Before we had the Web to amuse us with its endless supply of photographs and videos of kittens and cats, people around the world eagerly turned to the funny pages of their daily newspapers to follow the antics of a dog. His name was Snoopy, and this white beagle with a black nose and tail (he originally had a black spot on his back, too) was just one of the characters populating the Peanuts comic strip, created in 1950 by a St. Paul, Minnesota, cartoonist named Charles M. Schulz. Running from October 2, 1950, to February 13, 2000, the strip was published by more than 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries, at one point boasting a daily readership of more than 355 million, which is a Web-scale number well before its time.
The Peanuts gang, as they are usually called, grew out of an even earlier strip called Li’l Folks, which ran in the St. Paul Pioneer Press from 1947 to 1950, the year Peanuts was born. That first year, the characters were limited to Charlie Brown, Shermy, Patty, and Snoopy, whose first appearance was on October 4, 1950, two days after the strip’s debut on October 2. Other early characters from the 1950s included Schroeder, who played Beethoven on a toy piano; Lucy, who dispensed psychiatric advice for a nickel; Linus, who carried his security blanket everywhere; Pig-Pen, who moved through the world in a cloud of dust; and Charlie Brown’s little sister, Sally, who was in love with Linus. No adults are ever seen in the strip, making it a kid’s world on kid’s terms.
The 1950s laid the foundation for Peanuts, both in terms of its growth as an enterprise and the development of its characters and austere look (Schulz rarely bothered to pencil in backgrounds behind his squat, round-headed subjects). To encourage the former, Peanuts appeared in numerous comic books, from a handful of issues of United Comics (also known as Fritzi Ritz) to numerous issues of Sparkle, Tip Top (issue 188 featured a Peanuts cover), and Tip Topper, all published by United. Dell also published a number of Peanuts four-colors, including the highly sought Dell 878 from 1958, which featured Charlie Brown watching television from a green easy chair (with Snoopy poking his head from under the chair’s seat cushion.
In fact, television is what broadened the strip’s popularity when, in December of 1965, the first of six Peanuts animated television specials in the 1960s aired. Titled “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the show continued the surprisingly adult themes of the strip (in particular, Charlie Brown’s struggles with depression) and introduced overtly religious content in the form of Linus reciting passages from the New Testament. The special even featured a jazz soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi. The whole thing should have been a flop, but half of all United States households with television sets tuned in, making it one of the most watched programs of the decade, winning an Emmy and a Peabody.
Schultz’s reality-based whimsy was soon the stuff of school lunch boxes (some rectangular, others domed to resemble Snoopy’s dog house), character dolls, jigsaw puzzles, and record players. Rubber squeeze dolls manufactured by Hungerford had been around since the late 1950s, when Charlie Brown’s head was still more of an oval than a circle. By the time Boucher started producing vinyl Peanuts dolls in the mid-1960s, though, the geometry had gotten more circular. Other early Peanuts products include toy drums, musical buses, and tin lithographed battery-operated space ships featuring Snoopy as a helmeted astronaut (albeit with a hole in the front to accommodate the dog’s protruding profile).