Caspar Milquetoast, with the head of his family.


Medium: Newspaper panel
Published by: New York World
First Appeared: 1924
Creator: H.T. Webster
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Cartoonist H.T. Webster's most famous protagonist was such a wuss, he'd buy a new hat when the one he was wearing got blown onto a patch of ground protected by …

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… a "Keep Off the Grass" sign. A sign reading "Watch This Space" could render him motionless for hours. He'd rather look at the column holding up the museum's ceiling, than an abstract statue that the guide book says is of a nude. He was the original Caspar Milquetoast — literally. Caspar Milquetoast was his name, and anybody else who ever used it, got it from him.

Starting in 1912, when he was in his mid-20s, Harold Tucker Webster drew a daily panel for The New York Tribune, under a variety of titles — Our Boyhood Ambitions, Life's Darkest Moment, The Unseen Audience … he'd rotate them according to subject matter. His humor seemed gentle, but often that was only an illusion — sometimes it truly stung, to the point where he was often called "The Mark Twain of American cartoonists". In 1924, he moved his cluster of series to The New York World.

It was near the beginning of his stay at the World that he added The Timid Soul to the mix, and with it, its wimpy star. The name is clearly derived from the word "milktoast", i.e., toast soaked in milk, which is usually fed to invalids. Milktoast is only slightly chewier than milksop, which is the same except the bread isn't toasted, and spineless persons have been called milksops for centuries. Years later, Webster described Mr. Milquetoast as "the man who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick".

The Timid Soul alternated with Poker Portraits, How to Torture Your Wife and Webster's other daily offerings, until 1931, when the World folded. That same year, Simon & Schuster brought out the only collection of Timid Soul reprints. Webster then brought the whole melange back where it started, which had since become The New York Herald-Tribune. There, he added a Sunday page of The Timid Soul alone, where his hapless hero's plight could be explored in greater depth. That feature continued until Webster's death in 1952, and for about a year thereafter — Webster's long-time assistant, Herb Roth, continued it until his own death, in 1953, but after that it passed into history.

Mr. Milquetoast was never pushy enough to get into movies and stuff except slightly, sort of, he did it in a Caspar Milquetoast kind of way. On June 22, 1949, the Dumont TV network (the "fourth" network of early American television) made "The Timid Soul", with character actor Ernest Truex playing Caspar, the premiere presentation of its Program Playhouse series. Or would-be series, at any rate — there wasn't a second. Today, the network itself is scarcely remembered, let alone any one-episode wonders that might have flitted across it.

That was the extent of his media penetration, unless you count the English language. That other Mr. Webster, the one who makes dictionaries, confirms that the word "milquetoast", meaning a very shy or retiring person, is indeed derived from H.T. Webster's cartoons. The American Heritage Dictionary says it's been a lower-case noun since the mid-1930s.

The Timid Soul is very seldom seen today, but along with Blondie (Dagwood sandwich), Superman (Bizarro) and Keeping Up with the Joneses, it's a member of a very select company — toons that have enriched our language itself.


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Text ©2002-03 Donald D. Markstein. Art © New York World.