Little Visits with Great Americans

by Orison Swett Marden

Frederick Burr Opper, The Originator of the "Suburban Resident"

The felicity of F. Opper's caricatures is marvelous. His drawings for the Dinkelspiel stories, by George V. Hobart, in the New York "Morning Journal" have drawn to him the pleased attention of those whom he has caused to laugh at the happy expressions of his characters, —at the ridiculous expressions of the characters, —during Mr. Dinkelspiel's "gonversationings," particularly at Mr. Dinkelspiel's earnest look.

He is a caricaturist of the "first water," and in this connection I may say that a caricature too carefully drawn often loses its humor. Still Mr. Opper has proved his ability to finish a drawing smoothly. Those familiar with the back numbers of "Puck" will concede this and much more.

His life is an example of determination. I called, by appointment, at his house in Bensonhurst (near Bath Beach), a pretty suburb within the precincts of Greater New York. We stepped into his library.

He drew my attention to the pictures on the four walls of the room, "Those are all 'originals,' by contemporaries," he said, "and there is one by poor Mike Woolf. We were intimate friends, and I attended his funeral."


The conversation turned toward Mr. Opper himself, and I asked: —

"How is it you can conceive so many ridiculous ideas and predicaments?"

"It is a matter of study," he replied. "I work methodically certain hours of the day, but very seldom at night. We will say it is a political cartoon on a certain occurrence that I am to draw. I deliberately sit down and study out my idea. When it is formed, I begin to draw. I never commence to draw without a conception of what I am going to do."

"And when did you first put pencil to paper?" I asked.

"Almost as soon as I could creep. I was born in Madison, Ohio, in 1857, and as far back as I can remember, I had a determination to become an artist. My path often swerved from my ambition, on account of necessity, but my determination was back of me, and whenever an obstacle was removed I advanced thus much farther toward my goal."

"I went to the village school till I was fourteen years of age, and then I went to work in the village store. Both at school and in the store, every spare moment found me with pencil and paper, sketching something comical; so much so, indeed, that I became known for it."


"I remained in the store for a few months, and then went to work on the weekly paper, and acted the part of a 'printer's devil.' Afterward, I set type. In about a year, the idea firmly possessed me that I could draw, and I decided that it was best to go to New York. But my self-esteem was not so great as to rate myself a fullfledged artist. My idea was to obtain a position as a compositor in New York, to draw between times, and gradually to land myself where my hopes all centered. So my disappointment was great when, on arriving in the city, I discovered that, to become a compositor, I must serve an apprenticeship of three years. I was in New York, in an artistic environment, and had burned my bridges; accordingly I looked for a place, and obtained one in a store. One of my duties there was to make window cards, to advertise the whole line, or a particular lot of goods. I decorated them in my best fashion."


"All the leisure I had to myself, evenings and holidays, I spent in making comic sketches, and I took them to the comic papers, —to the 'Phunny Phellow,' and 'Wild Oats.' I just submitted rough sketches. Soon the editors permitted me to draw the sketches also, which was great encouragement. I met Frank Beard, and called on him, by request, and he proposed that I come into his office. So I left the store, after having been there eight or nine months, and ceased drawing show-cards for the windows. I drew for 'Wild Oats,' 'Harper's Weekly,' 'Frank Leslie's,' and the 'Century,' which at that time was Scribner's publication; and later for 'St. Nicholas.' "

It was then that Mr. Opper had an oflfer from "Leslie's" to work on the staff at a salary, which he accepted.

"I was only a little over twenty years of age," he continued. "I was a humorous draughtsman, and a special artist, also; going where I was directed to make sketches of incidents, people and scenes."

Six years before, Mr. Opper had left the village school with a burning determination to become an artist. It can be seen how well he sailed his bark, — tacking and drifting, and finally beating home with the wind full on the sails. This shows what determination will do.


"Three years later," said Mr. Opper, "I had an oflfer from the publishers of 'Puck' to work for them, — a connection which I severed not long ago, although I still hold stock in the company. I not only made my own drawings, but furnished ideas for others. I have always furnished my own captions, inscriptions and headings. Indeed, they are a part of a cartoon, or other humorous work. I think that I may say that 'Puck' owes some of its success to me, for I labored conscientiously."

Mr. Opper walked over to a mantelpiece for two books of sketches, which he handed me to look at. They contained sketches of the country places he had visited on his summer wanderings.

"And you use these ?" I asked.

"Yes; if I want a farmer leaning over a fence with a cow in the distance. I can use that barnyard scene And that bit of a country road can be made useful. So can that corncrib with the tin pans turned upside down on the posts supporting it, to keep the rats off. That old hay-wagon, and that farmer with a rake and a large straw hat can all be worked in. I always carry a sketchbook with me, no matter where I go."


On "Puck," Mr. Opper was the originator of the "suburban resident," who has since been the subject of much innocent merriment, —the gentleman with the high silk hat, side whiskers, glasses, an anxious expression, and bundles, and always on the rush for a train.

"I enjoyed those," said Mr. Opper, with a laugh, "before I became a suburban myself."

"It seems miraculous," I remarked, "that one brain can think up so many ideas. I suppose, when walking along the street, you see humor and queer positions, which you exaggerate."

"No; I have often heard of persons doing so, but I don't think I ever have, myself. I receive many letters, come enclosing rough sketches, as suggestions. I have never used them, either. In most cases, they hint at an untimely joke, or are conceptions that would have to be worked over from an entirely different standpoint. I read the newspapers, and follow current events, keep myself posted, and draw from this information. After an idea is formed, I think it out. Almost every night, at home, I sit here, alone, and plan my work for the next day,"

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