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Who was Winsor McCay? 

Winsor McCay was an artist who drew comic strips in the early 1900s. He had a big imagination and created characters and stories that both children and adults loved. McCay was also one of the first artists to create animated short films. Read on to learn more about Winsor McCay and the characters he created!

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Winsor McCay was from Spring Lake!

Winsor McCay was born around 1857 and grew up in Spring Lake, Michigan. From an early age, he loved to draw. He spent all his free time drawing pictures. He even got in trouble at school for drawing instead of paying attention to the lessons! 

 

One day, McCay heard about a ship called the PS Alpena sinking in Lake Michigan. He drew a picture on the school blackboard of what he imagined the ship looked like being tossed in the waves. People were so impressed with the drawing that they asked a local photographer to take a picture. 

Drawing of steam ship USS Alpena sinking in waves of Lake Michigan by Winsor McCay

Photograph of a Drawing of the SS Alpena in Lake Michigan

Thought to be by Winsor McCay

1880

74.43.4

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Winsor McCay Broke Rules!

Winsor McCay’s father wanted him to go to business school, but Winsor wanted to make art. He began drawing comic strips for newspapers in Cincinnati and New York. McCay liked to find ways to break the “rules” of comic strips. 

 

One way he did this was with a comic strip called Little Sammy Sneeze. Sammy was always getting into trouble for sneezing at a bad time. His sneezes were so violent that they would break things or send them flying. In one episode, Sammy sneezed so violently that he “broke” the comic strip panel. 

Little Sammy Sneeze comic strip drawing by Winsor McCay, boy sneezing and breaking comic panel, 9-24-1905

Little Sammy Sneeze 
Winsor McCay 
September 24, 1905
New York Herald  
Public Domain image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Little Sammy Sneeze comic strip drawing by Winsor McCay, Sammy sneezing and scaring Santa Claus, 12-18-1904 y_Sneeze_(1904-12-18).gif

Little Sammy Sneeze
Winsor McCay
December 18, 1904
Public Domain Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons 

Little Sammy Sneeze comic strip by Winsor McCay, boy sneezing and scaring a litter of kittens, 7-16-1905

Little Sammy Sneeze 
Winsor McCay 
July 16, 1905
Public Domain Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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Winsor McCay Dreamed Big!

Winsor McCay liked to draw comic strips about dreams. In dreams, anything can happen. He created a popular comic strip called Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. In each episode, a different character had a strange dream because of a large meal they ate. 

 

Welsh Rarebit was a dish from Wales that was covered in a cheesy sauce. People at the time believed that eating “heavy” or “rich” food would give someone strange dreams. Winsor McCay liked to imagine what these dreams might have been about.
 

What's the strangest dream you've had?

Dream of the Rarebit Fiend comic strip drawing by Winsor McCay, dinosaur eating tree, throwing rocks at hunter, 5-25-1913

Dream of the Rarebit Fiend
Winsor McCay 
May 25, 1913
New York Herald
Public Domain Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons 

Dream of the Rarebit Fiend
Winsor McCay (Alias, Silas)
January 28, 1905
New York Herald
Public Domain Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Dream of the Rarebit Fiend comic strip drawing by Winsor McCay, woman falling off flying bed, 1-28-1905_of_the_Rarebit_Fiend_1905-01
Dream of the Rarebit Fiend comic strip drawing by Winsor McCay, giant man walking through New York City, 1-7-1905

Dream of the Rarebit Fiend
Winsor McCay (Alias, Silas)
January 7, 1905
New York Herald
Public Domain Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Dream of the Rarebit Fiend comic strip drawing by Winsor McCay, bucking automobile, 1907

Dream of the Rarebit Fiend: Bucking Automobile
Winsor McCay (Alias, Silas)
1907
Pen and black ink and brush and black ink over graphite, with printed overlay, on paperboard
44.13 x 66.36 cm (17 3/8 x 26 1/8 in.)
New York Herald 
Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art
2008.128.1

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What do you think?

Winsor McCay Created Little Nemo!

Little Nemo was a character that first appeared in Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. Winsor McCay decided to make a whole comic series about him called Little Nemo in Slumberland.

Cartoon character, Little Nemo drawn by Winsor McCay, small boy wearing clown suit of white fabric with blue polkadots and blue pompoms

In the comics, Nemo had recurring dreams about traveling through a world called Slumberland. He made friends with characters he met on his journey to find King Morpheus and the Princess of Slumberland. At the end of each episode, Nemo woke up in his bed.

single frame from a Little Nemo in Slumberland comic strip drawing by Winsor McCay, boy in bed wearing pajamas
Little Nemo in Slumberland comic drawing by Winsor McCay, boy walking on stilts with clowns

Little Nemo in Slumberland
Winsor McCay 
Unknown Date c. 1905-1914
Public Domain Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Little Nemo in Slumberland
Winsor McCay
November 26, 1905
Public Domain Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Little Nemo in Slumberland comic drawing by Winsor McCay, flying boy with giant turkey, 11-26-1905
Little Nemo in Slumberland comic drawing by Winsor McCay, man in the moon dream

Little Nemo in Slumberland 
Winsor McCay
Unknown Date c. 1905-1914
Public Domain Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Winsor McCay based the character of Little Nemo on his own son, Robert. Robert sometimes dressed as Nemo for pictures and at events like the Actors Benefit for Crippled Children pictured here. 

Winsor McCay, in light colored suit and hat sketching at charity event with son wearing a sash reading, "Nemo"

Winsor McCay sketches at the Actors Benefit for Crippled Children with his son, Robert 
1908
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., 20540 USA
Public Domain Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

5

Did you

Know?

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Winsor McCay Helped Invent

Animated Movies! 

As Winsor McCay became more famous, he started performing live shows where he would draw pictures for an audience. He liked performing and wanted to keep surprising his audience with new things to see. 

 

Around this time, silent movies were brand new. They were usually about 10-20 minutes long and were live-action. McCay had an idea to make a short film of his drawings. He drew thousands of pictures. Then he took a picture of each drawing and put them together in order. The result was similar to a stop motion video or a flipbook.
 

Have you ever made your own flipbook?

Grab a notebook and try it out! 

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Still from Little Nemo short film featuring Winsor McCay drawing in his studio
1911
Public Domain Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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Winsor McCay had a Trained Pet Dinosaur!

Ok, he didn’t really have a trained pet dinosaur. Winsor McCay created a cartoon dinosaur named Gertie. Gertie was a friendly, plant-eating dinosaur that was trained to do tricks. McCay created a short animated film of Gertie and showed it to audiences as part of his live stage act. 

Illustrated advertisement poster for film, Gertie the Dinosaur by Winsor McCay, Large dinosaur with car with people on head

Advertisement Poster for Gertie the Dinosaur film

1914

Public Domain

In his performance, McCay stood on the stage and pretended to talk to Gertie telling her to do tricks. Towards the end of the performance, he walked off stage and “appeared” in cartoon form in the film. Gertie carried the cartoon McCay around in her mouth as the final trick. You can see the film for yourself! 

Gertie the Dinosaur

Winsor McCay

1914

If you had a trained dinosaur, what kind of tricks would you teach them? 

6

What do you think?

Winsor McCay’s Characters Live On!

Little Nemo and Gertie the Dinosaur became Winsor McCay’s most popular characters. Nemo has appeared in several plays, books, and movies. McCay made a short animated film about Nemo and his friends in 1911. In the 1990s, Nemo appeared in the movie, Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland. There was also a Nintendo game called Little Nemo: The Dream Master released in 1990.

 

Walt Disney was a teenager when he first saw Gertie the Dinosaur. He never forgot Gertie or McCay’s part in inventing animated films. Walt Disney paid tribute to McCay and his dinosaur by naming an ice cream shop after Gertie at his Disney World park.
 

Ice cream shop shaped like a plant eating dinosaur in a theme park. Dinosaur Gertie's Ice Cream of Extinction at Disney's Hollywood Studios

Dinosaur Gertie’s Ice Cream of Extinction in Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Theme Park Tourist
2016

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Winsor McCay Used His Imagination to Create Cool Stuff, and You Can Too!

Winsor McCay proved that there are many ways to be successful. Instead of going into business like his father wanted, McCay made a career out of his art and his playful imagination.

Want more of Nemo and Gertie? Download these coloring pages

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nemo coloring page.png
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