In 1911, a group of Chief Petty Officers of the United States Navy’s Pacific Fleet entered a float in the Washington’s Birthday floral parade in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The float featured a group of people on “The Water Wagon.”
The float was a live-action illustration of the idiom “on the Water Wagon,” meaning to abstain from alcohol; the original form of the modern idiom, “on the wagon,” meaning to abstain from alcohol, drugs, or anything else. The float was also politically relevant, as the temperance movement was in full swing, with prohibition and the Eighteenth Amendment just a few years in the future.
A boy/man with a large head and exaggerated ears could be seen perched at the back of the Water Wagon.
Wait, what? Is that Alfred E. Neuman? Fifty years before Mad Magazine?
Mad Magazine borrowed its enigmatic, red-haired mascot from a postcard in the 1950s.
The postcard, in turn, descended from a long line of precursors . . .
. . . all of which stole directly from Harry Stuff’s 1914 poster “The Eternal Optimist,” which also bore the caption, “Me – worry?” a precursor to Alfred E. Neuman’s catch-phrase and a reflection of the “I should worry!” craze that swept the United States for several years beginning in about 1910.
Harry Stuff’s poster may have been inspired by a decades-old advertising image usually used to promote “painless” dentistry.
Those advertising images all trace their origin to a playbill for the 1895 stage play “The New Boy.”
Like Harry Stuff’s poster and Alfred E. Neuman, the poster featured a two-part, noncommital catch-phrase, “What’s the good of anything? Nothing!” suggesting, perhaps, that Stuff may have been familiar with the original.
|Based on an image from, NYPL Digital Archive.|
(For a more comprehensive history of the Alfred E. Neuman image,
If Harry Stuff’s “Me – worry?” caption was influenced by the original, it was also influenced by the popular slang phrase of the day, “I should worry,” meaning more or less that the speaker has nothing to worry about.
(For more on the "I should worry!" craze, see my earlier post,
Surprisingly, perhaps, Harry Stuff’s poster was not the first “New Boy”-like image with a worry-related caption. It was beaten to the punch by three years by a mock-Irish pagan idol, Wurra Wurra, whose name is a pun conflating the ancient Irish expression of grief, “Wirra Wirra” (sometimes spelled “Wurra Wurra”) with “Worry Worry” as spoken with an Irish accent. “Wirra Wirra” is believed to be Gaelic for “Mary Mary.”
|Eugene O'Growney, Simple Lessons in Irish, Dublin, Gaelic League, Part II, page 16, 1897.|
It’s not an exact match. The ears are too big, and it’s missing the gap-toothed smile, but its similarity combined with its worry-related catch-phrase, make it an interesting cousin of Alfred E. Neuman, if not a direct ancestor.
But regardless of its relation to the “New Boy” and the painless dentistry ads, Wurra Wurra was also a direct knock-off of an earlier, more successful mock-god – the Billiken.
The Billiken et al.
In 1908, Florence Pretz of Kansas City created a small statuette she called the Billiken. She also developed a mock-religion based on “worship” of lucky Billiken idols; with Billiken as “the god of things as they ought to be.” Billiken caught the fancy of the public, and she and her business partners sold millions of the idols and separate display stands; proof positive that Billiken was a bringer of good luck.
Good luck, maybe, but not for long.
To Miss Pretz they mean $30 a month royalty while thousands go to the bank accounts of the men who have involved the designer in a maze of technically worded contracts and agreements not understood when she signed them.
Iron County Register (Oronton, Missouri), December 2, 1909, page 7.
Although the fad has long since passed, the Church of Good Luck and Museum of Good Luck still preach the gospel of Billiken online from their home base in Illinois. See their website for Billiken images, Billiken lore and Billiken history.
The success of the Billiken inspired imitators.
In Paris, France, someone created a “Billiken” of Wilbur Wright.
Wilkes-Barre Times Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania), December 2, 1908, page 2.
In London, England, the American artist Mrs. Bert Longworth (whose replica of the Sphinx was praised by Rodin) created and marketed a statuette of Solomon.
Solomon Is Newest “Billiken”
“SOLOMON” LATEST FREAK
SUCCEEDS BILLIKEN CRAZE
American Woman Sculptor Chisels Odd Statuette Which Offers Many Phases, Seeming to Exude Wisdom From All Angles
London, Jan. 21. The reign of the Teddy bear is over and gone in London, Billiken, that pestiferous little reminder of things as they are, and his brother, whose apelike grimace is supposed to suggest the god of things as they ought to be, are alike hurled from the precarious pedestal of public favor. Another American “freak,” Solomon, has taken their place. . . . Every paper has printed his picture, every bric-a-brac shop and every department store is crowded with his haunting shape. So far as Londoners achieve a “rage,” Solomon has become the rage of the present.
The Indianapolis Star, January 22, 1911, page 15.
The Star Press (Muncie, Indiana), January 22, 1911, page 24.
In St. Louis, Missouri, someone came up with a bad luck idol – Jinx – based on a newspaper cartoon strip of the same name; kinda like a top-hatted Homer Simpson.
Jinx has taken his place beside Billiken.
The little god of things as they ought not to be has been done in plaster by a St. Louis sculptor, and for a very moderate price any St. Louisan can now have Jinx on his desk or his parlor mantle, or in his garage.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 29, 1911, page 3.
In 1916, someone tried to recreate the Billiken craze, with a new-and-improved "deity."
Will "Nock Wood" succeed Billikin and Kewpie dolls in popular favor? Copyrights on the designs have been applied for. Dealers assert that the ideas of the flowery kingdoms will prevail this season in images and good-luck emblems.
"Nock Wood" is the latest of the heathen good-luck deities to be invented. He is carved out of wood and sits in a posture much like that of the Chinese buddhas. His left hand is to his head in a position of rapping it.
The idea of the inventor seems to be that the old superstition of knocking wood to prevent ill luck is one worthy of being revived. With his invention all one needs to do is to set "Nock Wood" up on one's mantel and let him take care of all the bad luck that is coming one's way.
Dayton Daily News, (Dayton, Ohio), March 26, 1916, page 33.
And in New York City, an Irish-American publishing house created a new mythological pagan idol intended to ease one’s worries. The idol took its name from a long-standing phonetic representation of “worry, worry,” as spoken with an Irish accent. For example:
“Yis, yis, yer ‘anner. What’ll I do? Och wurra, wurra! Me husband’s tuk bad, sir, wid the fayver and I’m afeerd I’ll lose him.
[“Yes, yes, your honor. What’ll I do? Oh worry, worry! My husband has taken ill, sir, with the fever and I am afraid that I will lose him.]
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 13, 1849, page 1.
In March 1911, Desmond Fitz Gerald published the book, Wurra-Wurra; A Legend of Saint Patrick at Tara. The Wurra-Wurra of the title referred to the name of the supposed last pagan idol destroyed by St. Patrick during the Christianization of Ireland. The booked appears to have been designed to imbue the Wurra-Wurra idol with some vague, mystical significance, as was the case with the Billiken. Instead of bringing good luck, however, the Wurra-Wurra, like Jesus suffering for our sins, was said to ease worries by taking them on himself.
Presumably, Fitz Gerald intended for the book to create a market for his Billiken-like statuette of Wurra Wurra.
The statuette bore an inscription on its base – “Let Wurra Worry!”
The ears, teeth and proportions appear similar to the head riding at the back of the “Water Wagon” in Honolulu in 1911.
It’s not a perfect match. The eyes seem different. Is it a Wurra-Wurra that differs slightly from the illustrations, or something else entirely? Perhaps it was an old “Yellow Kid,” a newspaper cartoon character who enjoyed a period of overwhelming popularity a decade earlier?
Like a Mad Magazine movie parody, Wurra-Wurra; A Legend of Saint Patrick at Tara is a send-up of a pre-existing story, in this case the legend of St. Patrick in Ireland.
As the book opens, St. Patrick destroys “Cromm Cruach and the twelve smaller idols.”
But whereas Irish legend holds that Crom Cruach was the last pagan idol in Ireland, the destruction of which cleared the way for Christianity, this story imagines (like Star Wars Episode V) that there "is another" (although this time more Yoda than Leia) – Wurra-Wurra.
Let Wurra Worry
[T]he face and figure of the idol, an’ his wide opin ears foriver listenin’, themselves told the whole story – not only that it was his business to bear all the worries and troubles of the world, but that he liked the job!
In the aftermath of the destruction of Cromm Cruach, according to the new story, Keth, one of St. Patrick’s Christian enforcers, is dismayed to learn that one of St. Patrick’s seamstresses, “Finola of the White Shoulders,” was an adherent of the cult of Wurra-Wurra. He asks her about it, she confides in him, he falls in love with her, and they go off to see the Wurra-Wurra.
To make a short story even shorter, St. Patrick decides that the idol should be saved, but word reaches Keth after he destroyed the idol (all but one of its ears) during a confrontation with a wizard. To prevent Finola and other worshipers from discovering the destruction and taking their anger out on him, he places his head on the pedestal where Wurra-Wurra’s head should be, miraculously fooling them into confessing their worries to him. As a result, he inadvertently learns that Finola returns his feelings of love, they get married and live happily ever after.
I Should Worry
Wurra-Wurra may have been inspired by the Billiken, but it also capitalized on the then-current slang phrase craze, “I should worry!”
The earliest unambiguous example I could find in print is from an advertisement for a comedian in 1910, although it is unclear whether he popularized the expression or merely reflected a trend that was already underway.
The expression may have been current before it was incorporated into Peterson’s act, but searches are complicated by the fact that people routinely used “should worry” in its conventional, literal sense. If you find any earlier examples, please let me know.
“I should worry” shows up in print a few times in 1911, and exploded into a full-blown craze by 1912.
It was still going strong in 1913 . . .
I should worry,
I should fret,
I should marry a suffraget!
I should worry,
and lose my goat,
But nevertheless we’re getting the vote!
Evansville Press (Indiana), June 28, 1913, page 2.
. . . although many people were already getting annoyed.
I’m a peace-loving, diffident, mild little guy . . . . But rage stirs my system and wrath sweeps me o’er, a frenzy of fury doth set me afire; I chew all my nails – oh, I’m terribly sore and, in fact, I’m consumed with considerable ire when some ivory-beaned boob with a mental snow flurry pulls that odious, sickening phrase, “I should worry.”
The Daily Missoulian (Missoua, Montana), May 24, 1913, page 10.
Alfred E. Neuman is the only reminder of “The New Boy” of 1895 . . .
The St. Louis University Billikens are the last holdouts of the Billiken craze of the 1900s . . .
. . . and “What, me worry?” is the last vestige of the “I should worry!” craze of the 1910s.
Note: updated June 16, 2022, to add the item about "Nock Wood."