Charles Ellms: A 19th Century Giant of American Comics History

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Until fairly recently, not much was known about Comic Almanack and Comic Token publisher Charles Ellms. That's a shame, because Ellms played a brief but pivotal role in American comics history.  Almanacs had been a staple of life in North American since the 17th century, but it was Charles Ellms who expanded upon the almanac's contents to include significant amounts of humor and cartoon art for a mass audience. Ellms's  The Comic Token for 1835 and The American Comic Almanack for 1831 (considered by many as the first true Comic Almanack) are in this week's Amazing Pulps and Collectibles Auction featuring the Joe Rainone Collection at Heritage Auctions.

The American Comic Almanack for 1831, published by Charles Ellms.
The American Comic Almanack for 1831, published by Charles Ellms.

The Almanacs published both in America and elsewhere had contained some comic art for long before this, but it was Ellms who in 1830 shifted the focus of such publications from the Almanac to the comic. His were more in the style of a joke book, and contained many more illustrations. "The 19th century was transitional, and many American publishers tried to adapt the almanac to suit their changing world," according to publishing history scholar and UT Austin professor Michael Winship. "Some chose to target their almanacs to specific audiences, others expanded their almanacs into annual compendia of statistics and information thought suitable for busy urban audiences. Yet others turned their almanacs into vehicles for entertainment. This last was what Charles Ellm's pioneered in 1830. Ellm's originalality was to use a traditional genre for a new purpose."

Ellms's publishing endeavors did not last long (a classic case of an innovator not being a great businessman, it would appear), but they made their mark. According to Winship, his Comic Almanac of 1834 reached a circulation of 150,000 copies. He was widely and almost immediately imitated, and it is likely that the historically important Crockett Almanacs were influenced by Ellms.  The famous Crockett's Almanac 1848 "Superbaby" issue is also available in this auction.

I would highly recommend giving Winship's lecture on Ellms recorded in 1996 a listen. It's clear that he has a love for the material.  And so do I.  If you don't buy The Comic Token for 1835 and The American Comic Almanack for 1831 in this week's Amazing Pulps and Collectibles Auction featuring the Joe Rainone Collection at Heritage Auctions, I certainly will.

The Comic Token for 1835 (Charles Ellms, 1835). "A Companion to the Comic Almanac". Publisher's printed self-wrappers. Stitched. Stain to bottom half runs throughout; the book is complete. In Fair condition.

The American Comic Almanack (Charles Ellms, 1831). Sewn thread binding. Complete.

The American Comic Almanack for 1831, published by Charles Ellms.
The American Comic Almanack for 1831, published by Charles Ellms.

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About Mark Seifert

Co-founder and Creative director of Bleeding Cool parent company Avatar Press. Bleeding Cool Managing Editor, tech and data wrangler. Machine Learning hobbyist. Vintage paper addict.
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