Combing My Hair With a Can-Opener and Other Oddities: Rube Goldberg in His Pre-Machine Days

« — Pickin’ flowers, Lucy? — No, you simple-minded piece of cream cheese – I’m filling the coal scuttle with apple sauce. »

My first exposure to a Rube Goldberg machine was through The Incredible Machine, a DOS game from 1993. I didn’t know at the time who Goldberg was, but I really liked the idea of setting up a chain of events triggering one another in the most convoluted-yet-satisfying of ways.

The machine was of course named after Rube Goldberg (Reuben Garrett Goldberg, 1883-1970), cartoonist, inventor, sculptor, et j’en passe. Given his lasting contribution to culture, it is interesting to consider that in the early days of his career, when he was a struggling cartoonist, Goldberg almost changed his family name to hide his Jewish roots – ultimately deciding that he couldn’t live with himself, had he followed his colleagues’ counsel. ‘Then I realized it was idiotic to even consider such a thing; that I would be ashamed of it all the remainder of my life; and that, if a man’s achievements are no bigger than the sound of his name, it doesn’t much matter what his name may be‘, he later wrote.

While Goldberg had a degree in engineering and worked for a short while for the San Francisco’s Water and Sewers Department (which perhaps honed his sense of the absurd, if anecdotes about a city’s treatment of sewage are anything to go by), his ambitions lay in the direction of cartooning from a very early age. His first comic, after a couple of years of being a sports cartoonist, was The Look-A-Like Boys, published at the beginning of the century (1907-1908) by the World Color Syndicate. In parallel, he was also working for the New York Evening Mail, for which he created the short-lived Reincarnation, a goofy, modern-day take on historical characters. His next attempt at a series is what initially made him famous (after which he went on to even greater fame): he produced around 450 Foolish Questions between 1908 and 1910; the very first one, published on October 23, 1908 was prosaically titled ‘Foolish Question No. 1’. Questions remained as witless as ever, but the answers got kookier and more surreal over the years!

Comic Monthly no. 10 (1922). Other issues of Comic Monthly offered reprints of contemporary strips, like Polly & Her Pals, S’Matter Pop?, Little Jimmy, etc.

FQ continued all the way into 1939 with plenty of enthusiasm from readers (who started sending in their own daft questions). It even inspired a song by Billy Murray. Here are some postcards:

In 1909, Goldberg expanded the FQ world into a Sunday strip, Don’t Some People Ask the Biggest Fool Questions?, which collected previously published strips by grouping them into tiers (and occasionally padding this format out with new artwork). In 1912, he went on to unleash the madcap inventions he’s remembered for today upon the world in the shape of The Inventions of Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, A.K., then shifted to political cartooning (for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948) in 1938, and then recycled himself as a sculptor in the 1960s. Truly a life filled to the brim with adventure!

The examples below have been scanned from Foolish Questions & Other Odd Observations (Early Comics 1909-1919), published by the wonderful Sunday Press in 2017. I highly recommend it; abounding in bonus materials, it also has two introductions for the price of one, namely one by Goldberg’s granddaughter Jennifer George, and another written by comics historian Paul C. Tumey (author of the equally magnificent tome, SCREWBALL! The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny – read a review of it by Eddie Campbell* here). Goldberg’s sense of the absurd is truly a delight, and I dare you to not giggle while perusing these.

~ ds

* Another WOT favourite that we never really got around to talking about. I will, however, refer you to this interesting discussion about comprehending/perusing comics, in which Cambpell conjures an entertaining mental image, relating to his appearance on TV to talk about why ‘some people just can’t read comics’: « My blather would have been mercifully cut because I launched into an insane mimicry of a theoretical middle-aged woman in tears from not being able to interpret the TV guide. »

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