Uncle Wiggily books & toys: A look back at this popular children’s storybook star of long ago

Uncle Wiggly and His Friends book

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Who exactly was Uncle Wiggily — and why was he so famous when our grandparents and great-grandparents were learning to read?

You can get the details in the articles below, but starting in 1910, and for more than three decades, Howard R Garis wrote “Uncle Wiggily” stories six days a week for The Newark News in New Jersey. He lived to see nearly 80 Uncle Wiggily books based on his characters published in his lifetime.

The original “Uncle Wiggily and His Friends” book came out in 1939, and the edition of this popular children’s book featured below was published in 1955.

Below you will find a sampling of pages with cartoon illustrations from the book, along with more information to help answer the question: Who was Uncle Wiggily?

Uncle Wiggily, star of Christmases past (1974)

By Dolores Quinlisk – The Wichita Beacon (Kansas) December 25, 1974

Wichita likes to think of itself as a modern, sophisticated city. But how can it claim to be so, when you can’t even find a single Uncle Wiggily game within its entire confines? More than a dozen stores visited — no luck.

Don’t local merchants know that generations of Americans had their first contact with competition, the laws of chance and probability, the excitement of the chase by playing Uncle Wiggily?

Imagine learning to cope with the world if you’ve never had the experience of taking five steps and falling into the alligator’s pond. Or the joy of landing at the candy store?

Not to mention the character-building experience of learning how to cope with the threat of ending up in the Pisgah’s den. Or finding yourself in the hen house with the fox (or something like that —  memory begins to fade a hit on some of the more explicit details).

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Vintage Uncle Wiggily game board

Where’s Uncle Wiggily now?

But, the one-time importance of Uncle Wiggily in one’s life does not fade — the memory of its position of central prominence in one’s growing-up period is still clear and unmistakable.

How can the toymakers of America expect that anyone’s 2-1/2-year-old granddaughter can ever make it to adulthood with the proper attitude unless she has Uncle Wiggily to guide her?

What is particularly disturbing — and a clear sign of the state of our decline — is when a young voice answers our eleventy-third inquiry to a local store with: “Uncle Wiggily — what’s Uncle Wiggily? I don’t think we’ve ever had that.”

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Vintage Uncle Wiggily game from Parker Brothers

Horrors! What’s happened to the new generation? I know it was just a few months ago that I saw Uncle Wiggily alive and well on the toy department shelves. There just was no occasion to buy one then.

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Now, with Christmas here, it is of the utmost urgency and there is not one to be found. If that wasn’t enough to spoil one’s shopping for a granddaughter, it’s also impossible to find any Thornton Burgess books on the shelves.

Uncle Wiggily books

The world of childhood cannot be complete unless one numbers among one’s friends, Danny Meadow Mouse, Reddy Fox, Buster Bear, Grandfather Frog and Peter Cottontail. It’s a rare day even when one encounters a book about snow ice cream and bobsledding on Blueberry Island.

The only realities that seem to have survived the ravages of time and skepticism are Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore and Tigger.

They seem to be enjoying something of a renaissance, in fact, in this blase, pragmatic and technocratic society of 1974.

Instead of electric football, ballistic missiles, stockbroker games with their bull-and-bear markets, one gets rather nostalgic at Christmas time for the old world of childhood that was filled with magic and mystery.

The Little Golden Book of Uncle Wiggily cover art (1953)

Howard R. Gais: Author of Uncle Wiggily Books (1916)

From The Daily New Era (Lancaster, Pennsylvania) December 23, 1916

Howard R. Garis, author of the “Uncle Wiggily Longears Bedtime Stories”, has been for twenty years a newspaper reporter, and is on the staff of the Newark (N.J.) Evening News, with which he has been associated since 1896. He has written many books for older boys and girls, as well as for children.

The wife of Mr. Garis writes stories for girls, his boy, though only fifteen years old, has started to write a “novel,” and his little girl, aged eleven, has begun to draw pictures of Uncle Wiggily chasing Susie Littletail, the rabbit girl, around the block on her roller skates.

The first stories about Uncle Wiggily were published in the News about seven years ago, and have appeared in that paper ever since.

“Some time ago the tales attracted so much attention that other publications began using them, until now they are published in more than two score papers all over the United States.”

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Mr. Garis was born in Binghamton, N. Y. in 1873, and began writing when about sixteen years old. His most successful work has been animal stories for children on the style of Uncle Wiggily, Johnnie and Billie Bushytail, the squirrels, and other furry, finny, and feathered folk have been added to the list, until now Uncle Wiggily’s family is large enough to occupy more than twenty books. 

The author lives in Newark, New Jersey, in the winter, but every summer he goes to the mountains, country or seashore to learn something new about the birds, fishes or animals, so he may write more stories about them.

Uncle Wiggily & His Friends vintage book (1955)

Vintage Uncle Wiggily and His Friends book cover (2)

Vintage Uncle Wiggily and His Friends book cover (1)

Vintage “Uncle Wiggily and His Friends” book cover (1939)

uncle-wiggly-friends-book-1950s (4)

“Uncle Wiggily and the Canoe” poem (1939)

Excerpt from “Uncle Wiggily and His Friends” book:

“I wish I had a canoe
Like this birch bark one, do you?
Best of all, I like the sails
Made of furry squirrel tails.
Froggie, waving from the shore,
Wishes they had room for more.”

Pages from vintage Uncle Wiggily and His Friends book (4)

Uncle Wiggily and the Barber (1939)

One day Uncle Wiggily Longears started out for a ride in his automobile. It had a turnip steering wheel that he could nibble on when he was hungry.

Nurse Jane Fuzzy Wuzzy, the muskrat lady housekeeper asked: “Why are you taking your rheumatism crutch along, Uncle Wiggily? You won’t need it when you are in the automobile.”

“Oh, you never can tell,” answered the rabbit gentleman. “I might want to get out and walk for a while.”

So away went Uncle Wiggily in his auto, with the red, white and blue striped crutch, like a barber’s pole, on the seat beside him.

The rabbit gentleman rode on and on, and pretty soon he came to a place where there was a little shop, made from corn-cobs. In front of the corn-cob shop was a nice monkey barber gentleman, and a little poodle dog.

The little poodle dog was singing this happy song:

“Barber, barber, shave a pig, I low many hairs will make a wig? Four and twenty — that’s enough. Give the barber a pinch of snuff.”

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Pages from vintage Uncle Wiggily and His Friends book (2)

Pages from vintage Uncle Wiggilyand His Friends book (3)

Pages from vintage Uncle Wiggilyand His Friends book (9)

Pages from vintage Uncle Wiggly and His Friends book (1)

Pages from vintage Uncle Wiggilyand His Friends book (7)

Pages from vintage Uncle Wiggilyand His Friends book (8)

Antique Uncle Wiggily paper doll hat game (1919)

Uncle Wiggily wants to take a trip, but he can’t go without his hat — “Put a hat on Uncle Wiggily”!

Antique Uncle Wiggily paper doll hat game

Antique Uncle Wiggily paper doll hat toy game

“Uncle Wiggily” Creator dies at 89 (1963)

By Richard Servero — The Minneapolis Star (Minneapolis, Minnesota) November 8, 1962

It was a quiet day in the city room of the Newark (N.J.) Evening News, and Publisher Edward M. Scudder dreamed up a rather unusual assignment for a 36-vear-old police reporter named Howard Garis.

“Howard,” he said, “I want you to write some bedtime stories about rabbits.”

That assignment — back in 1910 — created a bright-eyed bunny named Uncle Wiggily for generations of children and brought fame and fortune for reporter Garis.

Mr. Garis died in a hospital here Monday at the age of 89. There is reason to believe, however, that the gentleman rabbit he created will survive him by many years.

Uncle Wiggily was a hit from the very first. Uncle Wiggily, Nurse Jane Fuzzy Wuzzy and their home in Hollow Stump were soon bywords for children across the country. The stories were later carried by 75 newspapers.

During his career of more than half a century, Mr. Garis wrote more than 400 children’s books and 15,000 stories.

Under the pen name of Victor Appleton, he wrote many of the early “Tom Swift” books, after Tom was dreamed up by Edward Stratemeyer. He also wrote the Curlytop, Buddy, Teddy and Dick Hamilton series under his own name.

But it was Uncle Wiggily who was most beloved, both by the children who read about him and by Mr. Garis, who soon began taking long hikes to learn more about animal lore.

Mr. Garis recalled later that he got the idea for an Uncle Wiggily “personality” when, while walking in the woods, he saw what he called “a sedate but friendly looking old rabbit sitting upright with the utmost dignity” behind a log.

After Uncle Wiggily’s popularity made it possible, Mr. Garris left the News to devote all his time to his creation. He returned to the newspaper in 1935, doing both special features and general reporting. He retired for good in 1947.

Every April, his friends and relatives would go up to Amherst, Mass., to celebrate two birthdays — Mr. Garis’ and Uncle Wiggily’s.

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That same day’s Editorial: “Meet Uncle, Children”

It was disappointing to discover that the Star’s library had no pictures of Uncle Wiggily, whose “father,” Howard Garis, died Monday. But when it developed that our Minneapolis Public Library not only had no Uncle Wiggily book, nor any record of ever having had one, well… !!

Surely in this age of galloping urbanization, there is more need than ever for moppets increasingly alienated from nature to make the acquaintance of this kindly, friendly, ageless rabbit.

Through Wiggily and his animal friends and their fascinating adventures, Garis taught some principles of humane (as distinguished from merely human) conduct which we like to think had lasting effect.

In order that today’s moppets may also meet Uncle Wiggily, some of the more mature (as opposed to aging) members of the editorial page staff are contributing a copy of “Uncle Wiggily’s Story Book” to the Minneapolis Public Library.

Vintage Uncle Wiggily book illustration

Roger Garis of that “Wiggily” family tree (1966)

By Ellen Goodman — Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan) November 6, 1966

Roger Garis either has the fuzziest ears in the country or he’s a liar. How could his father possibly have been Uncle Wiggily? Everyone knows that Uncle Wiggily was an elderly gentleman rabbit with a high hat, cane and ingenuity.

But, there it is, in red print, on the cover of his new book, “My Father Was Uncle Wiggily.’’

The small print tells the truth. He’s only a fibber, actually. His father wasn’t Uncle Wiggily, but was Howard R. Garis, the creator of the rabbit character, and he lived, not in a hollow stump house, but in a fiction factory.

The Garis family, working as a one man industry, wrote a total of over 1,000 books. When Howard Garis died at 89 in 1962, he had written 15,000 short stories, starring old Longears.

He had also whipped off a goodly number of Tom Swifts and some Motor boys; in another room, his wife penned The Bobbsey Twins, the Motor Girls, and his son and daughter contributed their fair number of manuscripts.

In fact, chances are that any juvenile popular during the 20s and 30s was a Garis creation.

Now Roger Garis has penned an affectionate, yet truthful, biography of his rather unusual father and family.

Antique book - Uncle Wiggily in Wonderland (1921)

He tells of his father who was an incurable liar and optimist, and his mother, an incurable realist prone to jealous headaches.

After flunking out of two trade schools, and working on printing presses and railroad yards, Howard Garis was hired as a reporter on The Newark News.

There, he’s credited with the famous cub reporter legend:

Garis was sent out to cover a political rally, but returned disconsolately to the office without a story. When his editor asked him why, he replied, ‘‘There wasn’t any meeting. It broke up in a fight.”

The news eventually forgave him, and Garis continued to write for them days and for himself nights, building a large repertory of children’s books, including the Tom Swifts.

But in 1910, The News asked him to create a character for a daily children’s story series. This was Uncle Wiggily who was promptly joined by Skeezicks, the Pipsiewah, and the other Bad Chaps.

With Uncle Wiggily came fame, and according to the author, his father reveled in it.

He turned out the Wiggily stories at a rate of half a dozen a sitting. According to his son, part of his speed was his ability to live the fiction as he wrote it.

When he was writing an Uncle Wiggily story, he became the elderly gentleman rabbit. Therein lies his son’s conviction — one matched by thousands of adoring children — that Howard Garis was Uncle Wiggily himself.

In later years after the son of Uncle Wiggily had deserted juvenile writing for adult fiction and playwriting, a professor and friend told him:

“You know I think there must be something wrong with a person who devotes so much of his life writing about a rabbit, don’t you?”’

No. He doesn’t.

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