This post is a collaboration with Dr. Christina Burr, Associate Professor in History at the University of Windsor in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, where she teaches courses in North American Popular Culture, Women’s History, and a Graduate Seminar on the Modern Girl. Dr. Burr and I met while she was conducting research on-site at the Library of Congress which sparked a long-running e-mail correspondence.
The comic strip Fluffy Ruffles debuted in the Sunday edition of the New York Herald on February 3, 1907, and was syndicated in the American press, such as in the Omaha Bee and the San Francisco Call. Although the comic strip lasted only two years (the last installment was published on January 10, 1909), it was all the rage among young working women and “Fluffymania” swept the nation. Fluffy was often compared to the already well-established Gibson Girl. Both figures were associated with large hats, shirtwaists, and hair piled high. “’ Bah to Charles Dana Gibson.’ Miss Fluffy Ruffles is the newest type to which all the girls aspire.” Women wanted to dress like her, ready-made fashions and paper dolls were sold based on the illustrations, Fluffy inspired songs were published, and even a Broadway musical about her was performed.
Fluffy Ruffles was one of the first comics published in an American newspaper to feature a working girl protagonist and often appeared in the Children’s section of newspapers, alongside comic strips Little Nemo and Buster Brown. Newspaper illustrator and war artist for the United States Army during World War I, Wallace Morgan, drew the comics throughout their entire run. Carolyn Wells, writer of children’s books and humor papers, and mystery novels wrote the verse for the comic’s first ninth months. Humorist Charles Battell Loomis took over the job of verse-writing in 1908.[i]
The first installment of Fluffy Ruffles tells the story of a formerly wealthy young woman who, having lost her inheritance, is forced to seek employment. Although Fluffy has entered the world of the financial precarity of the working girl, she also displays the perseverance characteristic of the working girl. As the strip states: “But did she have hysterics, or throw a fainting fit? No, plucky Fluffy Ruffles was not that sort a bit.” The only asset Fluffy has is her clothes. The voluminous ruffles of her gown fill the illustration, but they reveal an important point about her virtue. Her clothes were not given to her by a man with bad intentions, but rather she retains her clothes from a time when they reflected her class status.[ii] She seeks the position of governess to little Lulu Crane. Unfortunately, however, she was unable to purchase the plain black frock appropriate for a governess, and she wears the dress of a debutante. Fluffy attracts the attention of Lulu’s father, whereupon Fluffy is dismissed by Mrs. Crane. Fluffy responds, “And as she left the house she thought, “I’m not discouraged yet! I’ll buy an evening paper and find some other place.”
Each weekly full-page color episode depicts Fluffy Ruffles pursuing a new job. The jobs she takes up reflect the expansion of American women into the urban labor force in the early twentieth century, including window dresser, newspaper society columnist, nurse, salesclerk, teacher, postmaster, and dance instructor. Historian Joanne Meyerowitz describes this first generation of women to leave their families to make money in American cities as “women adrift.” These women chartered the course of modernity; women were not totally powerless, but more able to do what they wanted with their time and for themselves. They also received wages below subsistence level and were harassed by male employers and co-workers. Modern working women confronted both “a new set of possibilities” and “a new set of material and ideological constraints.”[iii]
The comics begin with Fluffy contemplating her new position and selecting an appropriate outfit. As Fluffy walks the streets of New York she comes upon a shop window. “I’m sure,” thought Fluffy Ruffles.” I have a good plan now! I’ll be a window-dresser; I know exactly how.” Women responded positively to her character as a modern, independent working woman grounded in the everyday and were attracted by her fashionable clothing. She was less ornate and sculpted than her predecessor, the Gibson Girl, who was aloof, wealthy, and removed from the world of work. Fluffy Ruffles offered a more complex representation of women’s lives. [iv] Nevertheless, the episodes end with Fluffy leaving the position only to search for another job. In this workplace venture, like all the others, men gather to ogle or flirt, making it impossible for her to carry out her job. She is either fired or she quits in frustration. While Fluffy begins her job as a window dresser with “enthusiasm,” Wells writes: “She attracted the attention of each gentlemanly clerk; Floorwalkers stopped and stared at her, cash boys and salesmen too/ All offered her assistance and on her errands, she flew.” Fluffy ignored them and went about her work “determined to succeed.” She also drew the attention of men passing on the street and a crowd gathered. Ultimately, Fluffy is fired. While this cartoon, along with the others depicting Fluffy’s experiences at work, shows a fascination with women’s attempts to enter the urban wage labor force, they are also very predictive of how sexual harassment ultimately harmed women’s chances. With biting humor, Wells exposes the dangers encountered by women in the business environment, which is reinforced through Fluffy’s negotiation of the workplace and patriarchal culture in every edition.[v]
In the summer of 1907, the Herald launched a contest to find the “real” Fluffy. The winner is to possess old fashioned charm and a sprightly personality. The contests culminated in one national winner, Leila Dell Lennon of New York City. The prize? A $500 wardrobe. See more accounts of Fluffy Ruffles contests held throughout the country here, here, and here.
The transformation of Fluffy Ruffles into an icon of popular culture inspired a range of consumer goods, including postcards, cigars, chocolates, sheet music, paper dolls, and women’s fashions. Advertisements for Fluffy-inspired fashions– suits, skirts, belts, boots and shoes, and most notably hats, appeared in daily newspapers. In her study of working women’s participation in U.S. consumer culture at the turn of the twentieth-century historian Nan Enstad argues that working women’s engagement with mass-produced fashion was far from conservative and reactionary or a poor imitation of middle-class ladies. Rather working-class women shaped their own definition of “ladyhood,” donning large and fancy hats and stylish French heels, and taking up models from popular culture like “Fluffy Ruffles,” thereby defining their own working-class notion of female subjectivity.[vi] Working girls living on a tight budget could model themselves after the images they saw in the comic strips, and a lucky few won Fluffy Ruffles fashions in contests or at fairs. Fluffy Ruffles, the show, opened on Broadway on September 7, 1908, and starred actress (and later known for her role as suffragist) Hattie Williams as Fluffy. “Proven something of a lemon,” the show closed just after 48 performances.
When Charles Battell Loomis took over as verse-writer for Fluffy Ruffles at the end of 1907 the tone of the comic strip changed, moving away from the problems for Fluffy at work towards what Katherine Frances Nagels describes as “a more general look at her adventures as a stylish and resourceful modern woman.” Fluffy rejects her suitor Joe Traddles, tames a lion, captures a burglar, and travels to Ireland. After missing the steamer, the ever-resourceful Fluffy used a motorboat to catch up with the ship and spent New Year’s 1909 in Paris. The strip touches on how fortunes change middle-class and to the desires of the working girl for upward mobility and international reach. In the last published installment of the strip, Fluffy was shown as “popular in Paris.”
We invite you to further explore Chronicling America, 1789-1963, for additional images of Fluffy Ruffles yourself. This online newspaper collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional resources on Fluffy Ruffles from the Library of Congress include this image from the Library’s Prints and Photographs collections and a recording of the Fluffy Ruffles song from the National Jukebox. Be sure to have a look at the book, Fluffy Ruffles: drawings by Wallace Morgan, verses by Carolyn Wells.
[i]New York Times, 25 April 1948; New York Times, 27 March 1942; Chicago Tribune, 16 May 1918.
[ii] Sunny Stalter-Pace, “The precarity of Fluffy Ruffles: reading a Progressive Era comic strip in the age of #MeToo,” Feminist Modernist Studies, Vol. 2, no 3 (2019), 316-17.
[iii] Joanne Meyerowitz, Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880-1930 (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press 1988), xvi.
[iv] Gaby Fletcher, “Stumbling upon The New York Herald’s ‘Fluffy Ruffles,” The Modernist Review, https://modernistreviewcouk.wordpress.com/2018/10/31/stumbling-upon-the-new-york-heralds-fluffy-ruffles/; Katherine Frances Nagels, “From the New York Herald to the Italian screen: Fluffy Ruffles, La donna americana,” Feminist Media Histories 3, 2 (2917), 177-78; Linda Ocasio, “Fluffy Ruffles: The “It” Girl of 1907,” https://medium.com/@uftlindaocasio/fluffy-ruffles-the-it-girl-of-1907-57ce5c58d924
[v] Fletcher, “Stumbling.”
[vi] Nan Enstad, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (New York: Columbia University Press 1999), 48-83.