The field of cartooning, in both comics form and single panel, has always been male-dominated, as has its documented history. Until recent years, Barbara Shermund remained one of those long-forgotten women cartoonists. Shermund was one of the first women cartoonists to contribute to The New Yorker magazine and is the subject of a forthcoming book from Rutgers University Press.
Beginning in 1925 and continuing into the mid-1940s, Shermund contributed nearly six hundred cartoons to The New Yorker, and just under a dozen covers. Her work stands out among other early contributors to the magazine in that her jokes (or, “gags”) are complex and sometimes not jokes at all. They instead offer a relatable truth laid plain on the page in such a way that makes you smile or remember something. At first glance, Shermund’s early work appears to be so refreshingly feminist, so cuttingly sarcastic, that it’s hard to believe it could have been published in the 1920s and 1930s. While for many, the idea of a New Yorker cartoon conjures a highbrow, dry non-sequitur—often more alienating than familiar—Shermund’s cartoons are the antithesis. They are about human nature, relationships, youth and age, and, more often than not, poke fun at the very metropolitan and highbrow people to whom The New Yorker was marketed.
Born in San Francisco, California, on June 26, 1899, Shermund was the daughter of an architect, Henry Shermund, and a sculptor, Fredda Cool. She attended the California School of Fine Arts (CFSA), where she studied painting and printmaking. Her earliest work for The New Yorker were marginalia drawings and section mastheads, and in these and her first cartoon works, you can see the impact of this training as she uses a similar mark-making as would have been applied when creating prints. While attending CSFA, Shermund was awarded an honorable mention in an Art Students League of New York annual scholarship competition.
By her early 20s, with a fortified sense of strength and independence having lived through the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the influenza pandemic of 1918, and the death of her mother, Shermund went on a trip to New York City, and stayed to start a new life. She found a studio apartment in the Red House, at 85th Street between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive. This lavish six-story apartment building was once the childhood home of Dorothy Parker, who would become Shermund’s peer at The New Yorker and in some ways her literary parallel. Shortly after relocating, in March 1924, Barbara enrolled briefly in an uninstructed sketch class at the Art Students League (ASL). Although this was her first and only class there, she immersed herself in the ASL community around Woodstock, NY, in later years.
How Shermund first became involved with The New Yorker is not known definitively. There are, however, her few connections to its early editors. Rea Irvin, The New Yorker’s first art editor, was a fellow alumnus of the California School of Fine Arts. Another possible entree was through Neill Compton Wilson, a poet and former dramatic critic for The San Francisco Examiner, whose book City of Caprice featured engravings by Shermund. Long before The New Yorker existed, Wilson knew Harold Ross, the magazine’s founding editor, as a tramp journalist working for a rival newspaper on the waterfront in San Francisco. When Shermund moved to New York City, Wilson may have made the introductions that led to her start.
Shermund found her voice as a cartoonist remarkably fast, and once she got started, she never looked back. Her characters were alive and astute, tapping the zeitgeist of first-wave feminism. She drew familiar scenes of the era: perfume and lingerie counters, private parlors, bustling city streets, speakeasies, and cafes. But most of all, she drew women. Women who were friends, mothers and daughters, clientele or colleagues, or possibly something more. More often than not they had a cigarette or drink in hand, sharing secrets, criticisms, gossip, and observations about their world. She captured and distilled the distinct and often naïve language of the young, and the distinct and often oblivious language of the old.
The prospectus of The New Yorker set the tone for the magazine. Few cartoonists encapsulated it as well as Shermund: “a reflection in word and picture of metropolitan life… one of gaiety, wit and satire… but more than a jester.” While Shermund’s cartoons often expose the absurdity and contradictions of the sophisticated class, they do so with a certain level of warmth and affection. They are cutting but never cruel. The distinctly loose, sketchy style in her ink wash cartoons feels as if it flowed effortlessly from her brush to the page. But that breezy feel she achieved was carefully crafted. As indicated in the collection of her work at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, Shermund sometimes created nearly a dozen versions of these cartoons in order to work out any ounce of hesitation in her line.
Shermund was one of the few New Yorker cartoonists who seemed to be speaking beyond a heteronormative audience. In 1928, Harold Ross indicated to Rea Irvin that he wanted to include content in the magazine that would specifically appeal to queer readers, and a number of Shermund’s contributions seem to have done just that. Unlike many other aspects of her personal life, her own sexuality is too opaque to define. Shermund married twice, but never lived with either husband during these brief unions. Marriages of convenience among artists were not uncommon. She seemed to relish her own self-sufficiency and loved dance and travel. She worked at the kitchen table rather than a formal studio, sleeping with a pen and notepad under her pillow to jot down ideas. Before the Mad Men era, Shermund broke into advertising illustration, drawing advertisements for Pepsi-Cola, Ponds, Philips 66, Frigidaire, and many more.
By the early 1940s, Shermund had published work in nearly all of the top magazines of the time, including Esquire, Collier’s, Photoplay, and Life. She also produced a syndicated cartoon panel for King Features titled Shermund’s Sallies. But by the postwar period, American culture shifted, with the energy of the Roaring Twenties long faded into memory, Shermund’s unique feminist voice became displaced and stifled. Shermund’s last cartoon in The New Yorker appeared in 1944. The magazines that were once her sources of income now sought work of a different sensibility. In the latter part of her career, Shermund began to use less of her own original ideas, and instead relied on captions written by “gag men,” the joke writers for cartoons. This was not an uncommon working relationship in magazine cartooning. For some magazines, gags would be received and paid for by the editors and then offered or assigned to a cartoonist to create a drawing from. Shermund worked directly with writers like Eldon Dedini, himself an accomplished cartoonist, to supply her with gags. Esquire and Shermund’s Sallies, which were now her bread and butter, had much different audiences than The New Yorker, the former a magazine for men, the latter a general newspaper-reading public. This different type of humor, more corporeal and unambiguous, became the standard for the remainder of her career. Unlike her strictly black-and-white work for The New Yorker, however, these publications allowed Shermund to experiment with a broader palette, applied in watercolor.
Barbara Shermund lived out her last decades drawing at her kitchen table and swimming in the channel across from her home in Sea Bright, New Jersey. She died in 1978, in a nursing home in Middletown, New Jersey. At the time of her passing, New York newspapers were on strike, and so no national obituary was published. Her ashes remained at the John Pfleger Funeral Home until they were interred next to her mother’s gravesite in Colma, CA, in 2019.
The images accompanying this article are scans of original art by Barbara Shermund, held by The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum. Some are drafts, some unpublished, and others exact to what appeared in print.
CAITLIN MCGURK is Associate Curator and Assistant Professor at The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum.