Know Thy History: Skippy
Have you ever had a Skippy Peanut Butter?
If you were a child growing up in the United States, you probably have. They come in varieties like Creamy, Super Chunk, and Natural Creamy with Honey. You can use Skippy in many things like Asian Spinach Salad, Big E. Quesadillas, and Peanut Butter & Honey Sushi. One serving size of the Creamy Skippy (roughly 2 tablespoons) provides with with 190 calories, 150 mg of sodium, 16 g of fat, and 20% of your daily requirement of Niacin. Skippy Peanut Butter was the primary sponsor for the Dennis the Menace TV show, and had ads illustrated by Norman Rockwell.
Skippy is also the current owner of the no-doubt much coveted web address of peanutbutter.com. But why is it called “Skippy”? The history on the official site does not touch upon it, going instead for the rather vague “Rosefield Packing Company obtains trademark registration for Skippy peanut butter in all 48 states and Hawaii.”
That’s because Skippy was named after a cartoon character. The history about how the company picked up that brand name is a sordid tale of tax evasion, copyright infringement, and charges of insanity.
Which is surprising, because the comic strip itself is pretty darned innocuous. Skippy was created by Percy L. Crosby, who worked for Life magazine where he launched Skippy as a full page feature in 1923. The strip was named after its title character, Skippy, a precocious little boy who went on adventures. He was named after Crosby’s oldest son, Percy Jr., who was nicknamed “Skippy.” The strip has often been described as the Peanuts of its time.
Skippy was also the beginning of a trend that continues today in comics. From Jerry Robinson in the book Skippy and Perry Crosby: “Nothing like Skippy had ever been seen before in the comic strips. It was not just Skippy’s expert draftsmanship or remarkable flair, although that artistry earned its creator a reputation as ‘the cartoonist’s cartoonist’… The brilliance of Skippy was that here was fantasy with a realistic base, the first kid cartoon with a definable and complex personality grounded in daily life.” Skippy went on to influence many cartoonists from that point on. It’s likely there wouldn’t even be a Peanuts, Dennis the Menace, or a Calvin & Hobbes if Skippy hadn’t been there to blaze the trail. (I should mention, by the way, that Watterson mentioned in an interview that he’d never read Skippy. Still, Watterson was a fan of Peanuts, so there is a link.)
To be fair, though, Skippy probably does owe a bit of debt to Richard Outcault’s earlier Buster Brown, also about a mischievous but well meaning scamp. Crosby, though, popularized the style, something more loose and impressionistic. It’s the perfect style when the star is a fidgety kid, conveying the almost constant motion through wild, unconstrained lines.
Skippy because so popular that Crosby, at one point, was earning $2,680 a week, a sum that’s impressive for a cartoonist to earn today, and even more impressive back in his day. The character went on to star in a movie, Skippy, which featured a young Jackie Cooper (who some of you may remember as
Percy Perry White in the Superman movie). Jackie Cooper was so impressive that, at the age of nine, he became the youngest actor ever to be nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Actor in a Leading Role Category. In fact, the film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and actually netted a Best Director Award for director Norman Taurog. There would be a sequel, too, centered around Skippy’s pal, Sooky.
Crosby, by the way, was said to not have liked the movie.
And also peanut butter. But not with the approval of Percy Crosby.
In 1922, Joseph Rosefield had developed a process to hydrogenate peanut oil. This kept oil from separating from peanuts, which meant that peanut butter could be fresh for months. Anyway, Rosefield licensed his process to Swift & Co. who in turn had a hit with its “Peter Pan peanut butter.”
So, the answer to Rosefield was obvious. Popular kid’s character + peanut butter = profit! In 1933, Rosefield Packing Co. began piggy-backing on the Skippy popularity by using the name. Rosefield even replicated the fence image used for the comic’s titles as a key part of their branding.
As you may expect, Crosby’s lawyers weren’t too thrilled by this obvious copyright infringement. They took Rosefield to court, and they won. Of course, it only matters if the ruling is enforced… and, by a cruel twist of fate, it wasn’t.
At the same time, the courts were actually looking at Crosby on another charge: tax evasion. There’s some suspicion, definitely shared by Crosby, that the IRS may have had another reason for conducting the investigation: Crosby’s “unsavory” political views. Crosby was a very outspoken critic of the government under president Roosevelt. He was especially opposed to the very controversial Judiciary Reorganization Bill, which would have let the president add more justices to the Supreme Court (seen an overt attempt by the president to have the judicial branch see things his way). When he wasn’t writing Skippy, Crosby was writing about how Roosevelt’s government wasn’t that much different from the Communists, or how J. Edgar Hoover was overstepping his legal authority. He stood up to organized crime by penning editorials about Al Capone. He published A Cartoonist’s Philosophy, a book so inflammatory that eight publishers rejected it. Crosby had to resort to self-publishing.
The investigation continued for years. Crosby’s views on things that were wrong with the country began to permeate his strip. The stress eventually took its toll on his personal life. He began drinking heavily. His wife left him and took their four kids with her. The IRS froze his assets in 1946. The strip, which was getting weirder and more surreal, was cancelled in 1945, perhaps due to unease from King Features Syndicate.
Allegedly, Crosby tried to commit suicide in 1948 after the death of his mother. (I say “allegedly” because, according to comic historian Don Markstein, the suicide weapon was never found.) He was soon committed to a mental institution. The man died sixteen years later in 1964, remaining institutionalized to the day of his and now penniless.
Less than a week after Crosby was committed, by the way, Rosefield was granted a trademark for the “Skippy” brand. In 1977, Bestfoods (which then owned the Skippy peanut butter brand and would eventually be under the multinational Unilever corporation) did pay Crosby’s daughter, Joan Crosby Tibbetts, the sum of $25,000 to settle the case. Activist Ron Riley, though, is convinced that this is hardly enough:
“Twenty-five thousand dollars is not reasonable compensation for a trademark of the stature that Skippy had in that time frame, especially when one looks at the time value of money,” Riley said. “They litigated her into the ground. This is a similar kind of abuse that we see in the inventor community all the time, where big companies steal the inventor’s work.”
Given the circumstances, there’s a lot of conspiracy theories surrounding Skippy. Crosby was convinced that his phone was tapped and his mail was being read. Don Markstein points to links between the attorney who represented the IRS, one of the signers who had Crosby committed, and the Rosefield corporation. The ownership of the “Skippy” name is still a hot topic today, even after the comic strip and the Academy Award-nominated movie that inspired it have long been forgotten. You can find more information on the controversy at skippy.com or in the 2011 book Skippy vs. the Mob (which author Joan Tibbetts informs me has been sold out). A new Skippy collection, with a biography on Percy Crosby, is scheduled to be published on July 2012.
But whatever, let’s all go have a delicious PB&J! Like the label on a Skippy peanut butter jar says, “Fuel the fun!”