Thursday, April 19, 2018

 

Ink-Slinger Profiles by Alex Jay: Erwin L. Hess


Erwin Louis Hess was born on August 17, 1906, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin according to the Wisconsin, Births and Christenings Index at Ancestry.com. His parents were Alfred Hess and Amaude G. Sproette.

In the 1910 U.S. Federal Census, the family of three lived in Milwaukee at 1614 Cherry Street. Hess’s father was a bookbinder. Their address was the same in the 1920 census.

According to the 1930 census, Hess was a commercial artist who lived with his parents and brother in Milwaukee at 498 76th Street.

The St. Johnsville Enterprise and News (New York), March 8, 1951, published Hess’s recollections of his life and art and how it influenced his strip Good Old Days.

“When I was a little boy,” he writes, “I liked to take note of how people lived. While other kids were playing mibs, I found greater pastime pleasure in watching Grandma grind coffee with the grinder in her lap or peeking into the neighbor lady’s basement window as she labored at her hand-powered washing machine. And so it continued throughout my boyhood days. It fascinated me…the plain sight of seeing how folks actually lived and the backgrounds which made their lives interesting...to me. All this is captured and preserved in my youthful mind.

“When I was six i began to like to ‘draw’ pictures. I admired the nice drawings my Aunt Bertha drew. She could, right well, draw ‘almost as good as Nell Brinkley.’ And so I, too, drew and drew pictures…using up loads of paper from fat, nickel pencil tablets.

“But aside from that, I continued to watch and remember how people lived. I liked that, I sat, intently interested, listening to my two grandmother’s tell of the good old days and absorbed all I heard in my little cranium. There those treasured tales remained. I call it my ‘memory notebook.”

“Since those days I have listened to many other grandmothers discussing their problems and joys of the past, and my second and third homes were the historical museums and libraries which contained actual bits of yesteryear and old newspaper files. There I made countless sketches of old buggies, oil lamps, baseburners and dress styles to make my cartoons authentic in every detail…while my ideas come from that ‘memory notebook.’ Kitchen scenes used in my cartoons, on several occasions, are the actual kitchens my two grandmothers lived in…down to the almanac hanging from the shelf over the sink.

“In grammar school,” Hess continues, “I was referred to as the ‘best drawer in the class.’ But when it came to arithmetic…well, my face still turns to a brilliant shade of red. At the age of thirteen, my first cartoon appeared in a Milwaukee newspaper…a political cartoon…for Milwaukee was always known as a hotbed for turbulent politics. The whole eighth grade was buzzing at having a ‘political cartoonist’ in their midst.

“Then I attended high school and continued my ‘artistic career’ to become the art editor of the ‘Comet,’ West Division High School’s monthly magazine. Why mention just ‘another high school'? well, to me ol’ Wes’ Side has always remained tops…for General Douglas MacArthur went there years ago. Yessir! And so did actor Spencer Tracy and many others, including my contemporary student-friends, the late Carl Zeidler, who became mayor of Milwaukee.

“When I left ol’ Wes’ Side, a Chicago artist took an interest in me, and his private tutoring was my ‘art school education. I didn’t get a diploma from the fellow, for he was from the old school, but he would have made a good instructor in any academy. Sensing what I was best fitted for, he advised me to further my preparation far true life cartoons my making am intense study of furniture.

“And intense it became, but the experience I gained proved the fellow was right. I took a job as an artist in a furniture store and the ‘monotonous grind’ turned out to be highly valuable for me later in the drawing of room settings…accurate in all their details.

“Fate later put me, like all of us who go ‘through the mill’ on a newspaper doing everything from war maps and sports cartoons to political cartoons and editorial sketches, etc., etc. However, inwardly my feeling for true-to-life cartoons always remained and overshadowed the routine stuff I was doing …but I did not object. It bought bread and butter for my wife, Yvonne, and me.

“And so I continued to be ‘Deadline Dick,’ until I finally emerged from the fourth-estate ‘jungle.’ I then illustrated children’s books and later drew the comic strip, ‘Captain Midnight.’

“But I couldn’t get away with it! I wanted to draw real-life cartoons…to be able to entertain folks with such cartoons…about themselves as they really are. That’s how ‘The Good Old Days’ was born.”…
Moore’s Who Is Who in Wisconsin (1960) said Hess did furniture advertising from 1926 to 1936. He was a staff artist on the Milwaukee Journal from 1936 to 1938. He married Yvonne Va Kovic on June 27, 1936 in Milwaukee. Hess was a freelance book illustrator for Western Printing & Lithographing Company from 1939 to 1946.

The 1940 census recorded self-employed commercial artist Hess, his wife and son Dale in Milwaukee at North 3336 37th Street.

American Newspaper Comics (2012) said Hess’s first comic series was Do You Remember?, in 1938 for the Milwaukee Journal. Hess drew Captain Midnight for the Chicago Sun Syndicate from June 29, 1942 to April 15, 1945. Hess’s Good Old Days was a long-running United Feature Syndicate series, from June 9, 1946 to March 29, 1981.

Hess passed away April 26, 1977, in Milwaukee. He was laid to rest at Graceland Cemetery.


Further Reading
Hess Archives
Who’s Who in American Comic Books


—Alex Jay

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