Browne Popular Culture Library

PCL MS-48: Allen and John Saunders Collection

Introduction | Biographical Sketch | Scope and Content | Restricted Materials | Series Description | Inventory (Boxes 1-20) | Inventory (Boxes 21-92)


John Allen Saunders, who for most of his professional life went by the name of Allen, was a professor, journalist, novelist, playwright, and philanthropist, but was best known as the writer behind several comic strips, most notably Mary Worth and Steve Roper. This collection reflects his vast array of occupations and interests. Most of the collection centers on his work as a comic strip writer, including research files for story ideas, professional and fan correspondence, original artwork panels, proof sheets and proof books, and publicity materials. The collection also contains other professional and personal files.

The collection was donated to the Browne Popular Culture Library on August 12th, 1986, by Allen Saunders' son, John, and is formally named the Allen and John Saunders Collection. The sorting, cleaning and preliminary inventory of the original artwork was done by two student assistants, Patrick Barrett and Laura Yurek. The initial boxing, sorting and preliminary inventory of the manuscript materials was done by student assistant Vickie Campbell.

With the exception of the 73 folders listed on page 6 of this register, the collection is open to public access for research. However, the duplication of any materials must comply with applicable copyright laws. Because of the unique content of this collection, particularly with concern to the original artwork, there is a copyright restriction clause within the deed of gift.

This register was compiled by Dana Sergent, Graduate Research Assistant and Daniel P. Truckey, Student Assistant, during the Spring and Summer of 1991. It was edited by Brenda McCallum, Head Librarian of the Popular Culture Library, Fall 1991. It was updated in October 2009 by Patricia Falk.

Biographical Sketch 

John Allen Saunders was born in Lebanon, Indiana on March 24, 1899. Early in his life he showed an interest in art, but did not study it seriously until after his collegiate years at Wabash College. At Wabash he received both his Bachelor and Masters of Arts in English and French, and was awarded a Phi Beta Kappa key. After graduation he left for Chicago to embark on a journalism career but would promptly return to Wabash to join the faculty as a professor of Romance Languages.

While teaching, he learned to draw by taking the Landon correspondence course and attending classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. He would later claim to be the favorite instructor on campus because of his tendency to draw on the blackboard during class. Saunders taught at Wabash for seven years and during his summers did assorted odd jobs, including a tour with the Chautauqua Play Company in a play called, Message from Mars. During this time he also wrote novels, plays, and started a comic strip called Miserable Moments in 1922. It was released by the United Feature syndicate, but was short lived.

After seven years at Wabash, Saunders took a leave of absence in 1929 and went to Cleveland to work as a journalist. When he got there, however, he found that the job wouldn't be open for three more weeks. The Cleveland Press gave him an option to work at an affiliated paper, the Toledo News-Bee, until the job opened. He took the offer, found that he liked Toledo, and stayed there the rest of his life, working at the News-Bee until it folded in 1938. While working at the News-Bee, Saunders met Elmer Woggon, Art Director at the Toledo Blade. The two hit it off and in 1936 began collaborating on cartoon advertisements. At this same time they began developing a comic strip called The Great Gusto, about a medicine-show man not-so-loosely based on W.C. Fields (Woggon was the artist, while Saunders did the writing). The strip failed after a short time but one character, a Native-American named Big Chief Wahoo, did generate interest and soon the strip had changed its name and focus to Chief Wahoo. The strip became popular but had its limitations in being able to create a continuous story line so Saunders and Woggon introduced a new character, journalist Steve Roper. This character helped make the strip one of the most popular in America and soon not only did Steve Roper steal the title of the strip from "the Chief" but also his girlfriend, Mini-Ha-Ha.

Steve Roper and Chief Wahoo, like all of Saunders' comic strips, was handled by the Publisher's Syndicate. This meant that they would sell and distribute his strips to newspaper subscribers around the country and later the world. If an editor, client, or reader had a complaint about a strip, it would be handled by the syndicate. Later the Publisher's Syndicate was bought by the Field Newspaper Syndicate.

In 1940, another strip distributed by the Publisher's Syndicate, Apple Mary, was in trouble of disappearing when its writer, Martha Orr, decided to stop writing it after her marriage. The syndicate asked Saunders to take over the strip, which he did with help of cartoonist Dale Conner. The name of the strip was changed from Apple Mary to Mary Worth's Family and was signed Dale Allen. In 1942, Ken Ernst took over the artistic chores, and after this the title was shortened to Mary Worth.

Saunders' most successful comic strips went through a great many changes in characters, artists, style, and popularity. Mary Worth would change from Orr's apple-selling grandmother to a matriarch of a large estate, whose main purpose seemed to be giving advice to the forlorn. After Steve Roper took over the focus of Big Chief Wahoo, it soon became the most popular adventure strip in the country. This was especially true after the addition of a new character, Mike Nomad, a creation of cartoonist Bill Overgard, who took over for Woggon in 1953 (the name of the strip was shortened to just Steve Roper and is currently called Steve Roper and Mike Nomad).

Saunders was also involved in other comic strips throughout his career, either as a writer or consultant. Two of these were: Kerry Drake, started in 1943, in which he was a ghostwriter for Alfred Andriola; Dateline: Danger, where he served as a consultant to his son, John, the strip's writer. Dateline: Danger was actually the first comic strip to feature a major character who was black. Saunders also did art for many advertisers including: Chevrolet, Pillsbury, Jello/General Foods, Phillip Morris, American Newspapers Association, and Dr. Grabow Tobacco Pipes (Saunders was an avid pipe smoker).

Saunders retired in 1979, leaving the reins for all his strips to his son John, who had already worked on Steve Roper since 1950. John became primary scriptwriter in 1955. He had previously been working at local (Toledo) radio and television stations. Like Allen, he attended Wabash College where he wrote and edited a campus humor magazine, "The Caveman," which had been started years before by his father. He also had experience writing as a combat reporter for Stars and Stripes during World War II. As of 1991, John was still penning Mary Worth and Steve Roper.

Besides his professional life, Allen Saunders was a member of many community and national organizations including: Toledo Board of Education, President; Masons; Rotary, President of local chapter; Players (N.Y.C.); Chairman of the President's Committee on Employment of the Physically Handicapped (during the Eisenhower Administration); National Cartoonists Society , President; and Chairman of the Newspaper Comics Council.

Allen Saunders died on January 28th, 1986 at St. Luke’s Hospital in Maumee, Ohio. Allen Saunders’ son (John) died on Nov. 15, 2003.

Scope and Content 

The Allen and John Saunders Collection (1909-1986), which is extremely comprehensive and complete, consists mostly of materials related to Allen Saunders' career as a comic strip writer from the years, 1936-1986. These materials reflect his work on the following comic strips: Big Chief Wahoo/Steve Roper/Mike Nomad (1936-1986+), Apple Mary/Mary Worth's Family/Mary Worth (1940-1986+), Dateline: Danger! (1968-1974), and Kerry Drake (1943-1983). One of the most unique aspects of this collection is the original artwork and extensive proof sheets related to these strips. The collection also includes publicity materials and clippings from national newspapers, as well as spin-offs such as scripts for a television show, comic books, and sheet music inspired by these comic strips. Along with other related professional materials they provide an excellent window to the workings of the daily "continuity strip," a form in which Saunders was considered to have excelled.

Another fascinating part of the collection is the extensive research files that Saunders compiled on various topics for use in writing the comic strips. These mostly consist of newspaper clippings on such diverse subjects as arson and aviation. Included in Saunders' research files is a collection of materials he received from the F.B.I. on their investigative methods, including a letter from J. Edgar Hoover.

Because of the popularity of his comic strips, Saunders received a great deal of reader mail, both positive and negative. Saunders saved much of this mail and these letters have been arranged by either year or subject according to the Saunders' strip they relate to. It has been said that Saunders wrote back to every fan who sent him mail, however, very few copies of his responses to reader mail are found in the collection.

In addition to professional materials concerning Saunders' work as a comic strip writer, there is professional correspondence concerning his work for advertising agencies. Also, there are materials concerning his work as a journalist with the Toledo News-Bee, including articles written by Saunders and photographs of him at work or on assignment. Along with these are materials pertaining to his position on the Wabash College Board of Trustees and also his position as Associate Professor of Romance Languages at that same college during the 1920's. Materials from his Wabash College days -- such as manuscripts for novels, articles, plays, and short stories (both published and unpublished) -- are also found in the collection.

Personal papers, such as correspondence, family papers, financial records, legal documents, and photographs of both Saunders, friends and celebrities are included in the collection, as well as awards for community service, plaques, and college diplomas.

Materials from the various professional and community organizations to which Allen Saunders belonged are also found in the collection, such as the National Cartoonists Society and the President's Committee on the Employment of the Handicapped. The materials of the former include correspondence, newsletters, programs to society banquets, and roster sheets. This material provides interesting insights not only into the workings of the society but also the different cartoonists who were members, such as Charles Schultz, Al Capp and Dik Browne. The materials concerning the Presidents Committee on the Employment of the Handicapped include publications, correspondence, rosters, membership cards and certificates, and advertisements for the committee featuring artwork and writing by Saunders.

Restricted Materials 

The following materials in the Saunders Collection are sealed and may closed to access. Due to their personal, confidential nature they will be open for research only with the advance written permission of John Saunders (or his heirs), as well as the written permission of any other persons named in the papers:

  • Box 1, Folders 5, 13, 14, 17, 22, 23, 27
  • Box 2, Folders 1-43
  • Box 8, Folders 38-39
  • Box 11, Folder 10
  • Box 12, Folders 8-10
  • Box 14, Folder 33
  • Box 19, Folder 38
  • Box 28, Folders 1-15

Series Description 

Series I: Personal Papers (3 boxes)
Arranged chronologically and by functional type.
Includes correspondence with family and friends, and confidential personal financial records.
Arranged in the following three subseries:
  1. Family and Personal Papers
    Includes material on family history, photographs of family and friends, a confidential class record book from Saunders' French class at Wabash College, and a diary and other materials from Saunders' stint in the Chautauqua circuit.
  2. Financial Records
    Personal and CONFIDENTIAL
  3. Personal Correspondence
    Letters from friends, business associates, and letters from servicemen during World War II are included.

Series II: Freeland Writing Files (3 boxes)
Arranged chronologically and by subject
Contains correspondence art school reference files; correspondence and manuscripts of short stories by Saunders for pulp magazines, and manuscripts of plays, radio scripts and unpublished novels by Allen Saunders.
Arranged in the following three subseries:
  1. Early Artwork
    Clippings of published cartoons and art school sample drawings are arranged alphabetically by subject in this subseries. Also includes proof sheets of Saunders' strip Miserable Moments and material from Saunders' work as a gag writer for En-Ar-Co National News.
  2. Short Stories
    Manuscripts and correspondence arranged in order by Saunders. Includes original copies of pulp magazines containing stories by Saunders.
  3. Plays, Radio Scripts, and Novels
    Manuscripts, correspondence, and programs for performances of plays written by Saunders. Also includes photographs of stage productions and publicity photographs for a radio program.

Series III: Toledo News-Bee (2 Boxes)
Arranged chronologically
Contains professional correspondence regarding Saunders; news columns, and freelance fiction. Original artwork, reporter notes, clippings of articles by Saunders, and articles and material about the newspaper are contained.

Series IV: Community Service and Professional Organizations (3 boxes)
Arranged alphabetically by organization title
Arranged in the following three subseries:
  1. Community Service and Professional Organizations Papers
    Contains correspondence, rosters, newsletters, certificates, and publications from various professional comics, community service, and social organizations Saunders to which belonged.
  2. Wabash College, Board of Trustees Papers
    Contains correspondence, reports, and rosters for Wabash College board of trustees.
  3. Wabash College Publications
    Includes college bulletins and publications.

Series V: Chief Wahoo/Steve Roper/Mike Nomad Comic Strip (4 Boxes)
Arranged chronologically and by functional type
Includes general professional and reader mail, research files, publicity material about the strip, and commercial tie-in material.
Arranged in the following four subseries:
  1. General Professional Correspondence and Reader Mail
  2. Research Files, Notes, Clippings, Story Ideas
  3. Clippings/Publicity about Strip
  4. Comic Strip Tie-Ins
    Includes Steve Roper comic books, sheet music, and television scripts

Series VI: Kerry Drake Comic Strip (1 box)
Arranged chronologically and by functional type
Arranged in thefollowing five subseries:
  1. Professional Correspondence
    Contains correspondence between Alfred Andriola, Publisher's Syndicate, and Allen Saunders. Also contains partial scripts for the strip within the text of the correspondence, and some original artwork.
  2. Reader Mail
    General reader mail and professional correspondence
  3. Clippings of and about the Strip
    Articles about the strip, as well as clippings of the original strip from its first six months of publication.
  4. Story ideas
    Research material for story ideas.
  5. Kerry Drake Strip Tie-Ins
    Includes Kerry Drake comic books and screenplays.

Series VII: Mary Worth Comic Strip (2 boxes)
Arranged chronologically and by functional type
Separated into the following five subseries:
  1. Professional Correspondence and General Reader Mail
    Contains general professional and reader mail arranged chronologically.
  2. Fan/Reader Mail
    Arranged by subject order designated by Saunders.
  3. Research Notes and Files
    Research files for Allen and John Saunders arranged in rough chronological order.
  4. Publicity Material
    Includes correspondence, articles on strip, and publicity material arranged in rough chronological order.
  5. Mary Worth Strip Tie-Ins
    Mary Worth comic books, commercial correspondence for Mary Worth radio series, television series, and scripts. Arranged in rough chronological order.

Series VIII: Other Professional Work (5 boxes)
Arranged chronologically and by project
Separated into the following nine subseries:
  1. "Writing Comics is Serious Business" Files
    Includes correspondence, original artwork, photographs, and questionnaires from other comic artists that Saunders collected while writing the above article on continuity in the comic strips. Originally contracted for Saturday Evening Post, but published in Esquire. Excellent source for information on Saunders' peers.
  2. Agent Correspondence and Advertising Material
    Correspondence regarding the "Good Neighbors" game, film, radio, and television tie-ins for his strips, and information and samples of advertising freelance files regarding freelance advertising work by Saunders for Pillsbury, Jell-o, and Chevrolet. Arranged in rough chronological order.
  3. Duke Handy/Philip Morris Comic Strip Material
    Correspondence and material on Philip Morris freelance comic strip Saunders wrote titled Duke Handy. Arranged in chronological order.
  4. Cliff Merritt/United Transportation Union Material
    Correspondence and material on the comic book freelanced by Saunders for the United Transportation Union of their "Cliff Merritt" character.
  5. Dateline Danger! Comic Strip Material
    Correspondence and material on the comic strip Dateline Danger!, written by John Saunders, assisted by Allen.
  6. Golf is a Funny Game Material
    Correspondence and material concerning the book, Golf is a Funny Game, organized and authorized by Saunders.
  7. Other Publications
    Material for miscellaneous articles and booklets by Saunders. Arranged in rough chronological order.
  8. Playwright for Paper Actors
    Manuscripts for Saunders' autobiography Playwright for Paper Actors. Arranged chronologically by chapter.
  9. Speech Files
    A substantial number of research files and transcripts of speeches given by Saunders on comic strips and related topics are contained in this series. Arranged in rough chronological order.

Series IX: General Professional Files (5 boxes)
Arranged chronologically and by functional type in the following seven subseries:
  1. Professional Correspondence and Reader Mail
    Contains general professional correspondence, general reader mail that may have been used for articles or speeches, and correspondence, information, and original artwork by and about other comic writers and artists. Arranged in chronological order.
  2. General Business Records
    Contains expense records, payment/billing records [CONFIDENTIAL], bills, receipts, and leases.
  3. Comics Information
    Contains correspondence, clippings, and other information on comic censorship, the history of comic strips, the comic strip industry, and material about and by other comic artists.
  4. Foreign Comics
    Original comic strips and comic books and strip proof sheets of Mary Worth, Kerry Drake, and Steve Roper in Spanish, French, Russian, and other languages.
  5. Biographical Clippings and Interviews
    Contains material saved by Allen Saunders for a scrapbook, clippings about Saunders, biographical notes, and Allen Saunders' obituary.
  6. General Research and Professional Files
    General research material for comic strip writing and on the industry are included.
  7. Miscellaneous Correspondence
    Contains personal and professional correspondence from the last years of Saunders' life. Arranged alphabetically by folder by Saunders.

Series X: Miscellaneous Material (5 boxes)
Includes photographs, ephemera, scrapbooks, and oversize material
Arranged roughly in chronological order in the following five subseries:
  1. Publicity photographs
    Photographs of Saunders while at the News-Bee, on stage, of Hollywood stars, of Saunders with Hollywood stars, autographed photos, comic strip publicity photographs, photographs for interviews and articles, and photographs of Saunders giving speeches and from community service events.
  2. Board Games
    "Good Neighbors" game invented by Saunders and John B. Carson and "Chief Wahoo's Teepee Town" are included.
  3. Plaques, Awards, Photographs, Taped Interview
    Awards for community service, family photographs, office plaques, Saunders' college diplomas, oversize photographs, and a taped interview with Saunders are included.
  4. Scrapbooks
    One scrapbook on Allen Saunders' public life and one of the Apple Mary comic strip.
  5. Oversize Material
    All oversize materials culled from the first nine series of the collection are herein arranged in Box 37 in series order.

Series XI: Original Artwork (54 boxes)
Arranged in chronological order by comic strip title in the following four subseries:
  1. Chief Wahoo/Steve Roper/Mike Nomad
  2. Apple Mary/Mary Worth
  3. Dateline: Danger!
  4. Kerry Drake

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