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Elbert Hubbard: An American Original - WNED | PBS

Early Artisans

W. W. Denslow

W. W. Denslow W. W. Denslow
Courtesy of the Roycroft Arts Muesum

William Wallace Denslow (American, 1856-1915)

Born: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died: New York City

A designer, illustrator and cartoonist best known for his children’s characters, W. W. Denslow was himself a colorful figure who was described by his contemporaries as a large man with a walrus moustache, a foghorn voice, an upside-down sense of humor, and a loud, uproarious laugh.

William Wallace Denslow, Jr. received formal training as a teenager, spending brief periods at the Cooper Union Institute and the National Academy of Design in New York, but he was largely a self-trained artist. Some of his earliest works appeared in journals such as Hearth and Home, American Agriculturist and the children's magazine, St. Nicholas. Through the 1870's and early 1880's, Denslow led the life of a peripatetic, bohemian artist. In 1888, he went to work at the Chicago Herald. Trouble with alcohol cost him his job, and he moved to Denver and then to San Francisco to continue in the newspaper business before returning to Chicago for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.

Denslow's newspaper illustrations helped to establish him among the literati of Chicago. He joined the Whitechapel Club (named in macabre fashion after the Whitechapel murders committed by Jack the Ripper), the Bohemian Club, and the Press Club. He married in 1896 and found work designing costumes for the stage and posters for newspapers, magazines and books.

In January 1896, the first book of the Roycroft press, The Song of Songs, was published. Denslow wrote to Hubbard, requesting a copy of the book while also submitting a sample of his work. In a reply letter, Hubbard invited Denslow to consider working for the Roycroft Press. Denslow accepted and became the first professional artist Elbert Hubbard employed. His early work included designs, initial letters and title pages for Hubbard's publications. In time, he became a regular contributor to The Philistine, creating cartoons of humor and social commentary for Hubbard’s monthly magazine.

W. W. Denslow - The Philistine W. W. Denslow Cartoon from The Philistine
Courtesy of the Roycroft Arts Muesum

Signing his work with a stylized hippocampus, or seahorse, and the letters DEN, Denslow became known as "Hippocampus Den." His trademark signature was also incorporated into the Roycroft watermark and other designs.

Perhaps Denslow's greatest claim to fame came from his association with author Lyman Frank Baum. Denslow illustrated Baum's Father Goose, His Book in 1899. Though of a different literary genre, the book's craftsmanship reflected the principles of William Morris, one of the founders of the English Arts and Crafts movement, and it became the best-selling picture book of 1900. Following the success of Father Goose, Denslow and Baum began collaborating on another children's book. When it went to press, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was an instant hit, becoming a favorite children's gift of the 1900 Christmas season. In an ironic twist, the glad tidings led to bad feelings between the book’s creators. Baum and Denslow each thought his contribution was the reason for its success, and the difference of opinions strained their relationship. Disagreement turned to animosity which culminated during preparations for a musical extravaganza based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Denslow and Baum parted ways, but the legal battles continued for several years.

W. W. Denslow - What's The Use W. W. Denslow Cartoon
Courtesy of the Elbert Hubbard Roycroft Musuem

After leaving Roycroft in 1899, Denslow moved to New York City. With royalties from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, he bought an island off the coast of Bermuda, and in a move that Elbert Hubbard would almost certainly appreciate, he crowned himself King Denslow I of Denslow Island, but the fame and fortune that came from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz did not endure.

Denslow published several children's books of his own, including Mother Goose in 1901 and Denslow's Night Before Christmas based on the Clement C. Moore poem in 1902. In 1904, he collaborated with a songwriter to create The Pearl and the Pumpkin that was turned into a musical extravaganza, but it did not enjoy the same success as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Denslow began drinking heavily, was divorced multiple times and had difficulty landing secure employment. He moved to Buffalo, New York and found work with the Niagara Lithograph Company designing promotional pamphlets. He returned to New York City around 1913, finding work at another advertising agency where he struggled to get by on a salary of twenty-five dollars a week. After selling a full-color cover to Life magazine, then a light entertainment weekly with illustrations, humor and social commentary, Denslow went out to celebrate. He got drunk, caught pneumonia and died on March 29, 1915.

Early in his career, Denslow expressed his disposition and outlook: "I float, as it were, with the steam, enjoying life as I float. I do have a good time and no mistake, besides that I work very hard, being at it night and day.... Of course, I should like to do something better, but a big salary and solid comfort make one hesitate to lean to something else."

It was a sentiment that would likely have found favor with Elbert Hubbard.

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Funding for Elbert Hubbard: An American Original provided by The Margaret L. Wendt Foundation
Elbert Hubbard: An American Original is a production of WNED-TV