Some More Cartoons by Canada’s First Woman Cartoonist
by BK Munn
A few years ago while flipping through a pile of old newspapers I came across a comic strip in a 1920 issue of Farmers’ Magazine, “Canada’s National Farm Magazine.” The strip was by Violet Keene, a cartoonist I had never heard of before, and a little research revealed that nobody else seems to have been aware of her either. I wrote a short piece about my “discovery” for this site (she is the earliest example of a woman making comics in English in Canada that I can find), and then essentially forgot about her. I know, not exactly a model of the diligent comics scholar, but a little internet research turned up nothing but dead ends, besides an idea that this was the same Violet Keene who later became a famous photographer. I’m no longer certain even of this fact and since my days of visiting research libraries for deep dives into archives basically ended when I left university, I have not pursued the matter.
(It’s still entirely possible that Violet Keene, photographer, was first Violet Keene, cartoonist. The father of the photographer Keene, Caleb Keene, was a well-known painter and her mother was the famous and pioneering photographer, Minna Keene. So it’s possible that she began her career as an illustrator or cartoonist. Here I appeal to anyone who can help with more information.)
These days I am quite a lazy researcher, relying on casual browsing, random Facebook posts, serendipity and “the luck of the find” to lead me to new discoveries. I assumed at the time that I would find more Farmers’ Magazines and more cartoons, but I didn’t, despite casually collecting these sorts of things as a source for old comics history. Happily, the other day I stumbled across an archive of scanned images from the collection of trade journals put online by the Thomas Fisher library at the University of Toronto, and was finally able to read through the entire year’s run of Farmers’ Magazine from 1920 and lo and behold, I found a few more comic strips by Violet Keene!
As far as I can figure out, the strip was a semi-regular feature of the magazine for only two months during early 1920. It is untitled, but each episode follows the adventures of two rich young city women, Mary and Jane, who are attempting to run a hobby farm. The first episode that I found seems to be the first one, published in the April 1 edition of the magazine and possibly intended as a bit of an editorial cartoon, titled “Eight Hours a Day on the Farm: Miss Gotrox Helps in the Universal Unrest” (I think of the strip’s name as “Eight Hours a Day on the Farm” because of this title and the title of the second one.) The reference in the title is to the Labour Movement’s campaign for an 8-hour workday and juxtaposes this agitation on the part of industrial workers with the requirements of farm labour and the seemingly neverending workday experienced by all on the family farm. The strip depicts a rich young lady, Miss Gotrox, explaining to a hardworking farm woman how to organize her time so as not to exhaust herself, according to modern principles. The strip is fairly amateurish but the highly animated drawings of the black cat who slinks through every panel redeem its corny satire.
The next strip, from the April 15th issue, seemingly features the same young lady, bossing her farmhand around from the comfort of her armchair and sending him out to implement a new scientifically modern idea about farm management, in this case using artifical light to moderate egg production. Of course, the hens rebel in a delightful bit of Animal Farm-esque solidarity.
Episode three appears in the May 1st number, and introduces another cast member. “Mary and Jane Go Farming –After All Environment is Everything” tells us that Miss Gotrox’s first name is Mary and introduces us to her diminutive sister Jane, who prods the lazy Mary into doing some work on the farm for her own health, where of course she meets an attractive young city man to whom she pretends to be the model of farming fortitude. The joke here I suppose is that Mary’s lassitude and spoiled nature do not seem to hurt her one bit!
The fourth and last episode is another strip full of animal action and features a repeat appearance of the chickens. “Mary and Jane Buy a Dog” appears in the May 15 issue and again shows Keene’s propensity for lively cartooning and a bit of slapstick. No more of these strips were published in Farmers’ Magazine during 1920, and no other strip replaced it. It seems like it was just a momentary whim of the editor to publish the strip. It was usually placed near other womens’ features in the magazine, and seemed in line with the efforts of the publication to appeal partly to a middle class audience, alongside ads for Edwardian/proto-Flapper fashions, labour-saving devices, and expensive cars.
The mystery about this strip and Violet Keene lingers. What are its origins and why did it suddenly vanish? Is Violet Keene the cartoonist the same person as the famous photographer Violet Keene? Or is she related to the cartoonist and illustrator Louis Keene, who’s work appears in the same magazine? How many Violet Keene’s were living in Toronto in 1920? At this time, I cannot say.