Kid Jolt. The Great Tinearo. Kid Sledge. Johnny Brawn. Kid Klutch. Just to name a few. All were boxers whose chins took powerful Popeye upper-cuts and were punched out by the pugilist sailor man. Popeye practicing his craft of wielding his fisks in prizefights and street brawls dominated E.C. Segar's Thimble Theatre comicstrip storylines in the early 1930s, much to the delight of adults and children as the character's popularity soared. But it wasn't long before other forms of "punchouts and upper-cuts" were being marketed to delight young Popeye fans as well. Throughout the Depression, crafty businessmen licensed the likeness of Popeye to sell punchout and cut-out paper toys. But Segar himself was the first to capitalize on kid's natural knack for arts & crafts and wielding their fisks around a pair of scissors. In March 1932, Popeye's creator began including Thimble Theatre Comic Stamps on his weekly Sunday page for kids to cut-out and paste in scrapbooks or to pretend to mail letters. By Fall of that year, he had more or less run out of characters to feature on the stamps, so he came up with a more interesting idea.
Cut-out Lucky Bucks Play Money in various denominations were an instant hit with youngsters of that cash-strapped era who seldom had any folding money in their pockets. Besides featuring character portraits, Segar also used gags, health & safety messages and sailor philosophies on the bucks: "If ya does what ya thinks is right, ya deserves credick, even if yer wrong." and "Ya oughta use yer hankychif instead of snifflin' like that." Soon after many other King Features artist's Sunday comic pages were also offering Lucky Bucks with their own characters. Segar used the popular gimmick for a full year before creating an even more elaborate comicstrip cut-out premium
Popeye Funny Films were first featured as freebie cut-outs on the Thimble Theatre Sunday pages. The weekly paper premium for kids was such as big hit that in 1934 Saalfield Publishing Company of Akron OH produced an oversized book of Popeye Funny Films which used the concept. Children cut-out the stage scene and pasted together a paper filmstrip which could then be pulled through a window on the stage to show the heads of characters changing expressions. Complete, uncut editions of this book are tough to come by today.
That same year, Quaker Oats sponsored a Popeye Make a Picture Contest. By mailing in two proofs of purchase from either Quaker Oats or Mother's Oats, boys and girls with little more than a pair of scissors, glue and an active imagination received a free cardboard sheet of Popeye and friends with props and scenery which they could use to make their own unique picture. Their creations were then mailed back to Quaker in Chicago and entered into the national Popeye picture contest. More than 150 winners received big cash prizes of $2 to $25 each, totaling $1,000. A serious chunk of change in the 30s and definitely more negotiable than earlier Lucky Bucks. Quaker advertised the contest in the funny papers, although the ads only showed Popeye's arm. Pretty dull. The full color cut-out contest sheet was a bit more attractive, with the rules printed on the back. Today, locating an uncut Popeye Make a Picture contest sheet is even rarer than finding kids who actually enjoy the taste of plain oatmeal.
In 1935, Saalfield struck again with a great new paper craft for kids. The Comics Paper Doll Cut-Out Book featured several King Features Syndicate comic characters, including Blondie and Dagwood, the Katzenjammer Kids, Dumb Dora, Just Kids, Little Annie Rooney, Polly and her Pals, and of course their biggest star of all -- Popeye. The pipe smoker came with paperdoll clothes including his standard sailor suit and cap, a hobo's outfit, and -- oddly -- a tuxedo for formal occasions, such as accepting a first place prize in the Quaker Oats Make a Picture Contest. Nice condition, complete uncut Saalfield paperdoll books are nearly impossible to find. Individual cut-out paperdolls of Popeye and his clothing surface a little more frequently but are still scarce in today's world.
The 1936 Popeye Puppet Show by Pleasure Books of Chicago had all the perforated paper parts ready to punchout to make your own Thimble Theatre complete with moving action paper puppets of your favorite Popeye cartoon characters. The three-dimensional stage could be set up to produce your own Popeye command performances. Pleasure Books claimed to introduce the first ever punchout books in trade ads that year. In addition to Popeye, they offered the Fairyland Doll & Furniture Book, the Carnival Cut-Out Book and a complete punchout Magic Kit. These rare books were all 10.5 x 15.5 inches with 12 full color pages. In 1935, a mystery manufacturer produced a diecut Popeye Paper Puppet which when folded properly became a Popeye talking head. This unusual paper toy looks as if it might have been a premium or giveaway, but the exact origins of this seldom seen item remains elusive to date.
Perhaps the greatest of all the Popeye combination punchouts and cut-outs is the 1937 Whitman Publishing Company Popeye Book of Cut-Outs. In reality, it was a paperdoll book, but Whitman obviously carefully avoided that term in order not to alienate young male consumers. The oversized book covers had perforated diecut figures of Popeye and his adoptid infink Swee'Pea, ready to punchout and dress in cut-out fashions from the book's interior pages. Popeye came in two sections from the front and back covers to combine to form a large 28 inch tall figure of the one-eyed sailor in his skivvies. Complete, uncut copies of this book are now virtually non-existent.
Not to be outdone by the colonies, on the other side of the Atlantic, Birn Brothers Limited of London published their own cut-out book in 1939. The Popeye Model Book was a masterful work of art and must have provided hours of entertainment to young British lads and lasses while World War II hung ominously on their horizon. The inside cover was a diorama-like background scene of Popeye's sailing vessel. Two heavy cardboard pages were printed with cut-out figures of Popeye, Olive, Wimpy, Eugene the Jeep, Roughhouse, Swee'pea, Geezil, Poopdeck Pappy, the Seahag, and Barnacle Bill in action poses depicting dockside cargo loading activities. Uncut copies of this book are extremely rare on both sides of the ocean. Birn Bros Ltd also published four scarce Popeye hardback storybooks between 1937 & 1939.
In 1936, the U.S. Manufacturing Corp of Decatur IL brought out 2 versions of a Popeye flyswatter -- one with a wire handle and a deluxe model with a wooden grip on the end. But the best part for kids was if they could get their folks to buy these flyswatters, they would get one of two free Popeye booklets that featured stand-up figures of Popeye, Olive, Wimpy, Swee'pea and the Jeep. The cut-outs were printed on card stock and are scarce but do show up from time to time. The flyswatters themselves are very rare and nice examples are almost non-existent.
After the U.S. entered WWII, the use of many raw materials went exclusively toward the war effort. Most toys manufacturers switched their production lines to making goods that would aid the military. A few wood and paper toys continued to be made during these years. In 1944 and 1945, the King Larson McMahon Company (aka King and Sons) of Chicago published Popeye Hingees -- punchout action figures of Popeye, Olive, Wimpy, Roughhouse and Swee'pea. Punched and unpunched sets of this toy are relatively easy to find and are loads of fun to assemble and arrange in an antique toy display. The company produced several popular comicstrip character Hingees including Little Orphan Annie, Terry & the Pirates, and others during the waning years of the worldwide conflict.
As you can readily see, vintage Popeye Punchouts and Cut-outs are among the most fun and gratifying of all Popeye toys to collect. Finding nice examples of these made-for-kids-to-destroy paper toys takes years of patience and perseverance. But once you do acquire an uncut item, you really have to raise your own fisks and threaten to punch yourself out in order to fight the temptation to get out the scissors and paste and put these fun things together, just like the publishers intended. Wish me luck.
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