top of page

"Little Orphan Annie: Her Story"

In researching the character, "Little Orphan Annie," I run across obscure sources that are not found on the web, and are not easily located in a library or an archival instutitution.

I have been researching this topic in my "free time" - which isn't so free right now as I have returned to full time work. However, early on in my research on Harold Gray's version of "LIttle Orphan Annie" - I found a reference to a little booklet that had been published by the Chicago Tribune in the early years of the "LIttle Orphan Annie" comic strip.

This little booklet was written by the "LIttle Orphan Annie" comic strip creator, Harold Gray. One particular website source - cited this booklet as Annie's "origin story." So if this book was from the comic strip's early years - - this booklet is pushing a 100 year old as the comic strip premiered in the "New York Daily News" August 5, 1924.

I finally found one on eBay and was able to purchase it at a reasonable price (I am not wealthy - and have a kid in college).

"Little Orphan Annie:  Her Story" by Harold Gray

I was excited to see what it contained, and it did hold one surprise. However, it was not exactly what I was trying to find.

I was hoping that Harold Gray would explain a little more about his inspiration for the "Annie" character. I have read in multiple sources that the James Whitcomb Riley poem was one of the inspirations for the character. One source also claimed there was a picture that had hung in an art gallery for years - as another source of inspiration. Although, the subject of the picture nor the artist is ever explained.

What I am trying to do - is flush out the connection between the Riley material and the Gray material.

Riley's material is all autobiographical, and I have that information nailed down for the most part. I know who his inspiration for the Annie poem was - and he confirms that connection to Mary Alice Smith in NUMEROUS articles, letters and original source documents.

However the connection between Riley and Gray is not as flushed out as I would like, and I would like to get some more conformation that I am on the right track.

James Whitcomb Riley wrote the poem that would be later called, "LIttle Orphant Annie" in 1885 as an original poetic piece in the Indianapolis Journal. It's original title was, "The Elf Child" and if you have read my "Orphan Annie Ooops" blog piece you will know that the character was originally called, "Little Orphan Allie" - "Allie" being short for Mary "Alice." A later publication of the poem saw the name changed from "Allie" to "Annie" - and the poem remained that way all throughout the rest of the Riley's publications. It would become Riley's signature piece, and would be the one poem that has some popularity - - even today.

I was hoping that this little greenish blue book would maybe allude to that connection a little more blatantly. But alas, this piece was not an editorial piece about Annie's origins from Gray's perspective. Instead, this basically recaps the life of the comic book character and some of her early adventures. It is a synopsis of the comic's storylines.

This little book is undated; however, one internet source dated it to 1927 - - So if this is the case, the comic strip would have been only three years old when this booklet was published. It has some nice black and white line images that Gray drew. The story content tells of Annie first coming to the Warbucks home, and some of her adventures with the "Silos" - a poor farmer family; the entrance of another orphan boy by the name of "Selby Adelbert Piffleberry" or "Sap" for short; and Annie's adventure in the circus.

The very last image is super cool, and I am including it here:

Orphan Annie washing the cups and saucers

This is an image that is very similar to one that appeared in the very **First** Orphan Annie Strip.

Why I view this as important is that in Riley's poem he writes,

"Little Orphant Annie's come to our house to stay,

An' wash the cups and saucers up,

an' brush the crumbs away,

An' shoo the chickens off the porch,

an' dust the hearth, an' sweep,

An' make the fire, an' bake the bread,

an earn her board-an'-keep;

An' all us other children,

when the supper things is done,

We set around the kitchen fire

an' has the mostest fun

A-list'nin' to the witch-tales

'at Annie tells about,

An' the Gobble-uns 'at gits you⁠

Ef you ⁠Don't ⁠Watch ⁠Out!"

If Harold Gray wanted to make a connection to the Riley character without being blantant - I believe he does this very well with this imagery. I think this is especially important since this image was also seen in his very first "LIttle Orphan Annie" comic strip. We see that Annie - Gray's Annie - is "washing the cups and saucers up" - which is the very first task that is mentioned in the Riley poem.

The washing panel from Gray's first strip.

The image on the left is the panel from Gray's very first comic strip of "Little Orphan Annie." You can see that this version is slightly different than the one that appears in the booklet, but there are still cups, saucers and plates in this image.

The image on the right is Will Vawter's drawing of Riley's "LIttle Orphant Annie washing the cups and saucers up. This drawing appeared in Riley's book, "Child Rhymes."

Will Vawter's Illustration of "Little Orphant Annie" for Riley's Childr Rhymes book

We also see that in both images from the original comic strip and Vawter's Annie - - that she is wearing an apron. Both have stacks of dishes to wash, and both are doing this from a table or dry sink.

Harold Gray created his "LIttle Orphan Annie" comic strip in 1924. James Whitcomb Riley had passed away in 1916; however, he was still wildly popular with this poem being made into a silent movie starring Colleen Moore in 1918.

Riley's publisher, Bobbs Merrill would have pursued copyright infringement if Gray had made his character too much like Riley's so he had to be careful. For this reason, I believe Gray purposefully made his comic strip Annie different enough from Riley's Annie so there could be a slight connection made - but it wouldn't be overly blatant.

So is there a connection between Riley's Annie and Gray's Annie? I think so. And, I have uncovered other evidence to prove this point. However, I do want to write a book some day on this subject - and cannot let all of the "cats out of the bag." But, I do hope that this little snippet of information from this little booklet - helps to prove that LIttle Orphant Annie's - story is not only Gray's story - but also connected to Riley - and also to the the real person who inspired Riley.

What do you think?

#OrphanAnnie #OrphantAnnie #HaroldGray #washingcupsandsaucers

Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Black
  • Pinterest Basic Black
Recent Posts
bottom of page