"Peanuts" Turns 70

By Stephanie Campbell, MLIS

This fall marked the 70th anniversary of “Peanuts,” arguably the most popular comic in history. You may colloquialize it as “Charlie Brown” or “Snoopy.” Its creator, Charles M. Schulz, certainly did, as he hated the name “Peanuts.”

It’s impossible to separate the work from the man, since Schulz was the only one to ever draw Peanuts, from its late-1940s inception as “Li’L Folks” in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, to worldwide syndication when it ended in 2000, some 17,000 strips later.

Schulz, a Minnesota native, claimed he knew he wanted to be a cartoonist from the time he was six years old, which was fitting given his nickname was “Sparky,” from the horse character named Spark Plug in the “Barney Google” comic strip.

As a senior in high school, Schulz completed a correspondence course with the Federal School of Applied Cartooning (now Art Instruction, Inc.). After being drafted and serving in the Army during World War II, he worked at the school and honed his craft.

In 1950, Schulz signed with United Feature Syndicate, and his new strip made its October debut in seven newspapers nationwide. Unfortunately, another earlier comic strip had a too-similar name (“Little Folks”), so “Li’L Folks” was renamed “Peanuts” by an editor, recalling the “Peanut Gallery” from the popular television show Howdy Doody.

According to the Charles M. Schulz Museum website, “Peanuts” was characterized by “concise drawings of precocious children with large heads who interacted with words and actions well beyond their years.”

Many main characters were inspired by real people. Some thought Charlie Brown was based on Schulz himself and Snoopy on a childhood dog. The latter was true. But Schulz always denied that he was Charlie Brown, though they shared similar traits. Lucy was originally a toddler and based on Schulz’s stepdaughter. Linus and Shermy were named for good friends, and Peppermint Patty was inspired by a cousin of Schulz.

While Snoopy may have started out as Charlie Brown’s dog, he became something else entirely, with thought bubbles eventually giving way to words. Schulz said, “I don’t know how he got to walking…” when trying to explain Snoopy’s transformation from four-legged pet to two-legged wunderkind.

“Peanuts” became immensely popular by the mid-1960s, spawning dozens of television specials, balloons in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and musical theater. And soon enough, Snoopy was everywhere from NASA to MetLife (he was a "spokesbeagle” for the latter).

Who knew Snoopy was apparently a divisive character, as evidenced in this 2015 article in “The Atlantic.” Who knew! Famous for his flights of fancy, Snoopy was considered by some fans to be a showboat who stole attention from the other characters.

Despite its near-universal appeal, “Peanuts” was also acclaimed for its artwork and respected for its groundbreaking social commentary.

As the “Atlantic” Snoopy article indicates, the bleak themes and sharp wit in Peanuts were unusual, almost an antidote to the meek and mild 1950s when it debuted. Later, characters were added and molded to reflect the times. Of course girls can play sports, and it’s natural for black and white children to play together. Feminism, the environment, politics, racial equality, school prayer, and many other topics were touched upon. The Schulz Museum and others have highlighted “Peanuts’” significance with exhibitions, as related in this BBC article.

Ultimately, the “Peanuts” gang is a conglomerate of its creator. Schulz said that everything you could ever want to know about him could be found in the strip: his love of ice skating, classical music, and art; his experience in World War II; and, of course, spirituality.

“Peanuts” was also decidedly a family affair. Schulz alone did the comics until the strip was retired in 2000. And Bill Melendez did the animations (also voicing Snoopy and Woodstock) for all of the television specials and full-length movies up to his death in 2008. At many times over the years, there were talks of non-animated movies, but Schulz and his family always refused, believing they could never do the artwork justice. However, Schulz’s son and grandson teamed up on the 2015 movie to introduce “Peanuts” to a new generation of viewers and fans. They decided that rather than wait for someone else to do it wrong, they would make sure it got done right.

We’ve only scratched the surface of the impact and legacy of this comic on popular culture over the past 70 years. This list can serve as a great start in making sure your library is capturing some of that “Peanuts” magic.