The story goes that Jay Norwood Darling — the middle name could be a nod to the Michigan town where he was born —then 20-something years old and a cub reporter for the Sioux City Journal, attempted to get a photograph of a particular lawyer to accompany a news article Darling had written.
The lawyer refused and had Darling swept out of the courtroom. So Darling submitted a caricature he’d drawn of the lawyer, and his editor published it.
The cartoon brought such acclaim that Darling then drew a series of likenesses of well-known townsfolk for the paper, calling it “Local Snapshots,” in 1901 and 1902. That led to more cartoons for the paper, and soon Darling discovered a new career path — at a time when any self-respecting American newspaper of a decent size boasted at least one local editorial cartoonist on its staff.
That was an era when the opinion of those cartoonists — weighing in on local talking points, national issues and world events on a daily basis — sold newspapers, garnered powerful loyalties, shifted public opinion and swayed votes.
Darling began signing his cartoons with a truncated version of his last name, “Ding.” In 1906 he was hired by the Des Moines Register, where he and cartoons appeared until 1962, with a few years off for a spell at the New York Globe and for other, non-cartooning work.
During his career, Ding won two Pulitzer Prizes, in 1924 and 1943.
Through March 23, the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum in West Branch will host “The Hidden Works of Jay ‘Ding’ Darling,” which features a collection of Ding’s drawings, paintings, books and photos as well as a re-staging of his drawing area, including his drawing table.
The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, on Ohio State University’s campus in Columbus, right now has on display the drawing table of “Dick Tracy” creator Chester Gould. As a one-time editorial cartoonist, I have to confess I just can’t fathom how Darling, Gould and other fabled professionals of their time managed to accomplish anything on such minuscule drawing surfaces. I can only figure those artists possessed a heck of a lot more skill, dexterity and patience than I ever could muster.
And artists they were. True, Ding was of an era when editorial cartoonists labeled their images, both with words — “Starving Europe,” “Suffragists,” “Corporate Bosses” — or obvious symbols — a scooped out planet Earth to show the disastrous potential results from over-mining of its natural resources, or a well-fed farmer with “Iowa” emblazoned on the front of his bib overalls.
Today editorial cartoons are printed smaller and thus are simpler, in drawing and information. Worse, they sadly are often supplied by national syndicates rather than conceived and created locally.
But Ding knew how to get his message across: Over the course of his career — much of it, remember, was not only pre-Internet and pre-TV but even pre-radio popularity — he advised, corresponded with or commented on seven U.S. presidents and saw through two world wars.
Much of this exhibit deals with Darling’s strong interests in conservation — his motto was “A puddle for every duck.” It details his work to study migrating waterfowl for President Franklin Roosevelt, heading up the Biological Survey — during which time he designed the first duck stamp — and starting the National Wildlife Federation.
His final Des Moines Register cartoon is here, too, drawn by Ding during an earlier health scare but published the day after his death in 1962. It depicts his cluttered work area, with his drawing table, walls and floor littered with pictures of symbolic elephants, donkeys and Uncle Sam.
A ghostly figure grabs his hat as he dashes out the door, late for an unavoidable date. The cartoon is titled, “’Bye Now — It’s Been Wonderful Knowing You.”
The cartoon is a nice touch to a small but packed exhibit devoted to a man whose skill and counsel we would do well to keep in mind.