Obscurity of the Day: Darktown and The Darktown Sport

Thomas Worth was a very well-known cartoonist/artist in the 19th century, but his fame was so ill-earned that I think it not entirely unfitting that he has been forgotten. Worth produced a large corpus of works, but his specialty was ‘humorous’ caricatures of black people. His initial fame came from the creation of a series of posters titled Darktown for the printmakers Currier & Ives. These sold like gangbusters, in fact they may have been one of the company’s bestselling series of all.

In the Darktown series Worth usually depicted a group of blacks engaged in activities considered to be far above their station in life — fox hunting, political debating, playing baseball (!) and so on. While the drawings often also had intriguing political and social overtones in addition to the racial depictions, it’s frankly hard to notice those elements when confronted with such incredibly grotesque caricatures.

Worth’s well-received posters brought him lots of other commissions, including many illustrations for humor magazines. Even the top market for magazine illustration of the day, Harper’s Weekly, used his work extensively. In the mid-1890s, when Hearst and Pulitzer pioneered the Sunday color comics section, Thomas Worth was naturally in demand. Both publishers were able to attract his pen at various points.

In 1897 Worth produced a couple of series for Hearst, of which Darktown, aka The Darktown Sport, was one. Although the microfilm of the New York Journal was apparently too fragmentary for my or Dave Strickler’s indexing to pick this series up, Cole Johnson supplied me with two samples from 1897 (the top two above). Unfortunately he dated both examples December 12 1897 by mistake, and so due to his very unfortunate demise, we don’t know what the other date was or whether he had any additional examples from that year. According to Ohio State’s Bill Blackbeard collection finding aid, they have a third example of this series dated December 26 1897 with a football theme.

For some reason Worth seems to have dropped his Darktown Sport series in favor of a basically identical series titled The Hawaii Club. It was the same sort of material, and I have no clue why the black characters were in the ‘Hawaii Club’. Discussing the question with Cole Johnson way back when, he ventured a guess that Mr. Worth had no idea what a Hawaiian looked like, so he drew them exactly like all his other characters.

Worth didn’t give up on his Darktown series, though. On July 10 1898, a new Coonville panel was published in the Journal, and several more appeared over about the next year. The last known Darktown panel was run on May 7 1899 (bottom sample). It was around this time that Worth defected to Pulitzer’s New York World, so that probably does constitute the end of the series.

Although I say that Worth is forgotten, the amnesia isn’t total. If you’d like to read more about him, I suggest these excellent posts at Yesterday’s Papers and Booktryst. Also, thanks to Cole Johnson who supplied all the samples.

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