This Week in Illinois History: Popeye creator E. C. Segar born (December 8, 1894)
On December 8, 1894, cartoonist E. C. Segar was born in Chester, Illinois, a Mississippi River town an hour south of St. Louis. Segar would go on to create one of the world’s most iconic cartoon characters, Popeye the Sailor.
Segar caught the art bug early, painting houses and signs for his handyman father. As a teenager, he had big dreams of becoming a cartoonist. After his first attempt was rejected by a St. Louis newspaper, he signed up for an art correspondence course and spent late nights practicing his craft.
With his mail-order diploma in hand, Segar set out for Chicago. He found part-time work with some local newspapers, but his first break came at 25 when he submitted a series to the New York Journal. On December 19, 1919, the paper debuted Thimble Theatre, which featured the comic misadventures of Olive Oyl and her boyfriend Harold Hamgravy.
The series was a modest success, but Segar still toiled in obscurity. Nine years after the series’ debut, a storyline featured Olive Oyl’s bumbling brother, Castor Oyl, trying to get to an island casino. He charters a boat under the command of a salty, one-eyed sailor named Popeye.
Popeye the Sailor captured the public’s imagination. He quickly became the series most popular character and made Thimble Theatre one of the nation’s most popular comics. In 1933, Paramount Pictures introduced Popeye the Sailor cartoon shorts and Popeye merchandise flew off the shelves. A radio series debuted in 1935. And in 1937, Crystal City, Texas, the self-proclaimed spinach capitol of the world, built a statue honoring Popeye. He had increased the United States consumption of spinach by 33 percent.
Through Popeye, Segar finally found success, but he would not get to enjoy it long. He died from leukemia and liver disease in 1938. He was 43 years old.
In 1977, Chester, Illinois honored its hometown hero with Segar Memorial Park. It features a six-foot bronze statue of Popeye. In 2006, the city began installing granite statues of Segar’s most memorable characters. To date, the Popeye and Friends Character Trail features 20 characters spread throughout the city.