Guest WTF Thursday: Kevin Mutch on Dingbat Calendars

As I get (even) older, I have a little hobby where I try to track down dimly remembered bits and pieces from when I was a boy – a list of books mostly, but also drawings, movies, and so on – things that left a deep impression on me but which I can’t recall with clarity. Some of them have been easy to track down thanks to Google, but others have eluded me for years.

One of the hardest nuts to crack has been this memory: as a little kid in Winnipeg, whenever my mother would take me to see our pediatrician I’d be entranced by some posters he had on his office wall — richly detailed fairytale style paintings of a bunch of elves or gremlins all doing funny things. I tried googling “old elf paintings” or “old fairy tale illustrations” and assorted other permutations for years and years, and never found the images.

Then, last weekend, my wife and I were at the fantastic antique market in Aberfoyle, Ontario and in a ramshackle booth, sitting in a dusty frame, was one of these long-sought pictures! Much more recent (from the 80’s) and therefor a lot less charming, but unquestionably the same characters: according to the title, they were called the “Dingbats.” I wrote down the name and googled it as soon as I got home — and, on the website of the Niagara Apothecary Pharmacy Museum, I finally found out the story of the paintings and why they’d be in a Canadian doctor’s office but almost nowhere else.

The end of the story — the explanation for why they were ultimately discontinued — is classically Canadian. “From 1915 until 1996, health professionals all across Canada received a calendar which featured the healing efforts of the Dingbats. Charles Edward Frosst founded the Canadian company that bore his name until 1965 when it was taken over by a major American manufacturer to become Merck-Frosst.

Charles Frosst engaged the artist, William Dudley Burnett Ward, to paint an appealing calendar for distribution to his firm’s audience. Over the course of 81 years there have been a long succession of artists following Ward… The Dingbat calendars were discontinued as a result of a Canadian industry’s association decision that the Dingbat promotion was unfair competition.”

More info and images here and here.

Kevin Mutch is a cartoonist, digital artist, and painter from Winnipeg, Canada. He received an MFA in painting from the University of Victoria. His graphic novel Fantastic Life received a Xeric Award in 2010 and was excerpted in The Best American Comics 2011. His second graphic novel, The Rough Pearl, was published by Fantagraphics in 2020.

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