Raggedy Ann's humble beginnings

The Examiner

I had the privilege of spending an afternoon with a very creative soul this past week, Joe Liccar, an editorial cartoonist for The Examiner and Gannett-USA Today.

For some silly reason he reminded me of a day many years ago when I had to pick up my daughter’s new Raggedy Ann doll off the floor and throw it in her toy box, along with all the other toys scattered across the living room floor. Her Grandma Ray had made the Raggedy Ann by hand, which gave it a very special meaning to my daughter.

Raggedy Ann

The reason Joe reminded me of Raggedy Ann was because of another newspaper cartoonist from long long ago named Johnny Gruelle. He carried a Raggedy Ann doll with him wherever he went. The doll was propped up on his desk at the Indianapolis Star during the day, and he never failed to take her home with him at night. Gruelle’s co-workers respected his strange, silly habit, for they knew the reason behind it.

One version of this story begins one icy December day in 1914 when John’s 8-year-old daughter, Marcella, was playing in the attic at her grandmother’s house. Marcella’s eyes suddenly landed on an old, tattered doll lying in a wooden chest. Some of its hair of red yarn had fallen out. It had no eyes, no nose, no mouth. In fact, it really had no face at all.

Marcella’s grandmother gently picked up the old home-made rag doll and explained it had belonged to Marcella’s mother when she was a little girl – her absolute favorite. She had played with it so much, she had completely worn out the doll.

Needless to say, Marcella adopted the doll on the spot as her very own. Excitedly, she bundled up, with the doll in hand, kissed her grandmother goodbye and headed off in the icy snow to show her daddy, who was working late at the newspaper office.

Gruelle was up against a deadline and time was tight, but that was no match for Marcella’s concern for her newfound doll with no face. Putting his work aside momentarily, John took the doll from his daughter’s arms. Carefully with his pen, the cartoonist drew her a new happy face – which also made Marcella a “little girl” with a new happy face.

When she got home, her mom went to work on the doll. She restuffed it, patched its sparse red hair with new yarn, sewed on button eyes and made a dress with a white apron. Marcella and her mom realized the newly transformed doll needed a new name, and after some careful thought they decided she should be called Raggedy Ann. Raggedy was taken from a poem, “The Raggedy Man,” written by a family friend, James Whitmore Riley. Ann was borrowed from “Little Orphant Annie,” the title of another poem by Riley as well as the name of a comic strip by Harold Gray.

Ted Stillwell

Marcella fell in love with Raggedy Ann and she carried her everywhere she went and snuggled her in bed with her at night. John made up bedtime stories about Raggedy Ann nightly and even featured her in his comic strip, Mr. Twee Deedle.

But Marcella was ill, and grew increasingly weaker and frail. She died with Raggedy Ann always by her side. As a tribute to his daughter, John went on to write dozens of hand-illustrated books about the adventures of Raggedy Ann that he had made up as bedtime stories for his daughter – his way of coping with their loss.

Raggedy Ann became an industry unto herself and is as popular today as ever. Raggedy Ann still graces the bedrooms of millions of children around the world.

Reference: “Toys! Amazing Stories behind Some Great Inventions,” by Don Wulffson.

Reach Ted W. Stillwell at Ted@blueandgrey.com or 816-896-3592.