Q When did papers start mixing comics from various syndicates in their sections rather than just picking up one syndicate’s roster?
A I am always amazed at how early this happened and how popular it was even early on, and even with smaller papers.
The first multi-syndicate comic section I know of is the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1898. They produced their own material and supplemented it with comic strips from the New York Herald. This was even before the concept of comic strip syndication really even existed, a business that didn’t get rolling until 1901.
In 1901 we have the McClure Syndicate starting their preprint comic sections, and that opened the floodgates. Hearst began to market Sundays outside of their own papers, and they met with success immediately. They were followed by other papers, whose success at first was more modest, but gained momentum in the next few years. There was also the World Color Printing company in St. Louis which started producing material locally in 1901, but by 1903 were beginning to sell their preprint sections outisde the area.
Most major papers across the country started their color comics sections in the first few years of the twentieth century, but at first most used either homegrown material exclusively, or subscribed to the Hearst or McClure section. Even then, it wasn’t uncommon to find a mix. You might get Happy Hooligan or Buster Brown on the cover of the section, and local material for the rest.
It was in the 1904-06 period that mixed syndicate sections began to really take hold. As papers phased out their local material, it wasn’t at all uncommon for them to mix a page of McClure, a couple pages of Hearst and a page of Pulitzer. I know of two reasons that his happened. First, strongarm tactics. It is known that the Hearst people would actually threaten to start a competing paper in a city, but intimate that those plans might be shelved if the existing papers would purchase their syndicated material. This practice is documented in the book King News (indispensible on your bookshelf, but always keep in mind that Koenigsberg was not above improving a story at the expense of facts).
The other reason, and the more common, for the multi-syndicate sections was to deny the material to other newspapers in the area. If the Chicago Tribune, for instance, contracted the New York Herald for their Sunday section then no other paper in their territory could use it, because these contracts were based on territorial exclusivity. If the Tribune, then, contracted for several syndicate’s output, they effectively denied that material to all other Chicago papers. The Trib didn’t actually have to run all of the material in their paper, they just had to pay the contract. The Tribune did in fact print a page of Herald material and a page of Pulitzer material, with the rest being their own homegrown strips (which they in turn syndicated!). For all we know, they may have contracted with even more syndicates, and just didn’t bother to print any of their material. In fact I suspect that they also took McClure’s “A” section but just didn’t use it. Other Chicago papers were left to scramble for uncontracted syndicated material, much of it inferior, or produce their own homegrown sections, a much costlier alternative.
Unfortunately, my very favorite example of early multi-syndicate sections is lost somewhere buried in my notes. There was a midwest paper, which one I can’t recall, that actually printed material for five syndicates on Sundays back in about 1906-07. I recall the sections well, because they gave me quite a laugh. The front page was Hearst, the back cover was Pulitzer, and the interior was a page of McClure and a page of World Color Printing. This was supplemented with a black and white page of Chicago Daily News material in their magazine section. I pity the other papers in that town!