The Yellow Kid

The Yellow Kid emerged as the lead character in ‘Hogan’s Alley,’ a comic first drawn by Richard F. Outcault in 1894, which became one of the first Sunday supplement comic strips in an American newspaper. The Yellow Kid was a bald, snaggle-toothed boy who wore a yellow nightshirt and hung around in a ghetto alley filled with equally odd characters, mostly other children.

With a goofy grin, the Kid habitually spoke in a ragged, peculiar ghetto argot printed on his shirt, a device meant to lampoon advertising billboards. His head was drawn wholly shaved as if having been recently ridden of lice, a common sight among children in New York’s tenement ghettos at the time. His nightshirt, a hand-me-down from an older sister, was white or pale blue in the first color strips.

‘Hogan’s Alley’ has been described as ‘… a turn-of-the-century theater of the city, in which class and racial tensions of the new urban, consumerist environment were acted out by a mischievous group of New York City kids from the wrong side of the tracks.’

The image was an early example of lucrative merchandising and appeared on mass market retail objects in the greater New York City area such as billboards, buttons, cigarette packs, cigars, cracker tins, ladies’ fans, matchbooks, postcards, chewing gum cards, toys, whiskey and many other products.

With the Yellow Kid’s merchandising success as an advertising icon the strip came to represent the crass commercial world it had originally lampooned, and publication of both versions stopped abruptly after only three years in early 1898, as circulation wars between the rival papers dwindled.

The two newspapers which ran the Yellow Kid, Pulitzer’s World and Hearst’s Journal American, quickly became known as the yellow kid papers. This was contracted to the yellow papers and the term yellow kid journalism was at last shortened to yellow journalism, describing the two newspapers’ editorial practices of taking (sometimes even fictionalized) sensationalism and profit as priorities in journalism.

In a 1902 interview, Outcault remarked, ‘The Yellow Kid was not an individual but a type. When I used to go about the slums on newspaper assignments I would encounter him often, wandering out of doorways or sitting down on dirty doorsteps. I always loved the Kid. He had a sweet character and a sunny disposition, and was generous to a fault. Malice, envy or selfishness were not traits of his, and he never lost his temper.’

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