Raggedy Ann and Andy: History and Legend
by Patricia Hall
Copyright 1999, Patricia Hall
All rights reserved
Raggedy Ann, and her equally spirited rag brother, Andy are the world's best-known and most adored rag dolls. At the hand of their creator, cartoonist-illustrator-author Johnny Gruelle, the Raggedys weren't ever simply dolls. They were literary characters as well, possessing attributes and outlooks reflecting trustworthiness, kindness, and spunk. Because Gruelle was a natural born storyteller, it followed that his dolls would star in whimsical, fanciful tales, based on fantasy and make believe.
Because of this, Johnny Gruelle's little rag dolls have also found themselves at the center of several legend cycles -- groups of stories that, while containing kernels of truth, are more myth than they are history. What makes this even more intriguing is that fact that Johnny Gruelle, either unwittingly or with the great sense of humor he was known for, initiated many of these legends, a number of which are continuously repeated as the factual history of Raggedy Ann and Andy.
One of the distinguishing features of a legend is that, unlike an out-and-out fairy tale, it is factual-sounding enough to be believable. This especially applies to the Raggedy legends.
In the case of Raggedy Ann and Andy, the legends are as important as factual history in telling their story. Because the Raggedys sprang directly from the rich and embellished world of storytelling -- a world of frolicking fairies; come-alive dolls and talking forest critters -- it makes great sense to not discount legends simply because they are folklore, and therefore, "unprovable."
While legends can frustrate the conscientious historian in search of hard, provable facts and figures, they can tell us different things than facts, and they possess powers that historical data do not. Legends have the power of revealing ethics and values; preferences and motives; emotions and reactions. And, in the case of the Raggedys, legends have the singular ability to showcase the true personalities of these fanciful dolls, as well as lending insight into the persona of their creator, Johnny Gruelle.
Johnny Gruelle was born in Arcola, Illinois in 1880, the son of landscape and portrait artist Richard (R.B.) Gruelle. R.B. eventually moved his young family to Indianapolis. There, mixing with his parents' artistic and literary friends (among them, the poet James Whitcomb Riley) young Johnny developed a strong love of region, and a penchant for the fine art of storytelling.
By the time Gruelle reached adulthood, he had cast his lot as a political cartoonist, turning out as many as three cartoons a day for several Midwestern newspapers. In 1910, he acted on his aspirations to become a freelance illustrator, moving to the East Coast, where he accepted a full-time position with The New York Herald (turning out weekly pages of his Sunday comic, "Mr. Twee Deedle") as well as several book illustrating commissions.
This was during a time in American history when traditional values were being challenged by progress and social change. As a counter-reaction, many were turning back to more nostalgic diversions. Homemade and hand-crafted objects were popular fare; fairy tales, magic shows, and psychic phenomena became all the rage. All of this fit with what Gruelle was already creating, and set the stage perfectly for the folksy, whimsical doll he designed and patented in 1915 -- Raggedy Ann. And, Raggedy Ann's creation set the stage for the legends...
LEGEND #1 - HOW RAGGEDY ANN WAS BORN
...a small girl bursts into her father's art studio, trailing a battered rag doll behind her. Panting, she tells Daddy about discovering the faceless doll in Grandmother's attic. Laying aside his afternoon's cartoon, the father picks up the doll. He studies her face for a moment before picking up his cartooning pen and deftly applying a new, whimsical face. He suggests that Grandmother might be enlisted to sew on another shoe button to take care of a missing eye. Then, reaching for a volume of poetry behind his desk, the father browses through several by poet and family friend, James Whitcomb Riley. Compressing the titles of two of his favorites -- "The Raggedy Man" and "Little Orphant Annie" -- he asks, his daughter, "What if we call your new doll Raggedy Ann?.."
So goes one version of an oft-repeated account of where Raggedy Ann really came from. Sometimes the date given is 1914; sometimes it is as early as 1900. Sometimes the story is set in suburban Indianapolis or downtown Cleveland; other times, it is said to have taken place in rural Connecticut. As with any migratory legend, while the core account may stay constant, local details usually differ (depending on the teller, and which locale is trying to lay claim to the story).
The core account of this particular legend -- a family doll being retrieved from the attic -- is also based on some factual evidence. According to Johnny Gruelle's wife, Myrtle (a warm, but practical woman, who could usually be depended on to provide candid, historical accounts) it was her husband, Johnny, (not her daughter, Marcella) who retrieved a long-forgotten family-made rag doll from the Indianapolis attic of his parents home, some time around the turn of the century.
"There was something her wanted from the attic," Myrtle recounted. "While he was rummaging around for it, her found an old rag doll his mother had made for his sister. Her said then that the doll would make a good story."
But back to the legend ... It conveys things the cold, hard facts cannot -- like the wonder of a long-forgotten family doll being discovered by a little girl in the magical and mystical environs of a grandmother's attic. And it reflects the devotion of a father taking time out of a busy day to minister to his daughter's "new" charge. The legendary account provides the kind of magical underpinnings and romantic detailing that a doll like Raggedy Ann deserves. And most seem to want to believe that the legend is true. Which is likely why journalists and fans alike have, time and again, perpetuated the Raggedy birth legend as historical fact.
Judging from his "Introduction" to Raggedy Ann Stories (in which a literary character named Marcella finds Raggedy Ann in her grandmother's attic and takes it to her for repairs), Johnny Gruelle is the most likely source of this legend, giving his storybook Raggedy Ann a more magical, reader-friendly discovery, at the hand of, not a father, but a sweet little girl.
LEGEND #2: MARCELLA
Johnny Gruelle's real-life daughter, Marcella Delight, had an indelible influence on her father's life and career. From serving as his model for his literary protagonist, Marcella, to being his reason for creating his Raggedy Ann in the first place, Marcella was her father's muse.
The real-life Marcella had always had an influence on her father's artwork, evidenced in some of his very early Sunday comics, in which her cherubic likeness was often incorporated. In fact, Gruelle's daughter (and her playthings) regularly inspired his storylines and ideas for playthings. According to Myrtle Gruelle, (referring to the family doll Gruelle had retrieved from his mother's attic) "...he kept it in his mind until we had Marcella. He remembered it when he saw her play dolls. You know how little girls are. He wrote the stories around some of the things she did. He used to get ideas from watching her."
When the real-life Marcella Gruelle died, at age 13, from the ravages of an infected vaccination, her parents were, understandably devastated. Under different circumstances, this would have been a time of great rejoicing for Gruelle and his family. He was connecting with juvenile publishers, and was working on several sets of illustrated fairy stories. In November (the same month of Marcella's death) Gruelle had been granted final approval by the U.S. Patent office for his doll called "Raggedy Ann." But all was overshadowed by the death of his beloved daughter.
If one views legendary as a way of giving meaning to life's mysteries and tragedies, then a child's death is potentially one of the most powerful sources of legends. Marcella Gruelle's tragic death certainly gave rise to several legends -- stories about what role she played in Raggedy Ann's genesis, and in her family's life.
The most popular Marcella legend, of course, is the one about her finding the family rag doll in her grandmother's attic. Another had to do with her role in inspiring her father's creation of Raggedy Ann Stories.
Following his daughter's death it was a wonder Johnny Gruelle could work at all. But, to keep bread on the table of his grieving family, he stayed at his drawing board during the months following Marcella's passing. About this, a legend took hold; at first circulated among family and friends; later repeated (and embellished) by collectors and journalists: Gruelle was working, the story goes, on a very special set of new stories -- ones that he had previously only roughed out, as verses, but was now determined to finish in prose form, and submit to a publisher. These tales were ones that Gruelle had purportedly recited to his daughter during her final days, and were about a rag doll and her playroom pals. And, in honor of the memory of his departed daughter, Gruelle had named his star human protagonist Marcella, after his late daughter, who (like her literary counterpart) used to play "real-for-sure" Mommy to a nursery full of dolls.
As Johnny Gruelle worked on polishing this very special set of tales (which would eventually be published in 1918 as Raggedy Ann Stories), he would supposedly glance up often at something on his shelf; one of the few keepsakes of his daughter he could bear to have near -- Marcella's own tattered moppet, Raggedy Ann.
This account does have basis-in-fact, but its romantic, apocryphal elements are easy, and make the tale far more memorable and "tell-able." In fact, by Christmas, 1918, the world was introduced to Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Ann Stories. In this, as well as in Gruelle's subsequent Raggedy books, the literary Marcella would be a recurring character, along with Raggedy Ann and Andy. In 1929, Johnny Gruelle even gave Marcella her own volume of tales, entitled Marcella: A Raggedy Ann Story.
LEGEND #3 - RAGGEDY ANN'S CANDY HEART
In 1918, around the time his Raggedy Ann Stories was first published by the P.F. Volland Company, Johnny Gruelle rented a loftspace in Norwalk, CT, and set his family to work constructing several dozen handmade Raggedy Ann dolls to be marketed along with the books. Whether these were prototype dolls for Volland to use, display dolls, or were among the first dolls to be commercially marketed, is not documented. And no one can verify just how many (or how few) of these dolls were produced by the family. However, one very charming, very long-lived legend grew out of this early era of family-made dolls. It had to do with Raggedy Ann's candy heart.
Anyone who has read Raggedy Ann Stories will tell you that Johnny Gruelle gave his storybook Raggedy Ann a candy heart right from the start. This sweet body part survived many a mishap (including dousings and drenchings and even a trip through the ringer) and still held together. The candy heart was, it seemed, the invincible, spiritual source of Raggedy Ann's sweet outlook and kindly ways.
But, beyond the storybook, word began circulating that some of the first Raggedys produced by the Gruelle's did, indeed, possess real-life candy hearts, with "I Love You" printed on them. Worth Gruelle, Johnny's son (who would have been 5 or 6 at the time), distinctly recalls being sent to the downstairs confectioners to buy the sugary delights to be sewn into the chest of each doll, picking out the "I Love You" hearts from those with other messages.
The candy heart account is both difficult to discount and difficult to verify. The fanciful bestowal of a sugar heart reflects perfectly Gruelle's own penchant for whimsy, and it is entirely possible that he and his family did place hearts in the first few dolls they produced. However, the fact that not one (old or new) Raggedy Ann doll has been found in which there are remains of a sewn-in candy heart (or even a remnant of a candy heart), makes it difficult to classify this charming account as actual history.
What is most significant about the candy heart account is its tenacity; how often it appears, in multiple versions and re-tellings. In some cases, well-meaning fans and writers have mistakenly claimed that certain commercial manufacturers placed real candy hearts in the chests of their Raggedy Ann dolls or affixed hearts to the outside of the dolls' chests.
Rather than discount or discard the candy heart story, it makes sense to consider it a legend; an important, and particularly fitting story about a doll whose very identity seems based on attributes that might flow from a heart made of candy.
There are more legends about Raggedy Ann and Andy than there is space to recount them. Like any popular phenomenon -- especially those for which well-documented information may not be plentiful-- legends become a way to explain the unexplainable, fill in the gaps, and make sense of conflicting or confusing data. In interpreting the Raggedys' 75-plus year history, the facts are extremely important. But, not at the exclusion of the legends. These fanciful accountings not only round out the story of the Raggedys (and shed light on the whimsical heart of their creator, Johnny Gruelle) -- they also reveal our own unerring desire for Raggedy Ann and Andy to stay in perpetual possession of the whimsical, magical, make-believe dossiers Johnny Gruelle created for them.
Copyright 1999, Patricia Hall. All rights reserved.