The Cartoonists by Susanna McLeod


Ethel Hays: Sophisticated Flappers to Cherubic Children from her Pen

September 30, 2013


Her art teachers convinced her to be a fine artist, to paint beautiful pieces of art and striking portraits. The young artist prefered illustration, but she followed her mentors' advice. Then during World War One, fate in the form of recovering wounded soldiers stepped in to change the course of Ethel Hays' future. Putting her canvasses and brushes aside, Hays became a professional cartoonist.


On March 13, 1892, Ethel Hays was born in Billings, Montana. Innately interested in art, Hays was a creator from early childhood. By high school, she was an illustrator on the school's newspaper and preparing to attend art school.

Enrolling at the Los Angeles School of Art and Design for three years of study, Hays' instructors advised that she paint fine art works, not the illustrations that she preferred to create. She was talented, so talented that she won a scholarship to attend the Art Students' League in New York City. The Art Students' League teachers saw the illustration skill buried in their new student, but she was now on the path to fine art and would not sway. Hays won another scholarship to advance her training. World War One put a halt to any further schooling.


Initially training with the Red Cross, Hays came across another way to help during the Great War -- she could participate in art therapy for recovering wounded soldiers. Donning the role of instructor in a military hospital, Hays found great joy in teaching art. "Many of the men I taught were so weak that they were allowed to exert themselves onlly a few minutes of the day... I loved the work and was delighted when they chose art as the way they wanted tos pend this precious period of time," Hays said, according to Tom Heintjes in "Ethel Hays, Pioneering Female Cartoonist" in Hogan's Alley magazine, September 17, 2012.

Six years later, the art instructor was transferred to a hospital in Tennessee. The recovering veterans there were interested not in learning fine art but something more to their liking: cartooning. Well, Hays was surprised and not prepared. The men would be back when she could teach them how to draw cartoons.

Hays immediately enrolled in the Landon School correspondence course. A natural at cartooning, she quickly completed two lessons, She organized the class of soldiers and began teaching cartooning, staying two lessons ahead so she could properly instruct.

Artist and Cartoonist Ethel Hays in her Studio  

The owner of the correspondence school was delighted with Hays' work and showed her cartoons to the editor of the Cleveland Press. He wasted no time in offering the impressive cartoonist a job with the newspaper, a definite rarity for a woman in that era. Putting canvasses and fine art brushes aside, Ethel Hays took a new path when she began her new job in December 1923.

Teamed with writer Victoria Benham, Hays drew cartoons to go with the stories about two Flappers and their escapades in the city of Cleveland, Ohio. The column was popular, but ended after less than a year when Benham found a husband and quit. Renaming the column "Ethel," Hays transformed the piece into a single-panel cartoon with "satire and social commentary" according to Lambiek's Comiclopedia. "The Ethel Hays style was stunningly original," wrote Heintjes, the cartoons "funny, playful and wise." Although considered politically incorrect by today's standards, Hays work brought smiles to both men and women readers.

In short order, Newspaper Enterprise Association scooped up the pioneering cartoonist to syndicate her panels in papers across the United States. A new cartoon under Hays was introduced, dubbed "Flapper Fanny."

An example of the elegant women drawn by Ethel Hays  

Featuring fashionable big-city women with short curly hair and confidence to spare, "Flapper Fanny" was read in over 500 newspapers. Long, slender legs, beautiful faces, and wearing the latest clothing styles, Hays' characters were eye-catching and endearing. Portrayed as innocent and sweet, there was more than a hint of the risque, especially when Fanny was dressed provocatively or in her negligee.

A year later, Hays was engaged to be married. Quitting her job, she was directly rehired by her editor, since her panels and illustrations could be completed anywhere and sent in to the syndicate. Hays married William Simms in December 1925; she continued to sign her artwork with her maiden name.


While picking up more illustration projects from NEA, Hays also began a family with her husband. By the time their second daughter came along, the cartoonist was feelling overwhelmed with work. In 1930, she handed "Flapper Fanny" over to another up-and-coming female cartoonist, Gladys Parker. She carried on creating "Ethel" on a reduced schedule until she gave that panel up too.

By the next year, Hays had a change of mind and began a comic strip titled "Marianne" for NEA. Unfortunately, her heart was not into the work. Her drawing was exceptional as usual but the gags were less than amusing or captivating. Another cartoonist took over the strip and Hays temporarily dropped cartooning. But with art pulsing through her every heartbeat, she reappeared with new work by the late 1930s. Ethel Hays Simms was now a children's illustrator.

"Hays began taking assignments from various publishers to illustrate children's story books, coloring books and paper doll cut-out books," said Heintjes. The illustrations were bursting with life and colour, cherubic faces bright-eyed and smiling with joy. Hays also created "Puzzle Pages," a collection of single-page puzzles that schoolchildren thoroughly enjoyed.

Decades later, the children's books, paper dolls and puzzles designed by Ethel Hays are collector's gems with values into the hundreds of dollars per item.

Cherubic children's illustrations by Ethel Hays

Retiring from her creative life sometime between 1950 and 1960, Hays could not resist the urge to produce more inspiring art. Even into her 90s, the artist was painting family portraits. After a long and successful life in the arts, and leading the way for both men and women cartoonists, Ethel Hays Simms died in 1989. She was the ripe old age of 97.

© Susanna McLeod 2013