Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Little Gert, Big Deal

Three local historians spoke at the Grand Rapids Public Library as part of an Greater Grand Rapids Women's History Council event last month—profiling the Berkey & Gay factory girls and the first woman on the Kent County Commission, Grace Ames Van Hoesen. 

The third speaker, Drew Damron, a local librarian, historian and cartoonist, spoke about Gertrude Van Houten, one of the first female cartoonists in the nation–and the first to cartoon for a local audience. 

I had never heard of "Gert", but I figured I would be able to Google her when I got home and find a whole history and archive of her work. But, wow, the only information available seems to be as it relates to Drew Damron and June's speaker event. Looks like Damron may have a market for some very niche Grand Rapids history.* 

Here's what I learned about Gert. Gertrude Van Houten started work at The Grand Rapids Press in 1917 and quickly became a local celebrity. Her work often appeared on the front page of the paper and touched on a broad range of local, societal, and political topics. 

In the corner of every cartoon, Gert added "Little Gert", who often added a punchline or quip to the frame. The mark became well known locally and the character was later used to endorse retail products.  

Grand Rapids Press – 10/31/1918

During World War I, Gert was sent to Washington DC to draw on location and to keep Grand Rapids informed of wartime developments. After returning to Grand Rapids, she worked at The Chronicle, owned by George Walsh, and later began a career in advertising and fashion illustration. 

The Interpreter - 1970s

Gert's other local claim to acclaim, is designing (not sculpting) the John Ball statue at the John Ball Zoo entrance. For this design, she was paid $20 (in the 1920s... about $250 today).

Eventually, Gert left Michigan, living in New York and California for a time before returning to Grand Rapids in 1970 at the age of 80 and once again, working for George Walsh at The Interpreter.

I hope Damron continues to explore Gert's life and someday offers Grand Rapids a more extensive retrospective. Without his curiosity, this amazing career may have been lost to the archives.

*Damron does currently have a booklet on Gert available for purchase.

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