On this date in 1950 the syndicated comic strip Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz was published for the first time. The strip is the most popular and influential in the history of the comic strip, with 17,897 strips published in all. At its peak, Peanuts ran in over 2,600 newspapers, with a readership of 355 million in 75 countries, and was translated into 21 languages. It helped to cement the four-panel strip as the standard in the United States, and together with its merchandise earned Schulz more than $1 billion. Reprints of the strip are still syndicated and run in almost every U.S. newspaper.
Peanuts had its origin in Li’l Folks, a weekly panel comic that appeared in Schulz’s hometown paper, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, from 1947 to 1950. He first used the name Charlie Brown for a character there, although he applied the name in four strips to three different boys and one buried in sand. The series also had a dog that looked much like the early 1950’s version of Snoopy. In 1948, Schulz sold a cartoon to The Saturday Evening Post which published 17 single-panel cartoons by Schulz. The first of these was of a boy sitting with his feet on an ottoman.
In 1948, Schulz tried to have Li’l Folks syndicated through the Newspaper Enterprise Association. Schulz would have been an independent contractor for the syndicate, unheard of in the 1940s, but the deal fell through. Li’l Folks was dropped in early 1950. Later that year, Schulz approached the United Feature Syndicate with his best work from Li’l Folks. When his work was picked up by United Feature Syndicate, they decided to run the new comic strip he had been working on. This strip was similar in spirit to the panel comic, but it had a set cast of characters, rather than different nameless little folk for each page. The name Li’l Folks was too close to the names of two other comics of the time: Al Capp’s Li’l Abner and a strip titled Little Folks. To avoid confusion, the syndicate settled on the name Peanuts, after the peanut gallery featured in the Howdy Doody TV show. Peanuts was a title Schulz always disliked. In a 1987 interview, Schulz said of the title Peanuts: “It’s totally ridiculous, has no meaning, is simply confusing, and has no dignity—and I think my humor has dignity.” The periodic collections of the strips in paperback book form typically had either “Charlie Brown” or “Snoopy” in the title, not “Peanuts”, because of Schulz’s distaste for his strip’s title. From November 28, 1966 to January 4, 1987, the opening Sunday panels typically read Peanuts, featuring Good Ol ‘ Charlie Brown.
Peanuts premiered on October 2, 1950, in nine newspapers: The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Minneapolis Tribune, The Allentown Call-Chronicle, The Bethlehem Globe-Times, The Denver Post, The Seattle Times, The New York World-Telegram & Sun, and The Boston Globe. It began as a daily strip. The first strip was four panels long and showed Charlie Brown walking by two other young children, Shermy and Patty. Shermy lauds Charlie Brown as he walks by, but then tells Patty how he hates him in the final panel. This was groundbreaking. Until then, rarely had children expressed hatred for others in comic strips. Snoopy was also an early character in the strip, first appearing in the third strip, which ran on October 4. Its first Sunday strip appeared January 6, 1952, in the half-page format, which was the only format for the entire life of the Sunday strip. Most of the other characters that eventually became the main characters of Peanuts did not appear until later: Violet (February 1951), Schroeder (May 1951), Lucy (March 1952), Linus (September 1952), Pig-Pen (July 1954), Sally (August 1959), Frieda (March 1961), “Peppermint” Patty (August 1966), Woodstock (introduced April 1967; given a name in June 1970), Franklin (July 1968), Marcie (July 1971), and Rerun (March 1973).
Schulz decided to produce all aspects of the strip himself from the script to the finished art and lettering. (Schulz did, however, hire help to produce the comic book adaptations of Peanuts.) Thus, the strip was able to be presented with a unified tone, and Schulz was able to employ a minimalistic style. Backgrounds were generally not used, and when they were, Schulz’s frazzled lines imbued them with a fraught appearance. This style has been described by art critic John Carlin as forcing “its readers to focus on subtle nuances rather than broad actions or sharp transitions.” Schulz held this belief all his life, reaffirming in 1994 the importance of crafting the strip himself: “This is not a crazy business about slinging ink. This is a deadly serious business.”
While the strip in its early years resembles its later form, there are significant differences. The art was cleaner, sleeker, and simpler, with thicker lines and short, squat characters. For example, in these early strips, Charlie Brown’s famous round head is closer to the shape of an American football or rugby football. Most of the kids were initially fairly round-headed. As another example, all the characters (except Charlie Brown) had their mouths longer and had smaller eyes when they looked sideways.
The 1960s is known as the “golden age” for the comic strip. During this period some of the most well known themes and characters appeared, including: Peppermint Patty, Snoopy as the “World War One Flying Ace”, Frieda and her “naturally curly hair”, and Franklin. Peanuts is remarkable for its deft social commentary, especially compared with other strips appearing in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Schulz did not explicitly address racial and gender equality issues so much as he assumed them to be self-evident in the first place. Peppermint Patty’s athletic skill and self-confidence is simply taken for granted, for example, as is Franklin’s presence in a racially integrated school and neighborhood. (Franklin came about at least in part as a result of Schulz’s correspondence in 1968 with a socially progressive fan.) The fact that Charlie Brown’s baseball team had three girls was also at least ten years ahead of its time in terms of Little League realities (and in fact, the TV special Charlie Brown’s All-Stars dealt with Charlie Brown refusing sponsorship of the team because the sponsor said the league does not allow girls or dogs to play).
Schulz would throw satirical barbs at any number of topics when he chose. Over the years he tackled everything from the Vietnam War to school dress codes to the “new math.” In 1963 he added a little boy named “5” to the cast, whose sisters were named “3” and “4,” and whose father had changed their family name to their ZIP Code, giving in to the way numbers were taking over people’s identities. In 1958, a strip in which Snoopy tossed Linus into the air and boasted that he was the first dog ever to launch a human, parodied the hype associated with Sputnik 2’s launch of “Laika” the dog into space earlier that year. Another sequence lampooned Little Leagues and “organized” play, when all the neighborhood kids join snowman-building leagues and criticize Charlie Brown when he insists on building his own snowmen without leagues or coaches.
Peanuts did not shy away from cartoon violence. The most obvious example might be Charlie Brown’s annual, futile effort to kick the football while Lucy holds it. At the last moment, she would pull the ball away just as he was kicking. The off-balance Charlie Brown would sail into the air and land on his back with a loud thud. There was also the ever-present (and often executed) threat by Lucy to “slug” someone, especially her brother Linus. Though violence would happen from time to time, only once or twice was a boy ever depicted hitting a girl (Charlie Brown, who accidentally hit Lucy; when Lucy complained about it, Charlie Brown went down to her psychiatric booth where she returned the slug much harder) August 8, 1965.
Peanuts touched on religious themes on many occasions, most notably the classic television special A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965, which features the character Linus van Pelt quoting the King James Version of the Bible (Luke 2:8–14) to explain to Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about (in personal interviews, Schulz mentioned that Linus represented his spiritual side). Because of the explicit religious material in A Charlie Brown Christmas, many have interpreted Schulz’s work as having a distinct Christian theme, though the popular perspective has been to view the franchise through a secular lens.
Though Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes rivaled Peanuts in popularity in the 1980’s and the 1990’s respectively, the strip still remained the most popular comic of all time. The daily Peanuts strips were formatted in a four-panel “space saving” format beginning in the 1950’s, with a few very rare eight-panel strips, that still fit into the four-panel mold. In 1975, the panel format was shortened slightly horizontally, and shortly after the lettering became larger to accommodate the shrinking format. Beginning on Leap Day in 1988, Schulz abandoned the four-panel format in favor of three-panel dailies and occasionally used the entire length of the strip as one panel, partly for experimentation, but also to combat the dwindling size of the comics page in general.
Schulz continued the strip until he had to retire because of health reasons; he died the day before the final Sunday strip was published. Final Sunday strip, which came out February 13, 2000: one day after the death of Charles M. Schulz. The final daily original Peanuts comic strip was published on January 3, 2000. At that point, five more original Sunday Peanuts strips had yet to be published.
On February 13, 2000, the day following Schulz’s death, the last ever Peanuts strip ran in papers. The strip began with Charlie Brown answering the phone with someone on the end presumably asking for Snoopy. Charlie Brown responded with “No, I think he’s writing.” The bottom panel consisted of the final daily strip in its entirety, reprinted in color, and included various Peanuts characters surrounding it. The very last strip consisted simply of Snoopy sitting at his typewriter in thought with a farewell note from Schulz (click image to enlarge). As appropriate, Charlie Brown was the only character to appear in both the first strip in 1950 and the last in 2000.
Charlie Brown once famously said when the gang were contemplating making Thanksgiving dinner, “All I can make is cold cereal and maybe toast.” Peanut butter sandwiches do feature once in a while in the strip:
I expect you can make a peanut butter sandwich without my help. However, Charlie Brown pudding is very popular with elementary school children in the U.S. and with a little bit of help from an adult they can make it themselves. A complete recipe with demonstration photos can be found here.
It’s really not my kind of thing at all, but it is a fitting and loving tribute to Peanuts and Schulz.