Saturday, January 16, 2016

The "Teenie Weenie" Man in the Pickle Barrel House

Adventure of the Teenie Weenies (1920),
The Teenie Weenies in the Wildwood (1923),
The Teenie Weenies Under theRosebush (1922)
When I find an intriguing old book, it always feels like I am  holding a time machine in my hands.  

Everything about an old book beckons me  deeper.  The text, the illustrations, the textures of the paper, covers and bindings, even the smell of the pages demand my attention and intrigue.

A lovely friend recently passed on to me a collection of three books  published between 1920 and 1923.

The books follow William Donahey's tales of the "Teenie Weenies"--adventures of tiny little people living in the huge normal-sized world (1).   Donahey's fascination with the Teenie Weenie's imaginary world started when he was a young, shy child (2).

 Thanks to parents who nurtured Donahey's budding artistic talents, he was able to pursue art as a profession by attending the Cleveland School of Art (3).  After working in advertising for a time, as well as illustrating a selection of children's books, Donahey was offered a regular position as a cartoonist with the Chicago Tribune.   The first publication of the "Teenie Weenies" was in black and white on June 14th, 1912.  By 1923 the cartoon was published in color in the Sunday comics (4).   Soon after that, Donahey's tiny little friends gained worldwide attention.

"Adventures of the Teenie Weenies".  William Donahey. Rand McNally
 & Company.Chicago. 1920. 
Upon examining this trio of books, I found myself wondering if the  "Teenie Weenies" may  have been the ancestors to the food-plagued little residents of the town of Chewandswallow in Ronald Barrett's 1982 book Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (5).   
Just like any tales of ancestors long gone, the tales of the Teenie Weenies are quaint and charming.  However, as with so many vintage children's books, they also have a deeply disturbing side as well.

Donahey populated the world of the Teenie Weenies with a diverse array of characters that included more than one painful stereotype.  Included among the representative community members were those with specific occupations: Doctor, General, Policeman, Sailor and Cook and Rufus Rhyme the town poet (all male as one would expect in stories from this time period).  Women and girls were few and constrained: Ms. Lover (mother of the Twins), Lady of Fashion (the town beauty), Tessie Bone (a tomboy), Lady  and the Teenie Weenie Girl.  All of these characters are uniformly white, uniformly depicted by their skills and personalities.

"Adventures of the Teenie Weenies".  William Donahey. Rand McNally
 & Company.Chicago. 1920. 
  But here is where the cast of characters goes in a different direction.    These other  characters are depicted according to their differentness and their deficits.

There is Gogo (described as "the little colored Teenie Weenie" (6)), the ever foolish and hungry Dunce, The Chinaman (who "looks after the Teenie Weenie washing" (7)) and Zip the wildman who "came from a tribe of tiny wild men to live with the Teenie Weenies"(8).  Lastly, there is the Indian ("a silent little fellow. He spends much of his time in the woods and he can follow the trail of a caterpillar in the wildest jungle of tall grass."(9)).

"Adventures of the Teenie Weenies".  William Donahey. Rand McNally
 & Company.Chicago. 1920. 
Donahey seems to try to build some positive messages, perhaps even morals,  into his stories, pointing out that "If you don't work you can't eat is their motto....Every day some Teenie Weenie has to help the Cook and Gogo wash up the dishes....With all the Teenie Weenies helping, it does not take a great while to do the work." (10).

If this is where it ended I would've been able to view Donahey as being a product of his time.   However in the stories themselves the aforementioned  characters are given painfully stereotyped dialects.  Periodically the Cowboy and other characters use blatant racial slurs as well.  When I came across these sections of the stories, any enjoyment of the tales became tarnished for me.

And here is where  my love for old books met my conscience and sensibilities as a teacher and writer in today's world, for I can't help but imagine what children back in the 1920's thought when reading these books, or when reading this comic in their Sunday paper.  What lessons did children glean--what did they end up thinking about people from dissimilar backgrounds than their own?  What if a Chinese or Black or Native American child read these books?   What impact did these stories have on them?  How did the adults around them answer their inevitable questions?

Or perhaps the children didn't think to ask. And perhaps the adults had no answers to give--or at least, not the answers I would've wanted them to give.

As I expected, a time machine is a lovely idea in theory, but is much more problematic in practice.
Yet the tale of  William Donahey does not end there.  He eventually got married, and continued to illustrate the adventures of the Teenie Weenies until 1969. (11)
And drawing the Teenie Weenies was not Donahey's only job. He also drew advertisements for the pickle selling Reid-Murdock & Comapany (12).   So enamored of pickles was Donahey that in 1926 he had a summer home built  on the shores of Sable Lake in the shape of a massive pickle barrel (13).     By 1937 it was moved to a new location,  switching ownership and uses until finally being purchased by the Historical Society and transformed into a museum (14).
pickle-barrel-house-museum-grand-marais-mi/Add caption

I have to admit that as a child I, like William Donahey,  was shy and introverted, and spent hours imagining stories with characters not unlike the Teenie Weenies.   I read classic fairy tales from old books and fancied seeing elves and sprites in the shadows.

Yet now the  stories of the Teenie Weenies are mostly forgotten, the fading, crumbling books taking  up space in library collections or on used bookstore shelves.

Part of my fascination with vintage children's books is, I admit, having the opportunity to travel back in history to a world long gone.

However studying these bygone tales can have another purpose--to offer us a mirror through which we can perhaps uncover our own biases, our own short sightedness and our own ignorance.

I find myself wondering what future generations will say about OUR books.  Will we fare better or worse than the "Teenie Weenies"????

6."Adventures of the Teenie Weenies".  William Donahey. Rand McNally & Company. Chicago. 1920. 
7. "Adventures of the Teenie Weenies".  William Donahey. Rand McNally & Company. Chicago. 1920. 
8. "Adventures of the Teenie Weenies".  William Donahey. Rand McNally & Company. Chicago. 1920. 
9.  "Adventures of the Teenie Weenies".  William Donahey. Rand McNally & Company. Chicago. 1920. 
10.  "Adventures of the Teenie Weenies".  William Donahey. Rand McNally & Company. Chicago. 1920.