My remembrances of Sadie Hawkins Day don’t stem from reading the well-known “Li’l Abner” comic strip by Al Capp, although it was his imagination that created the pseudo-holiday. Growing up in the early 90s, participating was a sort of rite of passage for the girls at my school, both junior high and high school. The novelty: girls ask the guys out to a dance. We took it a step further and bought matching plaid shirts for our dates and ourselves to get even more in the spirit.
While this event may not be so relevant today, it’s interesting that a nationwide fad began with a comic strip.
Capp introduced Sadie Hawkins Day on Nov. 15, 1937. In his comic strip, Sadie was the “homeliest gal in all them hills.” Her father, Hekzebiah Hawkins, a prominent resident of their town Dogpatch, was concerned that his daughter would never get married. So he declared Sadie Hawkins Day, bringing all the town’s eligible bachelors together to be chased down by the resident single ladies in a footrace.
The idea really caught on with the public. A Dec. 11, 1939, double-page spread in Life Magazine proclaimed, “On Sadie Hawkins Day, Girls Chase Boys in 201 Colleges” and printed pictures from Texas Wesleyan University. Two years later, Life again reported on a day of “humorous osculation” at the University of North Carolina, along with 500 other colleges, clubs and Army camps across the country.
According to Capp, he received, “tens of thousands of letters from colleges, communities and church groups,” asking when he would declare Sadie Hawkins Day that year so they could make plans accordingly.
In an article Capp wrote for the March 31, 1952, issue of Life, he said, “And how about that Sadie Hawkins Day? It doesn’t happen on any set day in November; it happens on the day I say it happens.”
The comic strip’s main characters, Li’l Abner and Daisy Mae, did the song-and-dance for 15 years before finally getting married, after Daisy Mae caught her prize.
According to Sara Duke, curator in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, the feature generally began with an announcement that the day was occurring and a few mystical elements about how Li’l Abner was to avoid being trapped. The story line invariably shifted away from Sadie Hawkins Day, only to weave back in a few days before the race.
In this 1943 three-panel strip (above), L’il Abner reads the notice about the upcoming Sadie Hawkins Day. And while he predicts that he will be “as far outa her reach as – as – as them stars,” he is horrified when he looks to the sky to see the constellations in the shape of a girl catching her man.
Here’s another strip (below) from the 1943 series, in which it appears that Li’l Abner is trapped.
In the footrace, the men took off first, followed shortly thereafter by the women. Whomever was caught by sundown had to marry. The race started on the announcement day and generally lasted for several days afterward. Li’l Abner always figured out – usually by accident – how to avoid the marriage trap and narrowly escaped – that is until 1952.
“Capp had a wonderful sense of humor and a great ability to tell a story,” Duke said.
The bold cartooning style, use of effective black and Capp’s ability to spin a yarn made “L’il Abner” an award-winning comic strip from 1934 to 1977.
The Library has about 1,000 “Li’l Abner” comic strips in the Art Wood Collection, which have been cataloged but do not yet appear online. There are additional original drawings in the Swann Collection for Caricature and Cartoon and from the George Sturman collection, for which there are some digital images.