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Color wheel sold by Sears, Roebuck and Company, 1960-1965.  THF8379

A color wheel lit up the aluminum tree, with the tree changing from blue to red to green to gold as the wheel revolved.  The color wheel was there for a practical reason—you couldn’t put strings of lights on aluminum trees because of fire safety concerns.   But to those viewing the transformation, the color wheel seemed a no-brainer way to light these trees—so modern and so magical.  It was mesmerizing to watch—whether from a front row seat in your living room or the view through your neighbor’s window.

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The Smith family of Redford, Michigan purchased these ornaments in 1964 to hang on their aluminum Christmas tree.  THF309083

Aluminum trees called for minimalist look. The trees were often sparingly decked with ornaments all of one color. 

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The Wojewidka siblings pose for a Christmas photo in front of their live tree in 1960.  THF125145

Yet, “real” trees remained popular as well—fresh-cut trees chosen from one of the many temporary Christmas tree lots that popped up in cities and towns. (The cut-your-own trend was not yet widespread.)  Scotch pines were favored by many—though there were diehard balsam fans as well.  These trees were bedecked with a varied array of ornaments—glass ones by the Shiny Brite company were popular. And shiny “icicles”—made of lead before it was prohibited—hung from the branches to add to the sparkle.

Holiday Greetings in the Mail

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By the early 1960s, Christmas cards offered a greater variety of seasonal images beyond those traditionally found. This image shows a woman clothed in a pine tree decorated with 1960s trendy-colored ornaments.   THF287028  

By mid-December, mailboxes were filling with Christmas cards, sent by family and friends to let the recipient know that they were being specially thought of during the holiday season. It was exciting to pull out handfuls of cards from the mailbox—it may have been the only time during the year when a kid had much interest in what the postman delivered. And not necessarily because of the cards themselves—the cards were a tangible sign that Christmas was indeed on its way and that Santa would soon be making his deliveries!  

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Christmas card display clothesline and pins, about 1964. THF155082   

Where did people display all these Christmas cards? On a mantle, a table, or the top of the television. Or taped to a wall or a large mirror in the living room. Hanging them from a Christmas-themed clothesline was a more novel way to display them.

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This 1962 stamp carried traditional Christmas images of lighted candles and a wreath.  THF287036

In 1962, the United States Postal Service issued the first Christmas-themed postage stamps in America. (A few other countries had already beaten us to the punch on issuing Christmas-themed postage stamps.) But once begun, Christmas stamps graced more and more Christmas card envelopes to complete the annual presentation of holiday-themed greetings sent through the mail. 

Making a List

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Christmas catalogs like this 1964 Sears, Roebuck & Company got a workout in December. THF135874

Kids were busy deciding what to ask Santa for. Instead of perusing the web, kids looked forward to the arrival of Christmas season catalogs sent by stores like Sears, Roebuck and Company, J.C. Penney, and Montgomery Ward.  Kids (and adults) eagerly leafed through the pages of the toys, clothing, and other gifts offered within, making their wish list for Santa’s perusal before passing the catalog along to another family member.

Television offered additional gift ideas, playing out the merits of products before viewers’ eyes in commercials that one couldn’t speed past with a DVR.

Toys for Girls and Boys
Many 1960s toys that appeared on the Christmas lists of millions of kids during the 1960s—some in updated versions—are still classics.

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Silly Putty modeling compound, about 1962.  THF135811

Silly Putty was invented during World War II as General Electric researchers worked to develop a synthetic substitute for rubber.  While no practical purpose could be found for the stuff, it did turn out to be a great toy. Silly Putty bounced higher and stretched farther than rubber.  It even lifted images off the pages of color comics. (My sister took Silly Putty to bed with her, leaving a perfect egg-shaped stain on the sheets that never came out.)

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Eight-year-old Rachel Marone of New York received this Etch A Sketch as s Christmas gift in 1961.  THF93827

The 1960s saw an innovative new arts and crafts toy—the Etch A Sketch. Turning the knobs at the bottom of the screen (one to create horizontal lines, one for vertical) let the user “draw” on the screen with a mixture of aluminum powder and plastic beads. To erase, you just turned the screen over and shook it.  Incidentally, it was the first toy that Ohio Art, its manufacturer, ever advertised on television.  (Accomplished users could make great drawings on the Etch A Sketch—and some of us were just happy to produce decent-looking curved lines.)

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This 1962 Play-Doh Fun Factory was a childhood toy of Mary Sherman of Minnesota.  THF170363

Play-Doh introduced their Fun Factory in 1960. Now kids could go beyond free-form modeling with their red, yellow, blue and white Play-Doh. The Play-Doh Fun Factory provided instructions on how to create things like trains, planes, and boats—and an extruder with dies to easily make the components. 

Watching Christmas Specials on TV

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Album from A Charlie Brown Christmas television special, about 1965.  THF162745

Kids eagerly listened for announcements on television or leafed excitedly through TV Guide magazine to find out when the holiday specials would air.  You didn’t want to miss them—it was your only shot at watching!  There were no DVRs or DVDs back then. Two animated classics from the mid-1960s--A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas--are among the earliest and most enduring of the Christmas specials developed for television.  

Within their engaging storylines, these two shows carried a message about the growing commercialization of the holiday.  As kids watched the barrage of toy ads that appeared with regularity on their television screens and leafed through catalogs to make their Christmas lists, seeing these cartoons reminded them that Christmas was also about higher ideals—not just about getting presents.  These television shows—and the increasing number and variety of Christmas specials that have since joined them—remain a yearly reminder to temper one’s holiday-related commercialism and to think of the needs of others. 

Not only have Charlie Brown and the Grinch become perennial favorites enjoyed by children and adults alike, but the soundtracks of these shows have joined the pantheon of musical Christmas classics. 

Christmas Music

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The Ronettes’ version of Sleigh Ride, with its freshly melodic “Ring-a-ling-a-ling Ding-dong ding” background vocals on this 1963 Phil Spector-produced album, has become an iconic Christmas classic. THF135943

What would a 1960s Christmastime be without Christmas-themed music heard on the stereo at home and over speakers in stores? The 1960s saw a flood of Christmas albums and singles. Various singers—like Andy Williams, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Johnny Mathis, Brenda Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis Presley, the Ronettes, the Crystals, and the Beach Boys—recorded their versions of old favorites and new tunes.   

The Annual Christmas Photo

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In 1963, the Truby brothers of Royal Oak, Michigan, posed in Santa pajamas given to them by their grandmother. THF287005

After the presents were opened and everyone was dressed in their Christmas finery, it was time to round up the kids for photos. Siblings (and, sometimes, their parents) might be posed together in front of a seasonal backdrop like the Christmas tree or a fireplace. Some families filmed home movies of their celebrations. These home movies often captured only strategic snippets of the Christmas celebration—movie film was expensive. And these home movies were without sound—which was probably sometimes a good thing!

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.

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