Harry S. Stuff was an accomplished printer/publisher, typesetter, graphic designer, and advertising specialist active in Seattle in the early 1900s. Stuff founded local companies -- the Ivy Press, the Stuff Printing Concern, and the Associated Arts and Crafts Corporation -- and was active in various print trade organizations. He (and his beloved shop-dog, Piggy) played interesting roles during Seattle's Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909, and he and his first wife, Josephine E. Stuff, who served on numerous committees, were socially active. Stuff also designed posters and penned essays and books. He is now best remembered for having published a poster titled "The Eternal Optimist" in Seattle in 1914. It featured the whimsical image of a goofy, jug-eared, gap-toothed and uneven-eyed carefree loser with the oblivious caption "Me -- Worry?" Four decades later New York's juvenile-humor publication, MAD Magazine, adopted/adapted that unforgettable visage and promoted it as its iconic graphic mascot, "Alfred E. Neuman" -- one whose obtuse inquiry "What, Me Worry?" became a household phrase. Copyright infringement lawsuits ensued, but it was ruled that Stuff had failed to take legal steps to protect his work from others who used it in the years before MAD appropriated it.
The Print Biz
Harry Spencer Stuff was born to the Reverend G. L. S. Stuff and Elizabeth W. Stuff on August 10, 1869, in Chicago. As a youngster he became an apprentice at Colonel Elbridge L. Otis's Rochelle Register and printing house. It was on a Thanksgiving Day, he would later recall, that "I husked my last ear of corn and left an Illinois farm for the print-shop. I sacrificed a college scholarship for the ‘'University of Hard Knocks'" (Harry Stuff, "The Tale..."). "After serving a most rigid and thorough apprenticeship, [he] devoted himself to the printer’s craft with unwavering interest" ("Late Harry Spencer Stuff...").
Stuff later moved to Minneapolis and then to Lincoln, Nebraska, where by 1896 he was operating his own printshop/publishing company, the Ivy Press (127 N 12th Street). By 1899 he was serving as a rep for fellow printshop owners when a labor battle was set to erupt in Omaha. "For several days it looked as if a big fight would result over the attempt to enforce the nine-hour [work] day ... better judgment prevailed and the clash between employers and employees was averted. District Organizer Harry Stuff came up from Lincoln and labored diligently to prevent trouble, and made many friends. Mr. Stuff acted in conjunction with committees from the typographical, bookbinders', press-feeders', and pressmens' unions" (C. W. Fear).
It was presumably while living at Lincoln’s Grand Hotel that he met another resident named Josephine Eleanor Widener [nee Wilson] (1866-1941), a divorcee and a public school principal. In 1901 the two married and by 1902 the couple -- along with the Ivy shop's dog, Piggy -- moved to Seattle, where they settled into a downtown residence (2109 2nd Avenue).
Printing and Publishing in Seattle
Stuff launched a printing and engraving company, the Ivy Press (Pythian Building, SW corner, 1st Avenue and Pike Street) -- where he provided the "Best Work, Quick ... A Modern Printing Place." The shop's Arts and Crafts movement-inspired work was impressive, and the publication Inland Printer later remarked on its receipt, from Ivy, of "a package of exceptionally artistic and attractive printed matter. The typography, presswork and color combinations are excellent and the result is printing of the better kind" (Trezise). Business was apparently good, and that same publication also commented on Ivy’s posh offices, which won praise for their "carpeted floor and nickel-plate finish" ("A Yankee Printer...").
In 1902 Ivy Press published Marion Frances Watt's book of poems, Cypress and Rose as well as a collection titled Maurice and Other Stories.
Stuff took on a business partner named Paul J. Smiley, eventually selling his interest in the firm and instead began to deal in type and printers' machinery from an outpost of the New York-based American Type Founders Company -- which was evidently headquartered at his University District home (3702 11th Avenue NE) along Portage Bay. Then in early 1905 The Seattle Daily Times announced that Stuff was leaving town to accept a new supervisorial job at the American Type Founders Company -- "the best position of its kind in the United States, because this company has [the] largest foundries and output of type" around ("Printer Gets Big Promotion").
But the move caused health problems for Stuff and before long he was back in Seattle -- accompanied by "brand new printing and engraving equipment ... with a stock of the choicest papers from foreign markets" (Harry Stuff, "The Tale...") In late-1905 the Stuff Printing Concern (210-213 Oriental Block / 606 2nd Avenue) opened for business and Stuff hung a sign bearing a new logo -- the "Dollar Mark" -- a clever design that incorporated his initials, "H.S." Offering the public "Quality, hustle and square treatment," business was so good that "We soon needed more room" (Harry Stuff, "The Tale...").
Around 1906 Stuff headed back uptown to Pike Street, where "we found our present large, light, attractive and convenient quarters in the Kinnear Building" (1426 4th Avenue). "With nearly 3,000 feet of floor space, we are operating the most thoroughly modern Printing, Engraving and Lithographing Plant in the West" (Harry Stuff, "The Tale..."). Josephine Stuff began working as the Stuff Printing Concern's cashier, and by 1908 she was also attending classes as a University of Washington student, and serving as the Chairman of the First Unitarian Society. In 1913 the firm moved again (416 Union Street). Their listing in the Polk's Directory of 1914 noted that they provided services related to "Copper Plate Engravers, Embossing, Die Cutting and Advertising Specialties."
Harry Stuff's work earned praise early on. In 1905 The Seattle Daily Times noted that "His operation of the Ivy press in this city did more than any other one thing to bring to the attention of the printers of the United States the fact that the West is producing a quality of printing that is steadily increasing in merit. The work of Mr. Stuff has at all times shown the beauty of simplicity and originality of design..." ("Printer Gets Big Promotion").
One of the first items published by the Stuff Printing Concern in 1906, was a leather-clad booklet titled Songs o' the Sound, which featured Stuff's little graphic totem designs, poems evoking the natural features of the Seattle area's Salish Sea (e.g. Puget Sound) by Alice Harriman (1861-1925), illustrations by Seattle Times staff cartoonist Frank Calvert (1876-1920), and photographs by Webster & Stevens.
The Seattle Daily Times noted January 22, 1907, that Stuff was one of the founders of the new Associated Arts and Crafts Corporation, which had just filed papers with the Secretary of State’s office in Olympia. He was also a member of Seattle Typographical Union No. 202, and in 1907 probably helped make the pitch to bring its annual convention to Seattle in 1909 -- the year of the Seattle’s first World’s Fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (A-Y-P). Then in November 1908 Seattle’s branch of the Master Printers Association appointed him "to devise additional plans for educating the younger generation of printers in the details of the business" ("Invested...").
In 1909 Stuff's shop was hired to print items for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition -- for which Stuff's dog Piggy served as the official mascot. He apparently won quite the fan-base during his reign: When 2,500 Elks Club members marched from downtown up to the fair's campus (near Piggy’s house) on July 28th, the dog trotted alongside them and people "at various points in the formation hoisted banners reading 'Piggy Is Coming,' 'Piggy Is Here,' and (as the wagging black tail receded into the distance) 'Piggy Has Went' (Stein and Becker, p. 84). Alas, Piggy apparently lost his collar -- "engraved with the words, 'A.Y.P.E. Mascot, Piggy,' and was [later] picked up downtown as a common vagrant. Luckily one of the arresting officers recognized the famous pup" and he was safely returned home (Stein and Becker, p. 119).
Piggy must have been much loved, as by 1908 Josephine was active with Seattle’s Humane Society campaigns. The following year she joined the Woman’s Century Club -- a local suffrage organization inspired by the presence of Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947). She served on its Social Service Committee along with Emily Inez Denny (1853-1918), a daughter of town co-founders David Denny (1832-1903) and Louisa Boren Denny (1827-1916). The Dennys were longtime friends with "Lake Union John" Cheshiahud (1820-1910), a noted Duwamish tribal chief who lived on a plot of land on Seattle’s Portage Bay (directly across the bay from the Stuff home) -- that had been given him by David Denny -- and such connections likely led to Stuff's friendship with Cheshiahud.
Back in 1907 Stuff had produced a booklet with the regrettable title The Siwash -- a dated regional term originally used as a contemptuous reference to Indians. The Siwash included a photograph of Cheshiahud and his wife at their Portage Bay cabin, The Typographical Journal noted, and was "shaped like a cabin." It contained "the essence of Siwash wisdom reduced in the form of proverbs. Needless to say, the typographical treatment from cover to cover is in keeping with the subject" ("Seattle, Wash.").
A Growing Reputation
In 1910 Stuff wrote and designed a full-page ad that was published in The Seattle Daily Times. It told a brief history of his company, the story of his dog Piggy, quotations from some happy clients, and a large humorous cartoon of a printer’s shop -- replete with a goofy-looking, jug-eared, and messy-haired young printer’s assistant who was spilling some supplies on the floor. More about that kid later ...
The following year saw the Stuff Printing Concern producing a souvenir program to mark the grand opening of the new Orpheum Theatre (3rd Avenue and Madison Street). The firm also published Cynthia Grey's Fingers That See -- a fictional account of blind students studying at a music school. In February 1911 Stuff attended the Printers' Cost Congress convention in Los Angeles, where he participated in a symposium, "The Printing Business of the Pacific Coast," and where it was announced that its 1913 gathering would be in Seattle. In 1912 Stuff participated in talks among Pacific coast-based print shops about "cost systems" ("Pacific Coast Printers..."). Later, in September of that year, Stuff -- as a member of the Seattle Typothetæ trade group -- traveled to Chicago to attend the National Typothetæ convention, and then headed to New York City. Stuff went on to take a job as a representative of the National Typothetæ, led the creation of its new Three Year Plan, and (later in 1918) helped the Tacoma Typothetæ. The Seattle Ad Club was another organization Stuff belonged to, and as its Honorary Chairman-of-the-Day on November 26, 1912, he addressed the assembled with a speech that included a quote that made the papers: "The sincere smile is one of the component factors in trade" ("Seattle Ad Club...").
In addition to his skills as a printer and engraver, Stuff was gaining recognition for his graphic designs. On April 26, 1914, The Seattle Daily Times ran his photograph along with a feature article, "Stuff Wins Honor At Big Exposition," describing how his design work had just been honored at the National Printing, Publishing and Advertising Exhibition in New York City's Grand Central Palace.
That same year Stuff designed a promotional poster commissioned by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. It bore the legend "See Seattle in 1915." The Seattle Daily Times noted in an essay titled "Seattle Poster Stamp Wins Popular Favor -- Chamber of Commerce Receives Daily Inquiries for Specimens of Artistic Work" that the chamber had adopted the design and ordered 250,000 Seattle postal-style stamps printed, which it intended to give away. The stamp bore imagery "depicting the forty-two-story L.C. Smith Building and Elliott Bay in the foreground, the harbor filled with steamships and freighters and Mount Rainier in the background. The color scheme is a harmonious combination of turquoise, gold, and ivory" ("Seattle Poster Stamp...").
The following year of 1916 saw Stuff elected to the position of Western Representative of the United Typothetæ, based in the Transportation Building in Chicago. The Typographical Journal mentioned that "it is quite unnecessary to introduce Harry Stuff ... His reputation is national in printing circles. His selection as author of the text book on Composition for the typographical technical series to be used at the Carnegie Institute at Pittsburg, and other trade schools, speaks for itself" ("Los Angeles...").
"The Eternal Optimist"
Of all Stuff’s graphic design works, the one that that he is best remembered for was a poster he called "The Eternal Optimist." On June 24, 1914, a federal Register of Copyright was granted to "Stuff and Wilson" for this illustration of what would later be described as: a "picture of a boy with a broad, vacant smile revealing a missing tooth, and large outstanding ears and uncombed hair, which make him appear half-witted. The words 'Me -- Worry?' appear directly underneath the illustration" (Federal Supplement, p. 494).
Interestingly, that poster also featured a copyright symbol, a copyright credit to "Stuff & Wilson," and a publishing credit to the Stuff Printing Concern. The shop's home base of Seattle is also noted. But it was that copyright credit shared with "Wilson" that remains a minor mystery. The astute Seattle-based research librarian Leslie Meyer has recently posited the speculative theory that this was a nod to the maiden name of his wife Josephine -- who, that very same year, he would leave, and then divorce, after he moved to Los Angeles to set up shop as a publisher in the Black Building. Perhaps it was a farewell gift to her, or maybe there's another explanation...
While in California, Stuff was hired as a staffer at the Los Angeles Times-Mirror newspaper where he won accolades for his writings, and where he also designed and edited its in-house publication, Three Minutes. In addition, Stuff designed and edited its Sky-Blue Monday Letter, which the paper later touted as being "the oldest first-class, direct mail continuous approach today in America" ("Late Harry Spencer Stuff..."). While in California he also authored at least two books -- The Book of Holidays: What-When-Where-Why (1926), and The Story of the Olympic Games (1931).
Meanwhile, back in Seattle, Josephine operated her own retail store, the Book Lover’s Shop (1909 North 45th Street) in the Wallingford neighborhood. In 1930 Stuff married another Nebraskan, Helen C. Pratt, the daughter of a pioneering attorney. In late 1937 Stuff became so ill that the couple retreated to her hometown of Kearney, Nebraska, for some familial support. Stuff died there of a cerebral hemorrhage on February 4, 1938. He was buried in the Pratt family plot in the Kearney Cemetery.
Stuff & Wilson
Not long after Stuff’s passing, his widow, Helen, began to take legal action in response to the seemingly endless parade of companies who seemingly felt no compulsion to seek permission to use the village-idiot kid’s likeness for their own commercial purposes. Among the offenders were a patent medicine advertisement published in 1915; Everett's Connor and Bailey cedar shingle business, which in 1922 used a look-a-like kid on their letterhead; Bob Adamcik's Café at Schulenburg, Texas, which used the kid -- and the slogan "When I was 8 Years Old, Me Worry? No" -- on its matchbooks; and advertising postcards mailed out by the Devil's Den Park in New Philadelphia, Ohio, and by Kelly’s Horse Shoe Pike Inn.
Then there was the reverse-psychology campaign employed by anti-Franklin D. Roosevelt forces who used a similar doofus face -- accompanied by the slogan "I’m in favor of a fourth term" on postcards. Another variation stated: "Sure -- I’m for Roosevelt" on the front and on the backside: "If you are opposed to the Third 4th Term send these to your friends. 15 cards for 25c." And then there was a calendar produced by the La Budde Feed and Grain Co. of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And on and on...
Thus it was that on December 3, 1941, the copyright infringement case of Stuff v. La Budde Feed and Grain Company was heard by District Court Judge E. Duffy in Wisconsin. At issue, according to court records, was "a pictorial illustration" produced during the years 1938 and 1939, "which is identical to 'the Original [sic] Optimist,' carrying the words 'Me -- Worry?"' inscribed underneath. He is close to a wall in a room, on which hangs ... a calendar bearing the name 'La Budde Feed and Grain, Milwaukee'" (Fed Sup p. 495). Within an attorney's presentation establishing Helen Stuff's grounds to bring the suit were some interesting details about the origins of "The Eternal Optimist." Harry Stuff "and one Wilson originated the pictorial illustration which is the subject of this suit .... Messrs. Stuff and Wilson published their work and offered it for sale to the general public with a notice of copyright inscribed thereon .... All copies of the illustration bore the required copyright notice. The complaint alleges that Wilson died at Hollywood several years prior to the date of Stuff’s death, leaving no heirs surviving him" (Fed Sup pp. 494-495).
Stuff’s widow was evidently maintaining that there actually had been a "Mr. Wilson" who’d partnered with her late husband, yet her case did not reveal his full name. She further asserted that he was long-since deceased, adding -- seemingly quite conveniently for her claim -- that he also had no heirs around. Perhaps. But, it is also possible that she resented the existence of a published reference to Stuff's first wife (nee Josephine Wilson), and also wanted to clear the field for her claim to be the sole inheritor of the copyright. Either way, La Budde's motion to dismiss the case was denied, but its final resolution remains a mystery.
Then, a quarter century later, matters started to get quite interesting. In 1954 Harvey Kurtzman (1924-1993), the first editor of the New York-based popular juvenile humor publication MAD magazine, noticed a postcard in Mad's offices. It caught his attention because "It was a kid," Kurtzman recalled, "that didn’t have a care in the world, except mischief" (Frank Jacobs) -- and he began thinking about how MAD might be able to use it. Soon, the face of that mischievous kid began popping up, like "Where’s Waldo?" in crowd scenes and other spots in various MAD features.
When Kurtzman left to work for Playboy he was superseded as editor by Al Feldstein (1925-2014). "I decided that I wanted to have this visual logo as the image of Mad," Feldstein once recalled, "the same way that corporations had The Jolly Green Giant and the dog barking at the gramophone for RCA." What he chose was:
"this grinning idiot kid with a gap tooth and freckles and big ears ... This kid was the perfect example of what I wanted. So I put an ad in the New York Times that said, 'National magazine wants portrait artist for special project.' In walked this little old guy in his 60s named Norman Mingo, and he said, 'What national magazine is this?' I said 'Mad,' and he said, 'Goodbye.' I told him to wait, and I dragged out all these examples and postcards of this idiot kid, and I said, 'I want a definitive portrait of this kid. I don't want him to look like an idiot -- I want him to be loveable and have intelligence behind his eyes. But I want him to have this devil-may-care attitude, someone who can maintain a sense of humor while the world is collapsing around him.' I adapted and used that portrait, and that was the beginning" (Heller).
The face was refined a bit by Mingo, eventually given a fictional name ("Alfred E. Neuman") and a modified slogan ("What? Me Worry?"), and by the July 1955 issue (No. 30) MAD had a new mascot -- one with an instantly recognizable face that generations of MAD readers would closely identify with that publication. Still, there's no escaping that it was the same zany face shown on Stuff’s "The Eternal Optimist" poster back in 1914.
Thus, in 1966 Helen Pratt Stuff filed a series of infringement lawsuits against MAD for adopting the image that her deceased husband had successfully copyrighted so long ago. The stakes of this were very high, as MAD had by now been employing Alfred E. Neuman's face on, and within, the magazine, and various collateral products, countless times over the past decade. A copyright judgment for the Stuff estate would be very lucrative for her, and possibly financially devastating for MAD. And, based on the apparent evidence, the courts ruled in her favor.
Yet, when one case reached the appellate court MAD's lawyers had done their homework. And to assist them, MAD had reached out to its readership asking help in identifying exactly where and when the goofy face had originally appeared. Scores of responses -- some with perhaps a bit more merit than others -- apparently poured in.
The theory was posited that "similar looking" illustrations had appeared previous to "The Eternal Optimist" and that Stuff (and Wilson) had themselves been influenced by others. A specific graphic lineage would be eventually invoked: a painted ad "on the side of a 19th century traveling dentist's wagon with the slogan 'It didn't hurt a bit'" (Myrna Oliver); the Yellow Kid, the central character from Hogan's Alley, a newspaper comic strip by R. F. Outcault that had debuted back in 1895; an illustration "from a biology textbook as an example of a person who lacked iodine"; "a greeting-card alcoholic named Hooey McManus"; "a Siamese boy named Watmi Worri." One reader dug up a 1909 German calendar bearing a version of the inane smiling face" (Frank Jacobs). Al Feldstein himself firmly believed -- or at least convinced himself -- that "He'd been around for years; there had been many, many versions of this kid around" (Heller). It remains unknown whether or not anyone uncovered the cartoon of that young printer's apprentice that Stuff had included in that ad he’d designed and placed in The Seattle Daily Times way back in 1910…
Copyrights & Wrongs
Some of the images that people posited as antecedents for Stuff's character are seemingly without much merit, while others are a bit more intriguing. Long-story-short, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit finally ruled that while Stuff had initially registered his image properly for copyright protection back in 1914, he failed to defend it when others began using it over subsequent decades.
In the end, the court essentially ruled that there was evidence that the face had an evolutionary lineage dating back prior to Stuff's "The Eternal Optimist," and that by this late date it had passed into the public domain. And thus, Helen Pratt Stuff's previous court victories were overturned and that silly face of "The Eternal Optimist" would henceforth belong to all mankind.