"What is all the racket about?
Did you put red pepper on the lollypops?"
John Barton Gruelle was born on 24th December 1880 in Arcalo, Illinois, the son of a noted landscape painter. Growing up in Illinois would influence his later works, which often included idyllic farms and other natural settings.
Gruelle inherited a talent for artistry from his Father, Richard B. Gruelle, and landed his first job as a cartoonist for the Indianapolis Star when he was still in his teens. By the time he was twenty, Gruelle had begun writing and illustrating his own children’s stories while employed by the Cleveland Press. Subsequently, he moved his family (wife Myrtle and children Marcella, Worth and John Jr.) to an artists’ colony in Connecticut where he hoped to benefit from living in close quarters with other creative individuals.
In 1910 Gruelle entered a competition sponsored by the New York Herald, which offered a position to the artist who created the best idea for a Sunday comic feature. Gruelle’s imaginary elf, Mr Twee Deedle, beat 1500 other entrants to win the competition and the cartoon remained in print between 1911-1914. Gruelle had a versatile talent and was able to produce a large amount of works very quickly. His work was featured in numerous national magazines such as Life, Good Housekeeping and Woman’s World.
Gruelle came up with the idea for Raggedy Ann when his daughter Marcella found an old faceless doll in the attic which had belonged to her Aunt. Gruelle painted a face on the doll and named her Raggedy Ann. In 1917, aged only 14, Marcella died from diphtheria following exposure to a contaminated vaccination needle. After his daughter’s death, friends described Gruelle as “possessed, with a heavy countenance, and ... with the only thing he would bear to have near him as a reminder of Marcella a rag doll." In his daughter’s memory, Gruelle created a series of Raggedy Ann adventures which he set in Marcella’s nursery and published in 1918 under the title Raggedy Ann Stories. The stories received a positive reception which led Gruelle to continue writing adventures for the doll, adding a brother Raggedy Andy in 1920.
Gruelle’s Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy tales were designed for children aged four to ten years old and were intended by Gruelle to “contain nothing to cause fright, suggest fear, glorify mischief, excuse malice, or condone cruelty”. His tales promoted courage, honesty and virtue and presented a moral end to each tale. Gruelle also created other characters, such as Beloved Belindy and Wooden Willie, who were both also a success with members of the public and provided inspiration for numerous fairy tales, poems and songs. Some critics have called Gruelle a ‘hack’ due to the sheer volume of work that he produced in his time, however his characters Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy remain two of the most recognisable characters from children’s literature. The longevity of the characters was aided by launch of dolls to accompany the books, which are still produced to this day.
Despite Gruelle’s success during his lifetime, he lived in almost complete anonymity throughout his life. He and his family moved to Miami, Florida in the 1930s. Gruelle began moving in faster social circles, adopting social excesses and drinking heavily. His work and his health suffered and he died of a heart attack in 1938 at the age of fifty-seven.