The Parkersburg Social Rebel was a West Virginia newspaper so small that it’s hard to find any trace of it today. There wasn’t much of a business structure in 1902, let alone a legal department. So when a libel complaint reached its office, it wasn’t long before the 13-year-old culprit caught wind of trouble. Cyrus “Cy” Hungerford dropped his sketch pad and ran to the local courthouse, worried that his art was going to earn him more jail time than money.
The art in question was a cartoon of a man stealing money from a bank while attacking women and children. But Hungerford had made a tactical error: He’d put the man’s name on it.
“It was libelous as the devil,” Hungerford told Editor & Publisher in a 1973 profile.
An understanding district attorney took pity on him, and he got off scot-free. Had he not, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette might have missed out on a man whose art became synonymous with the paper for more than half a century.
A farm boy from Indiana by way of West Virginia, Hungerford taught himself to draw by making copies of the cartoons he found in local newspapers.
The resources available to Hungerford were outdated even by the standards of the time. To make a cartoon, Hungerford began with a steel plate coated in a quarter inch of chalk and sodium silicate. Placing his sketch paper over top, he traced the cartoon’s lines with a pencil, which left a light impression on the chalk beneath. Hungerford then took a pointed steel stylus and cut deeper lines for shading and detail, taking care not to scuff the steel itself. The result would serve as a mold for casting, and any errors meant restarting from scratch. After blowing excess chalk from the plate, Hungerford placed the stereotype into a box and poured molten metal over it.
The process was painstaking and the pay was low. Hungerford moved to Wheeling, W.Va. in 1908, where he worked as a cartoonist and reporter for the Wheeling Register. Four years later, Hungerford arrived in Pittsburgh as an editorial cartoonist for the Pittsburgh Sun, and when the Post-Gazette absorbed the Sun in 1927, he was part of the package deal.
From 1912 until 1977, Hungerford was among the country’s most famous cartoonists. His cartoons were so popular in Pittsburgh that they ran on the front page for much of his early career. Even more notable than their placement was Hungerford’s editorial freedom. In West Virginia, his bosses had often dictated what he drew. But in Pittsburgh, Hungerford was granted complete creative control, which few in the industry enjoyed. It was at this point that he made the switch from chalk casting to pen and ink, resulting in the sillier, curvy style he used for the rest of his career.
It was a simple little comic about a simple little boy, though, that lifted Hungerford’s profile beyond the Mon Valley. “Snoodles,” a comic strip that ran six times per week from 1913 to 1925, was syndicated nationally at a time when newspaper comics remained a prominent source of children’s entertainment. The strip was loosely based on Hungerford’s childhood and featured a lead character similar to Dennis the Menace.
While “Snoodles” was likely his most widely read creation, many Pittsburghers knew Hungerford for his version of Pa Pitt. The character had existed in many forms since the 1890s, and under Hungerford he appeared as a portly man wearing glasses and colonial garb. This version became so iconic that in 1988, City Council asked the Greater Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau to adopt Pa Pitt as the city’s mascot.
“[Hungerford’s] Pa Pitt has unofficially represented the Spirit of Pittsburgh for over 50 years,” Councilman Jim Ferlo said. “He has proudly ushered Pittsburgh from its industrial beginnings as a smoggy and dirty city to its present status as America’s most livable city.”
The same could be said of Hungerford himself.
“His message was always on point with what Pittsburghers were feeling,” said Terri Blanchette, a historian whose biography of Hungerford is forthcoming. “When there was high optimism and patriotism in the lead-ups and fallouts of both World Wars, he was right there. During the conflicts, he was there with some of the most poignant cartoons about the uselessness of war. Many of his cartoons from that time are saying, ‘Why do we have to go through this again?’ When the Cold War started, he ended up drawing Lenin and Stalin in silly, ridiculous situations because that’s all that many people without deep political knowledge could tolerate at the time. At any point, if you look around at what was happening nationally and how it affected Pittsburgh, Cy was there.”
Blanchette attributes Hungerford’s understanding of contemporary emotions to his personal ideology. From his humble beginnings, Hungerford strongly believed in Horatio Algers’ “up by your bootstraps” philosophy. It’s not surprising, then, that one of the few Hungerford characters with more appearances than Pa Pitt was John Q. Public.
When workers were disrespected by their companies, he stood in their defense. But when corrupt union bosses derailed the everyday lives of millions, he called them on it. Hungerford’s work could be biting and it could be farcical, but above all, it was sympathetic. He wasn’t out to collect the heads of his enemies. He aimed to fill the hearts of his readers.
Hungerford depicted the administrations of 14 U.S. presidents over the course of his career, starting with Theodore Roosevelt. Despite his needling of the leaders, Hungerford regarded several of them as personal friends. Original copies of his cartoons are in the presidential libraries of all nine leaders who served during his time in Pittsburgh, with the Johnson library housing the largest inventory: 41.
The Heinz History Center, home to many of Hungerford’s personal documents, has letters and party invitations from across the spectrum of politics and pop culture.
Among the most notable is a note from George Putnam, husband of Amelia Earhart, who wrote that a fire destroyed the couple’s copy of a cartoon depicting his wife. Putnam requested the original as a replacement, which Hungerford obliged. Another letter was handwritten by First Lady Bess Truman, who thanked Hungerford for a humorous depiction of her.
Hungerford met people from every level of the American social landscape and around the world. He spent a period of his life during the 1930s traversing the globe with fellow cartoonists and writers.
In 1937, Hungerford accompanied former Post-Gazette publisher Paul Block Jr. on a European tour including the coronation of King George. As the legend goes, Hungerford struck up a conversation with a man sorting mail at the royal stables, and by the end of the night, he had snuck into the royal ball via the servants’ entrance. Ten years later, during a trip to Rome, Pope Pius XII welcomed the cartoonist for a private audience and regaled Hungerford with stories about his wire-haired terrier, Jiggs.
“He really was Pittsburgh’s closest thing to Forrest Gump,” Blanchette said.
For all his adventures, Hungerford maintained a simple life. A shy but jovial man, he lived with his mother until he was in his 40s, marrying twice and only granting about five interviews during his lifetime. After 74 years as a cartoonist, 65 of which were spent at the Post-Gazette, Hungerford retired in 1977.
Hungerford’s 1983 death at the age of 94 brought illustrated tributes from peers and students alike. Even 105 years after his cartoons debuted in Pittsburgh, few images have occupied the Post-Gazette’s editorial pages as faithfully as a Hungerford signature.
— Matt Moret