Nell Brinkley was a prolific illustrator and cartoonist. In the early 20th century, she was recruited to the Hearst syndicate by founder William Randolph Hearst and editor Arthur Brisbane, moving from Denver to New York City in 1907.
By 1908, Brinkley’s illustrations had already made quite an impact on readers. She was widely recognized for her Brinkley Girls, illustrations that featured everyday women and working girls. These women quickly replaced Charles Gibson’s Gibson Girls, which were illustrations mainly featuring women who depicted the feminine ideal. Where Gibson Girls were always fashionable and depicted impossible standards, the Brinkley Girl was still feminine, but more independent.
Brinkley used the Brinkley Girls to get across a feminist message. One of her most iconic pieces, The Three Graces, features three women representing the three American ideals of Suffrage, Preparedness, and Americanism. They quickly permeated various forms of American media with mentions in music and in the Ziegfeld Follies (a theatre production).
Fans of Brinkley Girls would style themselves after the Girls with wild curls in their hair. They would also collect cards with their images. The reach of the Brinkley Girl was so high that Bloomingdale’s department store would hold Nell Brinkley Days, with advertisements featuring Brinkley’s work and Nell Brinkley Hair Curlers.
Her other works were serialized illustrations such as Golden Eyes and Her Hero Bill, Kathleen and the Great Secret, and Betty and Billy–Their Love Through the Ages. These titles were short comics that developed a story over the course of publication. One of her last works, published in 1937, was called Heroines of Today, and highlighted contemporary heroes. After this, she retired from the news business, providing illustrations mainly for books. Her lengthy career earned her the title the Queen of Comics before her death in 1944.
In addition to illustration, Brinkley was also a talented writer, covering stories for the New York Journal, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, and Harper’s Magazine. She famously covered several murder trials, providing both stories and illustration, another thing that put her in the public eye. Brinkley’s career diminished with the growing popularity of photography, which replaced illustration in newspapers. Her legacy has also been somewhat overshadowed by the Gibson Girls, despite the popularity of the Brinkley Girls. However, Brinkley’s work lives on as an early example of women in comics, and the feminist tone to her work encouraged women to work and fight for equality.
Fantagraphics collected her works from 1913 to 1940 in a book titled The Brinkley Girls.