Harrison Cady: A Famous Relative, Co-Creator of “Peter Cottontail”

Today a tip of the hat to an inspirational relative of mine whose existence filled me with pride as a child and told me that it was possible to come from a humble place and make a name for oneself with whimsical art, the influential illustrator and cartoonist Harrison Cady (Walter Harrison Cady, 1877-1970).

Cady was my great-grandfather’s first cousin and the son of a storekeep and town selectman in Gardner, Massachusettes, about a half hour north of Worcester. (A selectman is like an alderman, an official on the town’s governing board. My grandfather held the same position in his own town). Encouraged in his inclination to pursue art, Cady had his first work published at age 17 in Harper’s Young People magazine. At 19 he was hired by the staff of the Brooklyn Eagle, supporting himself and his widowed mother in an apartment on Bank Street in Greenwich Village. From the Eagle, he joined the staff of Life Magazine.

From 1906 through 1908 Cady illustrated Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Queen Silver Bell books (there were four in the series). Burnett is of course better remembered for her works Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Little Princess, and The Secret Garden.

Then, in 1910, the move that brought Cady his greatest lasting fame, faded though it has become among the wider public. He teamed up with children’s author Thornton W. Burgess (originally from Sandwich Massachusetts) to create the Old Mother West Wind Stories…the great legacy of which you surely know, for it is the name Peter Cottontail. To backtrack a little, the pair created a whole constellation of animal characters for these stories, the most notable of which was one Peter Rabbit (whose name obviously was appropriated from Beatrix Potter’s very different books). In one of the pair’s stories in 1914 (The Adventures of Peter Cottontail), Peter went through a phase where he was getting full of himself and changed his name to the more pompous-sounding Peter Cottontail, and that is where the handle originated. In an act of karmic justice, in 1949 Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins, authors of the song “Frosty the Snowman” borrowed the name for an Easter song, which was later at the center of the 1971 Rankin-Bass Holiday Special.

Cady and Burgess created scores of books together through Burgess’s death in 1965. When I was in high school, I performed in a stage adaptation of their stories. I told one of my friends that I was related to one of the creators, but he didn’t believe me! In fact, this is the character I played in that show:

Later, when I was a film student at NYU I was thrilled to learn from Professor John Cannemaker, that Cady was an influence on the young Walt Disney.

In 1920, Cady also began creating a syndicated comic strip based on the series, called Peter Rabbit. The strip was extremely popular — he produced it through 1948, at which point he handed it off to Vince Fago, whe drew it for another decade. There was also a comic book made from the books and the strip. This, by the way, was not Cady’s first comic strip. From 1912 through 1914 he had created his first syndicated strip Jolly Jumpers, about which more here:

In 1915, aged 37 and pretty well heeled by now, he married Melinna Eldredge of Brooklyn, the daughter of a wholesale fish dealer whose family originally came from Mystic, Connecticut.

In 1931, the pair embarked on a grand European tour, taking in London, Paris, Brussels, Rome and Venice (above).

In addition to his collaborations with Burgess, Cady also authored several of his own children’s books, and illustrated for magazines like Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and Boys Life. He died in 1970 and was buried with his wife and her family in Mystic, Connecticut. I can’t help noticing that a few months later was when the Peter Cottontail Easter special was produced! And this was around the very same time when at age six I was given my first copies of his books and informed of my most distinguished relative.

There is timely news to report! In October 2020, Beehive Books published Madness in Crowds, The Teeming Mind of Harrison Cady, the first ever comprehensive book on Cady’s work, authored by undergound artist Denis Kitchen and his daughter Violet Kitchen, also an artist, with an introduction by underground artist Gary Panter (best known for his Emmy-winning sets for Peewee’s Playhouse). I couldn’t be prouder. You can get your copy here.