When you consider that there are still children’s clothes and shoes being sold under the BUSTER BROWN brand-name, that gives the character a life of 115 years so far, and for the first 60 or so of that, he was a major figure in popular culture.
BUSTER BROWN first appeared in a newspaper comic strip in 1902, created by Richard F. Outcault, best known for THE YELLOW KID, and was adopted as advertising mascot by the Brown Shoe Company in 1904. Whatever vague memories most people have of the character today can be attributed to the Buster Brown Shoes.
The Buster Brown character was an urban boy whose parents dressed him in somewhat foppish clothes (not unlike Little Lord Fauntleroy), which caused him to get into scraps with other boys of the neighborhood. He was a savvy boy, a kind of trickster, able to outsmart adults, and the moral lesson sometimes presented at the end of an adventure had an ironic ring to it, as if everyone was in on the joke that the “lesson” was tacked-on and not really relevant. Buster was accompanied by his friend Mary Jane and his dog Tige (short for Tiger....pronounced like Tide, but with a hard-G instead of a D). There were two versions of the Brown comic strip, which ran in newspapers for about 15-20 years. In the late 1920’s, the character had his own silent comedy shorts at Universal--and on You Tube, I found a few primitive Edison-produced Brown shorts from 1904! However, he was still best known as spokesperson for Buster Brown Shoes.
In the 1940’s, the Brown Shoe Company spun the character off into a comic book, which was given away at shoe stores. In 1943, a Buster Brown radio show began broadcast, hosted by SMILIN’ ED MCCONNELL, a man who’d paid his dues in radio since 1922 (!!!) and had the ability to adapt his persona to his audience, finding success with heartland audiences in shows with a religious or an agricultural theme. His warm, neighborly persona was perfectly suited for children’s programming, and in 1944 he began the show SMILIN’ ED’S BUSTER BROWN GANG, sponsored by Buster Brown Shoes, and featuring such McConnell character creations as Froggy the Gremlin. You can listen to a number of episodes of the show in the old time radio collection at Archive.org.
The show was a huge success, and the comic book under review today was a tie-in to the show. It was a giveaway comic, available at stores which sold Buster Brown Shoes and/or sponsored the radio program. The left bottom of the comic was left blank so that the name and address of the local sponsor could be printed. This copy came from the Fort Worth area and also highlights the radio stations on which the show could be heard. Smilin’ Ed’s jovial presence is seen at the right bottom of the cover.
Smilin’ Ed’s success on radio was such that he moved into TV in 1950, where he was also a success. He passed away in 1954, when he was replaced on the show by Andy Devine, fresh off the fame of being comic sidekick to GUY MADISON in the WILD BILL HICKOK TV show. The show then became ANDY’S GANG, which ran from 1955-1960. Andy Devine was a larger-than-life character, who had worked a lot in radio (he was on a number of Jack Benny programs), television, and films, and once you hear his uniquely screechy voice, it is not soon forgotten. ANDY’S GANG is considered a classic, and various episodes are in circulation. However I’d bet that many fans of that show were unaware of its roots in Smilin’ Ed.
While the 1948 comic book reviewed here features full-page Buster Brown shoe ads with Buster and his related characters, and Smilin’ Ed gets a full-page to promote shoe sales, the actual comic book stories here----written and drawn by Hobart Donovan----are, alas, not that interesting and do not feature any of Buster or Smilin’ Ed’s “gang.” SEAN AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE, THE BIGGEST SNAKE IN THE WORLD, and SHARK DRUM are all competently done children’s comics with an “adventure” theme and setting--at best, they resemble an earlier version of JONNY QUEST; at worst, they seem like something which could be used as filler in a religious children’s show.
I owned one pair of Buster Brown shoes as a boy. I generally was given cheap shoes, as most kids were, but when I was assessed as having fallen arches, it was suggested I get a better-made pair of shoes with better arch support, so my parents took me to the Buster Brown shoe store and bought me a pair. I don’t remember if comic books were still given out at that time. I never did get another pair of Buster Brown shoes after that--it was back to whatever K-Mart was selling.
Although this comic book is nothing special, it does reflect a special phenomenon, one which lasted for decades. If you have time to kill, take a listen to one of Smilin’ Ed’s broadcasts and return to a world that was a fantasy even while it was being produced.....the world of Ma and Pa Kettle and of Andy Hardy....of county fairs and caramel apples and grandmothers who baked pies and wore flour-stained aprons, while slipping you a quarter and a cookie behind your mother’s back....a world where, just like today, children’s programming is full of ads for products which the average working family cannot afford!