The Ting-Lings
The Ting-Lings

Charles W. Saalburg was a 19th-century American cartoonist, best remembered for his newspaper comic 'The Ting-Lings' (1894-1897). Together with Richard F. Outcault he is often credited for being the earliest American comics artist. Some even argue that he preceeds Outcault and that the latter borrowed much from his graphic style. Other historians contest this claim and feel that 'The Ting-Lings' was mostly a one-panel cartoon feature, with occasional comic strip-like sequential narratives, while 'The Yellow Kid' fits our modern-day definition of a comic strip much better. Whatever the case, Saalburg still played an important role in the history of 'The Yellow Kid', for it was he who first colored the character's gown yellow!

Charles William Saalburg was born in 1865 in San Francisco. His father was the editor of the San Francisco Weekly Times, while his mother was a housekeeper of Prussian-Jewish descent. As a child he already enjoyed caricaturing teachers on the blackboard. After completing the fourth grade he left school at age ten. He decided to become a lithographer and colourized maps in this function. After moving to New York City he became a lithographic colour assistant for companies like Sackett, Julius Bien & Co and Wilhelms and Betzig. He eventually returned to his birth city. In 1889 Saalburg joined his fathers' lithograph and print shop Rosenthal-Saalburg Company in Ellis Street, San Francisco. He was furthermore editor of the Jewish Times and Observer. The family published a Jewish calendar under their own name in which Saalburg published his first illustrations.

Cover for The Wasp by Charles Saalburg

Between 1889 and 1892 Saalburg published many early cartoons in the local weekly magazine The Wasp. The Wasp was renowned at the time for featuring colour cartoons when most other magazines still published in black and white. Among his colleagues at the time were cartoonists like George Frederick Keller, Henry Barkhaus, Solly H. Walter and Henry Nappenbach. He mostly illustrated the theatre world and people in the lecture circuit. By 1890 he was put in charge of The Wasp's art department, but left two years later over their "indecent cartoons which offended my taste." Saalburg became a political cartoonist for William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner instead. By 1893 he and fellow cartoonist W.W. Denslow left Hearst and settled down in Chicago, Illinois. It was here that both men got employed as cartoonists for the local newspaper The Inter Ocean. Saalburg became chief editor of their colour supplement, The Inter Ocean Jr., making him the first cartoonist to publish a colour cartoon in a newspaper.


The Ting-Lings from the cover of the Inter Ocean Jr. (19 July 1894)

In early 1894 Saalburg created an unauthorized spin-off of Palmer Cox' popular comic strip 'The Brownies'. Naturally he was soon forced to give it up, but his replacement comic still betrayed Cox' influence. Just like 'The Brownies', Saalburg's comic strip 'The Ting-Lings' (1894, 1896-1897) also featured cute little men. Though in his case they weren't gnomes, but stereotypically portrayed Chinese people. The first episode was published on 29 April 1894 in The Ocean Illustrated Supplement and it initially ran until 8 July of that same year. The series was revived for the farmers' magazine Comfort in 1896-1897 and was also published outside the US in the British magazine Home Chat and in book format by the London publisher Dean & Son. Saalburg contributed puzzles to the London magazine Pearson's as well. While 'The Ting-Lings' has faded into obscurity today and is quite racially offensive to modern audiences it is still historically important as one of the earliest U.S. newspaper comics. Most of the time 'The Ting-Lings' was a one-panel cartoon, but occasionally it made use of sequential drawings too. The comic strip is furthermore one of the earliest to have recurring title characters. By being published daily it also distinguished itself from comics which only appeared once a month or a week.

There are strong indications that 'The Ting-Lings' was an influence on Richard F. Outcault's 'Hogan's Alley' (1895-1898), better known as 'The Yellow Kid'. In fact, Saalburg and Outcault were at point colleagues at the same newspaper. In July 1895 The Inter Ocean was sold to another publisher, which caused Saalburg to move to New York City where he became chief editor of Joseph Pulitzer's colour pages in his newspaper The New York World. 'Hogan's Alley' ran in this paper since 1895 and in colour since 5 May of that same year. At the time Outcault's comic was still a one-panel cartoon depicting street life in New York City. One side character had risen to become the feature's protagonist, namely a bald, gap-toothed, grinning young boy in a long gown. Originally his gown was coloured grey or blue, but on 5 January 1896 Saalburg got the bright idea of making it yellow. Back then printing in yellow ink was still difficult since it didn't dry properly, but with a new type of ink this went a lot easier than before. Thanks to his yellow gown the child character instantly grabbed readers' attention and was dubbed 'The Yellow Kid'. Saalburg may have gotten the idea from his own 'Ting-Lings' comic, since several of the Chinese people also wore yellow gowns. His characters also share a physical resemblance with The Yellow Kid, down to their tiny size, bald heads, buckteeth and squinted eyes.


Puzzle feature by Saalburg from The World Sunday, 11 September 1904

Soon 'The Yellow Kid' became a huge commercial success. It was the first comic strip to be subject of a colossal merchandising campaign. Since it effectively spawned the comics industry like no other comic did before, historians point to 'The Yellow Kid' as the first true comic strip. But it only became a comic on 25 October 1896 with the episode 'The Yellow Kid And His Phonograph', which showed a gag told in five separate scenes with speech balloons. In that regard 'The Ting-Lings' is definitely earlier. But in terms of impact it did nothing while Outcault's comic was a veritable cultural phenomenon. More comics artists have been influenced by 'The Yellow Kid' than Saalburg's work. Yet nobody can deny that Saalburg played a significant part in the commercial breakthrough of 'The Yellow Kid' either. It might be more correct to state that 'The Ting-Lings' may have been the earliest regularly appearing American newspaper comic, but that it was 'The Yellow Kid' who really launched it as a genre. To state that it was all the doing of Saalburg would be a gross oversimplification and underestimation of Outcault's talent, not to forget publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst's aggressive marketing strategies.

Cartoon for the New York World (1890s)
Cartoon for the New York World (1890s)

In 1896 Saalburg left The New York World, but kept creating one-shot cartoons, puzzles, cut-outs and short-lived features for the newspaper and its Wonder Supplement until the early 20th century, such as 'The Chinks' (19 August - 29 November 1896), 'The Dinkies' (8-15 August 1897) and 'Hottentots' (12-19 June 1898). In December of 1896 he worked in London for the Acme Art Company. While in Europe, Saalburg also published in the French magazine Le Petit Journal. On 21 December 1898 he moved back to San Francisco. A year later he co-founded the Lithotone Colortype Company in Chicago, which prided itself being able to print in three colours. Within a decade this was expanded in a genuine company: The Van Dyck Gravure Company, located in East Orange, New Jersey. Saalburg kept perfectionizing and patenting new printing techniques. He was part owner of the Animated Pictures Company and the Prismatone Company in New York. The man passed away in 1950. His sons Leslie and Allen Saalburg became illustrators in their own right.


Charles Saalburg by William Kelly, illustrating an article about Saalburg's return from Europe (The San Francisco Call, 21 December 1896)

Charles W. Saalburg on John Adcock's blog

Series and books by Charles W. Saalburg in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:

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