Comic Strip History - Skippy Peanut Butter

Skippy August 2nd

Up until now, when I've written about words or phrases that end up being popularized through comic strips, the stories behind them have been fairly simple. They generally haven't involved trademark infringement, FBI and IRS investigations, (alleged) staged suicide attempts, and (alleged) false imprisonment, but this one (allegedly) involves all of those, and more.

And all because of peanut butter.

Researching and writing about this has been an odd experience, partially because I've never really thought peanut butter could have such an effect on someone's life, but mostly because Percy Crosby's story is incredibly tragic. There are certain facts that are in dispute, but where he ended up and how it affected his family are not, and it's awful to think about. At times I found myself laughing due to the absurdity of all of this stemming from a peanut butter dispute, but I had to continually remind myself of the ultimate result, which is not at all funny.

I've written about Percy Crosby and the comic strip Skippy very briefly before when I shared a Christmas themed comic strip during December. In the course of searching for a bit of information I could share along with the comic, I discovered a website created by Joan Crosby Tibbetts, the daughter of Percy Crosby and his second wife, Dale. On it, she includes a biography of her father, the history of the comic strip, as well as a fairly detailed account of the decades-long legal battle between her father, his estate, and the Skippy peanut butter brand. At the time I bookmarked it and decided to revisit it at a later date. More recently though, while reading an interview in The Comics Journal with Milt Caniff,, I saw him mention Crosby and his apparent mental illness (though he phrased it in a much less sensitive way), a detail of his story that I hadn't been aware of previously. This caused me to want to revisit the story, given that it seemed to be much more complex than I originally anticipated. Little did I know just how complex it would get.

Percy Crosby's character Skippy first appeared as a feature in Life Magazine in 1923. Crosby had been drawing comic strips and panels for many years prior to that, working at the New York World, for the McClure Syndicate, and even as a staff editorial cartoonist at the socialist newspaper The Call, but none of his characters or strips had been a big hit.He seemed to be drawn to writing gags involving kids and their views of the world, especially those who lived in urban New York, and had moderate success with strips along those lines such as Toddles, Beany And The Gang, and The Clancy Kids. Life Magazine had published quite a few of the single panel gag comics he had submitted to them in the past, even very early on in his career, so when he approached them about doing an ongoing strip about a group of kids, they accepted. Skippy ran for 3 years in the pages of Life, becoming quite popular and gaining a wide following. This caught the attention of the small Johnson Features Syndicate, who offered to run Skippy in newspapers nationwide. Crosby jumped at the chance for wider exposure, and in 1925 the daily Skippy comic strip debuted in newspapers. A year later, in 1926, King Features would pick up Skippy as well, as a Sunday feature. Crosby's contract with Johnson Features would end in 1930, at which point King Features also began running the daily strip.

Crosby's contract with Johnson Features allowed him to retain the copyright to the strip and its characters, which was not a very common occurrence at the time. The only notable previous example of this was Bud Fisher, who only gained full copyright of his creation Mutt and Jeff after a protracted legal battle. Amazingly, Crosby continued to retain copyright even after moving to King Features, and over the next few years would take further steps to ensure that only he could utilize the Skippy copyright and trademark. While still under contract with Johnson Features, in 1927, he hired Fred A. Wish to manage Skippy license arrangements, and in 1932, at Wish's suggestion, he created the company Skippy, Inc. to further protect the brand. At that time, it was becoming more and more necessary to do so, as the popularity of the strip had skyrocketed. The strip had been adapted into a very successful movie in 1931, and the number of licensed Skippy products had increased dramatically. These included everything from dolls and toys to food and flatware, and as you may be able to guess, as the number of licensed Skippy products increased, the number of unlicensed products also increased. The manufacturers of these were always taken to court by Crosby's lawyers, Lord, Day, & Lord, and due to the protections Crosby had put in place for his trademark, the courts always ruled in his favor.

That was until Joseph Rosefield got involved, and in order to talk about Rosefield, we must for a moment take a detour and talk about the history of peanut butter itself.

Pastes made of ground up peanuts have been made in South America and West Africa for many a century, and so-called modern peanut butter has been a thing since the late 1800s. It was originally what people these days would call "natural" peanut butter, which requires one to stir together the oil and the peanut mash in order to eat it. If left out, the two would eventually separate. In 1921, Joseph Rosefield patented non-separating, hydrogenated peanut butter, the type that is most widely available today. This innovation not only made it so it was unnecessary to stir it up, but also dramatically increased the shelf life and removed the need for refrigeration, something that was quite a luxury in those days. This allowed the product to be shipped over much longer distances and thus into the mouths of a greater number of customers. Hydrogenation basically made possible the peanut butter landscape as we know it. Rosefield was not the first to file a patent for the process of hydrogenating peanut butter; that honor goes to Frank Stockton, who did so three weeks earlier than Rosefield did. Stockton's patent was granted at the end of 1921, and first licensed to the H.J. Heinz company in 1923. Due to Rosefield's process and Stockton's process being slightly different, both men were issued patents in the same year, though Rosefield went on to gain more notoriety for the invention. Interestingly, the Stockton process is the one used in making all hydrogenated peanut butter these days, though those associated with the Skippy brand will bristle when this fact is mentioned.

Initially, Rosefield licensed the patent out to the E.K. Pond Company (a subsidiary of Swift & Company) in 1923, who unsuccessfully marketed their peanut butter in 1924 under the name of either Dainty or Delicia (sources are not clear on what it was actually called). They would later reintroduce it to the world as the much better known Peter Pan peanut butter in 1928. Due to a disagreement over how Rosefield would be compensated by the E.K. Pond company for his patent license, he severed ties with them in 1932 and decided to go into business for himself the next year.

And this is where the stories converge.

Perhaps inspired by the E.K. Pond Company, who had taken the name Peter Pan for their product without compensating James Barrie, the creator of the character, Rosefield decided to cash in on the popularity of the Skippy comic strip and use the name for his new product. Crosby's lawyers promptly sued him for trademark infringement, not simply because of the name, but also the packaging. There had been a long running motif in the comic strip of characters having conversations either in front of or while leaning on a fence. Sometimes characters would also sloppily paint words on said fence to get their messages across more loudly and clearly. This fence motif had even been used on the packaging of certain licensed Skippy products, so there had been a well known connection made between the fence and the comic character. Rosefield obviously recognized this connection, and thought his customers would as well, because the earliest Skippy peanut butter tins feature the Skippy name painted on a fence. This was a clear case of trademark infringement, and the court decided in Crosby's favor. The court ordered Rosefield to cease and desist selling his product under the Skippy brand.

The Original Skippy Peanut Butter tin

Normally, that would have been the end of it, as it had been for a number of unlicensed Skippy products who got the same treatment from Crosby's lawyers. However, Joseph Rosefield was nothing if not persistent. Rosefield had employed trademark expert Lee W. Mida as a consultant on the licensing issue, who had advised him to simply ignore the result of the case and continue using the Skippy trademark anyway. Rosefield not only did so, but in the next few years would expand his peanut butter operations significantly. Rosefield Packing Company, which manufactured Skippy peanut butter, partnered with other companies to distribute it in more and more markets in several states. Around 1935 or thereabouts, they introduced the first chunky peanut butter, which became one of their more popular items and made them stand out from other peanut butter brands. The brand was originally sold in metal tins, but during this period was also the first to be sold in wide mouth glass jars, an innovation brought about by necessity due to metal shortages during World War II. By 1942, Rosefield Packing Company had gone from manufacturing several brands of mustard, relish, pickles, tapioca, and peanut butter to turning a profit by manufacturing only peanut butter under a single brand, Skippy.

Rosefield was not shy about advertising his product as Skippy, either. Not only did he continue to use imagery on the packaging that was reminiscent of the comic strip, but he decided to directly compete with Crosby's Skippy in some of his own arenas. From 1932 to 1935, the comic strip had been adapted into a popular radio show, sponsored by Wheaties cereal. In 1941, Rosefield decided to start his own Skippy radio show, Skippy Hollywood Theater, to promote his peanut butter. The show was notable for being pre-recorded, and was wildly successful not only as a radio show, but as an advertisement for the peanut butter. It ran until 1951.

It's odd, then, that during this time there was no legal action taken against Rosefield by Crosby, his lawyers, or Skippy, Inc. There could be several reasons for this, the most likely being that Crosby was so preoccupied with all of the other things going on in his life that he either didn't notice the rise of Skippy peanut butter, or didn't feel he could pay it the adequate attention that it required. During the 30s and 40s, Crosby had become increasingly politically active, writing several books and essays on various political subjects and inserting political commentary into his Skippy strips. Most of these were, to put it mildly, not well received, though some were more well received than others. In 1930, Crosby wrote a 3 month sequence lampooning Al Capone and the Racketeers, depicting him as a neighborhood bully named Spumone who headed a gang called the Jacketeers. This was received fairly well, and bolstered Crosby's confidence in his ability to send political messages. He wrote several articles decrying organized crime generally and Al Capone specifically, though newspapers refused to print them. Undeterred, Crosby used his own money to pay for ad space so the articles would run anyway. He used this same tactic again several times when newspapers refused to print his screeds against President Franklin Roosevelt and his various policies. When publishing houses refused to publish some of his political books, he similarly published them himself with his own money. This may not have been as much of an issue if he kept all of this out of the comic strip, but he was much too passionate about his political opinions to do so. Over time, Crosby inserted overt political messages into more and more strips, until they began to be more common than anything else. There was quite a bit of public outcry, and the popularity of the strip lowered significantly. Eventually, the public, as well as King Features Syndicate, had enough. The syndicate canceled the strip in 1945.

His strip ending wasn't the only thing on Crosby's mind at this time, however. Besides his main source of income being taken away from him, and feeling increasingly that he was being censored and silenced unfairly due to newspapers and publishers refusing to print his articles and books, his family and personal life were also in shambles. His first marriage had ended years earlier due to his alcoholism, prompting him to give up alcohol altogether when he married a second time. As things in his work and political life got worse, however, he returned to alcohol and with it came all of the problems he had with it previously. In 1939, after an altercation with his second wife, Dale, with whom he had 4 children, he traveled to Florida for two weeks, during which time Dale filed for divorce. He was ordered to pay $14,500 a year in alimony and barred from seeing his children. He remarried in 1940, but the divorce had a devastating effect on him, both psychologically and financially.

Those weren't his only financial problems, either. As far back as 1934, Crosby and Skippy, Inc had been investigated by the IRS for tax evasion. In addition to being an outspoken opponent of Franklin Roosevelt himself, he was also openly antagonistic towards Roosevelt's tax policies, refusing to pay taxes as long as Roosevelt was in office. While in the process of investigating William Randolph Hearst, owner of Skippy's publisher King Features Syndicate, Roosevelt decided to also send the IRS after Crosby. Due to the many articles Crosby had written against him, Roosevelt saw Crosby as a bit of a political opponent, and utilized the IRS to send him a message. By the 1940s, due to his mounting tax obligations, alimony payments, and legal fees relating these various issues, his financial situation was quite dire.

It seems reasonable to assume that, given all of this, he may not have been interested in going after a peanut butter manufacturer over a trademark dispute, and by the time it became a big enough issue, he may not have had enough money to do so.

And this is where things get a bit murky.

Up until this point, none of the facts that I've laid out are really in dispute. There are still some questions, but there are reasonable assumptions that one can make to answer them. What happened next, and why it happened, isn't so cut and dried.

Joseph Rosefield legally obtained the Skippy trademark for his peanut butter brand in 1948. How this happened was, depending on who you ask, either due to an opportunist taking advantage of a serendipitous confluence of unrelated events, or due to a criminal conspiracy perpetrated by Rosefield, Crosby's turncoat lawyers, and to a lesser extent Crosby's third wife. The latter seems quite far-fetched to me, but the former is also quite astounding to think about. When King Features canceled Skippy in 1945, the Skippy trademark also expired. Despite Crosby's attempts to revive the strip, all public goodwill towards him and his creation was gone, and no publisher wanted to touch it. A combination of his lack of ability to revive his creation, his financial struggles, his family issues, and his continuing alcoholism led him to attempt to kill himself in December of 1948. After recovering in a hospital, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and transferred to a mental institution, where he would be forced to spend the rest of his life. Meanwhile, two years earlier, the US Congress had passed a new trademark law, the Lanham Act, which would go into effect in 1947. Rosefield, taking advantage of the changes in trademark law imposed by the act, as well as the fact that Crosby's trademark had expired, filed for the trademark himself at the end of 1948. Crosby, now in a mental institution and unable to challenge this in court, would never gain the trademark back. Skippy would, beyond this point, be forever connected with peanut butter, and only peanut butter as far as the general public was concerned.

Which is where we circle back to Joan Crosby Tibbetts.

Joan was the third child of Crosby's second wife, Dale. After his divorce with Dale was finalized, Crosby was not allowed to contact her or his children due to orders from the court. Not only did Joan and her siblings never hear from him again, but they were not contacted by anyone upon his death, and only learned about it from an obituary in the newspaper. She was appointed the administrator of the Crosby estate in 1965, a position she took extremely seriously. For the remainder of her life, she made it her personal mission to uphold the legacy of her father, and to do this she felt it necessary to try and take the Skippy trademark back from the Skippy peanut butter brand's parent companies, Best Foods, Corn Products Refining Company, and eventually Unilever. Over the course of several decades she filed multiple lawsuits and petitioned the courts many times to cancel the Skippy peanut butter trademark. While unsuccessful at her stated goal, these efforts still had the effect of helping to keep the comic strip Skippy in the public consciousness, at least as much as it could be. She endlessly championed her father's work, doing more than anyone else to preserve its history in reprint books and on the Internet. I dare say most of what is still known about the comic strip and about Percy Crosby is due to her tireless efforts. Those efforts would continue until her death in 2019.

In 1998, she created the website, which not only served to relay information regarding the history of the comic strip, ongoing efforts to preserve it, and her ongoing legal efforts, but also as a place for her to chronicle the life of her father as well as her various theories regarding how and why things ended up the way they did.

Her theories are not entirely without evidence, but it isn't extremely convincing. Given the timing of certain events, especially the trademark being granted not too long after Crosby was committed, it makes sense that she would be a bit suspicious. Also, given her experiences fighting against food companies and how badly representatives from said companies treated her over the years, it seems reasonable that she would blame them for much of what happened. That doesn't mean that all of what she believed is true, but it makes sense that she would think that. This also isn't to say that none of it is true. While the evidence is thin, it doesn't seem entirely implausible that some of what she thought happened did happen.

It's also very difficult to summarize neatly and tidily, but I'll do my best.

Joan basically connected everyone and everything that Crosby had spoken out against, as well as certain people in his life that she didn't like, to what she believed was a conspiracy against him. Franklin Roosevelt, the IRS, Al Capone, the FBI, Crosby's lawyers, Crosby's third wife, Best Foods, and Corn Products Corporation (or CPC) were all connected to it somehow, and the main thing connecting them was Joseph Rosefield. Franklin Roosevelt had passed the National Industrial Recovery Act (or NRA) in 1933, which she claimed Rosefield would eventually take advantage of in order to sell his peanut butter the way he did. She claimed Rosefield's lawyer Lee Mida not only advised him to continue using the Skippy trademark after he had been ordered not to, but also to report Crosby to the IRS in order to take attention away from what they were doing, knowing Roosevelt's penchant for using the IRS to silence his political opponents. This, she claims, is the sole reason he ended up getting in trouble with the IRS. In 1934, Crosby believed he had received threats against his life and was being followed by some unknown assailant, which he reported to the FBI. Joan claims that this was soon after the court had ordered Rosefield to cease using the Skippy trademark, implying Rosefield was trying to obtain it from Crosby by force. She claims he was unfairly maligned in the press following his divorce from Dale. She characterizes his third wife, Carolyn, as someone with "little education or business experience," and who "Crosby's friends and colleagues saw... as an opportunist." While she believed Rosefield was the one that reported Crosby to the IRS, she seems to imply that Crosby's lawyers Lord, Day, & Lord were the ones responsible for misreporting taxes paid. She claims that Crosby was committed to the mental institution by order of Carolyn's uncle, and that the attorney Carolyn hired to defend Crosby in the tax evasion case, Rose Lehman Stein, was "an agent for Rosefield." She claims Stein was responsible for keeping Crosby in the institution, reporting to the court that he was "too dangerous to release." Stein would later become president of Skippy, Inc, and Joan claims that further action was not taken against Skippy peanut butter after this due to Stein's supposed connection to Rosefield. She claims that although Crosby tried to write to his friends and family while in the institution, his letters were either censored or not delivered at all, and that he was told false information about his family and his children. She claims he was told his children had received money from Skippy peanut butter and did not want to speak to him. She claims a former attorney of Crosby's became US Attorney General but did nothing to help him in order to "protect his political interests," and returned to Lord, Day, & Lord just in time to oversee the merger between Corn Products Corporation and Best Foods. Rosefield had sold Skippy peanut butter to Best Foods in 1954, and the two companies merged in 1958.

Therefore, in essence, Rosefield took advantage of policies enacted by Crosby's least favorite president in order to strengthen his position, stalked Crosby in order to frighten him, got him in trouble with the IRS by not only reporting him but conspiring with Crosby's lawyers to make his taxes look awful, took advantage of Crosby's third wife by convincing her uncle to commit Crosby and convincing her to hire one of Rosefield's own attorneys, have that attorney make sure that Crosby could never get out of the mental institution, then have that same attorney take over Skippy, Inc. so Rosefield no longer had to deal with the trademark dispute, intercept all of Crosby's mail and alter it to give him and his family a false impression of what was going on, and have lawyers who had worked closely with Crosby in the past put together a new food company to further strengthen his position against Skippy, Inc.

No claim of hers, however, is as bold as the one relating to his suicide attempt and his subsequent committal to the mental institution. Joan not only claims that police reported they did not find which weapon Crosby used in the attempt, but also implies that the attempt was faked by someone hired by Rosefield. She doesn't say so explicitly, but she makes sure to not only point out the lack of a weapon, but also the fact that it was only 5 days after the attempt that Rosefield was granted the Skippy peanut butter trademark. She clearly wants anyone reading it to read between the lines.

Joan has always maintained that her father was not mentally ill and should not have been locked away in the mental institution. I don't think anyone will dispute that Crosby should not have been treated the way he was, but it's difficult to know whether the diagnosis was correct or not. He was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, the evidence for this being that he seemed to have an overwhelming anxiety about being targeted by people like Franklin Roosevelt, Al Capone, the IRS, and the FBI. Most average people these days who claimed that all of these people and groups were after them would probably be treated similarly. Most people don't have to worry about the president, government agencies, and crime lords all being after them at the same time.

The problem is that most people aren't Percy Crosby. Franklin Roosevelt did actually send the IRS after him, as well as the FBI when Crosby had implied he wanted to harm the president in one of his articles. Crosby had spoken out against organized crime many times, and it was very likely they weren't too fond of him and may have wanted to do him in. These paranoias didn't just come out of nowhere; they came out of his actual lived experience. That said, it still isn't as cut and dried as that. Crosby biographer Jared Gardner has stated that his political writings leading up to his committal are evidence enough of his mental illness, given how increasingly paranoid they became. Further, he postulates that his bouts with alcoholism may have exacerbated the issue or were a coping mechanism for said issues, or both. In the end, it's difficult to say with certainty what really was going on in Crosby's mind.

However much of Joan's theories are true or false can perhaps be debated, but when reading what she wrote on the website one must admit how passionate she felt about them. Each page of her biography of her father has this quote from James Madison at the top: "Since the general civilization of mankind, I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations." She routinely refers to Rosefield, Best Foods, and CPC as a crime syndicate, a criminal enterprise,and as food pirates. She speaks as glowingly about her father and his work as she does derisively about Rosefield and his compatriots. Her intense passion for this cause can't be understated.

That's why I felt a need to discuss it, and what immediately caught my eye when I came across it years ago. Percy Crosby was a complicated man, and while he did great work, it's incredibly uneven. Skippy the comic strip was very popular in its day, and was a major influence on subsequent comic strips about kids and their lives. His life had a tragic end, and his legacy may sadly only be remembered in the name of a brand of peanut butter that stole its name from him. However, I'm glad that there were, and hopefully still are, people who want to preserve a better memory of his life and work than just that. That kind of thing is really the whole point of this blog, after all.

But if you want even more information than I was able to cover here, please see: