Who Was Fluffy Ruffles?
She was all the rage in 1907–1908. Young women wanted to dress like her, musicians of the day composed songs about her and there was even a Broadway musical about her adventures.
Fluffy Ruffles was a newspaper comic strip — “the first continued cartoon story,” according to Ernest Watson in his 1946 book, “40 Illustrators and How They Work.” The illustrator was Wallace Morgan, who would later sketch battlefields in World War I. He drew Fluffy Ruffles for the New York Herald. Carolyn Wells, a poet and writer, came up with the idea for the strip and created Fluffy’s story in light verse. The illustrations and verse took up a full page in the Herald’s Sunday magazine section, starting roughly in April 1907.
Why did Fluffy Ruffles capture the popular imagination at the beginning of the 20th century? The glory days of newspaper journalism in the last century are studded with all kinds of manufactured hoopla, from wars to Wingo.
But Fluffy’s story captivated readers, too, especially young women entering the workforce: Poor Fluffy discovers that her inheritance has fallen through. Each week she tries her hand at something different: dance instructor, sales girl in a millinery shop, child care, even teaching bridge. But all of her efforts fail in the same way: a flock of men gather to ogle, chat and flirt, making it impossible for her to do her job. She is either dismissed by her overwhelmed employer, or resigns in frustration.
Think Carrie Bradshaw and “Sex and the City,” but without the sex or regular employment.
When Fluffy Ruffles came along, the Gibson Girl was already well established as a feminine ideal. But where Gibson’s archetype was aloof, wealthy and removed from everyday toil, Fluffy was thrust into the workplace — always retaining her dignity, of course, despite the constant sexual harassment she had to endure on the job.
The beleaguered Fluffy was a hit. Young women copied her style: large feathered hat, fitted jacket and a parasol. There was nothing frilly about her, if you put aside the big plumed hat.
Stores stocked Fluffy-inspired fashions, and the Herald ran a weekly contest in each borough and in several states to find the woman who most personified the spirit and style of Fluffy Ruffles. During the summer season, the contest was extended to Newport, Saratoga and Long Branch, N.J.
The contest culminated in the selection of one “national” winner, Leila Dell Lennon of New York City, who was awarded a $500 wardrobe.
The Herald’s description of the winner sums up the feminine ideal of 1907: “She has that peculiarly slender figure that is surprisingly difficult to find,” according to the Herald, “the well-set shoulders and the general poise that characterizes the Fluffy of Mr. Morgan’s pencil. Also there is the tilt of the head that suggests independence.”
There was a giddiness to Fluffy-mania. Sheet music of the day includes “Fluffy Ruffle Girls Rag,” “Fluffy Ruffles Two Step,” and “Fluffy Ruffles: A Slow Drag.”
Tunes written for ethnic New York also hopped on the bandwagon: “My Fluff-A De Ruff” (“She is my Fluff-a de Ruff/Good stuff/No make-a de bluff/She wear de blond-a de hair/And freez-a de curl/She walk-a just-a like-a the Gibson Girl”) and “My Irish Fluffy Ruffles” (“When she came here in the steerage, she was plain but neat somehow/But no lady in the peerage/Is more stylish than she’s now/In her finery and trimmin’s/She looks like a social queen/Or a picture in the latest woman’s fashion magazine”). Candy and cigars bore her name.
On Broadway, the musical comedy, Fluffy Ruffles, featured the actress Hattie Williams in the starring role. Jerome Kern was one of the songwriters.
“Fluffy Ruffles Goes Well,” announced the New York Times review that ran September 8, 1908, with a tone of exasperation for what by then was the ubiquitous Fluffy.
Ethel Barrymore was in the audience for the opening, the reviewer noted, seated in a proscenium box with her uncle, John Drew, and “had the opportunity of seeing herself on the stage” when Miss Williams did “a burlesque imitation” of the famous actress.
But Fluffy was not just fluff. The Times reviewer observed: “A somewhat novel scene for musical comedy came at the end of the second act, which found Hattie Williams delivering an oration on woman’s suffrage.” The play ran for just 48 performances, according to the Internet Broadway Database, opening on Sept. 7 and closing Oct. 17, 1908.
Fluffy’s adventures no doubt helped to vent some of the public’s fears about women entering the workplace and the disruption it might cause. And of course by the time Fluffy made her debut in the Herald, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had been actively agitating for the right to vote for women since the 1860s. Elizabeth Cady Stanton died in 1902; Susan B. Anthony died in 1906.
Although women did not get the right to vote in the U.S. until 1920, they were beginning to raise their voices, especially in the workplace. In 1903 the Women’s Trade Union League of New York was formed, an organization of middle- and working-class women dedicated to unionization for working women and to woman suffrage; that would later become the nucleus of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Women were becoming visible in the public sphere.
Fluffy-mania reflected society’s uneasy embrace of the emerging woman of the 20th century and the hurdles she would have to clear. It was filled with mixed messages of course: Like Fluffy, maintain your dignity, despite the onslaught of male attention. And in pursuit of a job, never lose your femininity or attractiveness.
Of course, Fluffy never got to stay in any job very long. For the working women of 1907, that was a small detail, if Fluffy-mania is any guide. The larger point was that a woman could strive for independence and a job, and be celebrated for the effort.
Men saw her differently, of course. And the ephemera of the era that celebrated Fluffy Ruffles strayed far from her original story line.
In the May 11, 1942 issue of Life Magazine, the cover photo shows the actress Joan Caulfield in a “Fluffy Ruffles” pose, to tease a feature story inside about the return of ruffled blouses.
According to Life, the 19-year-old is “a dead-ringer for Fluffy Ruffles, the Wallace Morgan comic strip young lady who wowed the gents from 1907–1910” — a mere 30 years ago when this issue of Life appeared.
In addition to its cover story about ruffled blouses, this issue of Life has articles about price controls, ads describing the rationing of certain products, and pictures of sandbags in front of Honolulu’s public buildings and barbed wire ringing its beaches. With American involvement in World War II just beginning, many people must have looked back longingly at those simpler times, when Fluffy Ruffles was all the rage.
I first encountered Fluffy Ruffles eight years ago at a gathering of paper doll collectors. The New York Herald sold the paper doll separately at the height of the fad. I was intrigued by the newspaper connection, and I began to research in libraries and online to find out more.
The New York Times’ obituary for Wallace Morgan on April 25, 1948, mentions Fluffy Ruffles in the sixth paragraph as “a saucy bit in a tight corset,” and records that although Morgan drew many other female figures besides Fluffy Ruffles, the illustrator abandoned the female form in 1940. According to the Times, Morgan had had enough, and quotes him extensively on the topic in an undated interview: “Most magazine readers today are looking for escape literature. They want to crack open a magazine and see a big smash picture of an ankle or a leg, read a quick story with some plain and fancy bosom heaving in it, and then throw the issue away. I’m tired of this sort of thing, so I’m letting the younger men take over.”