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First woman to be local cartoonist from Grand Rapids

Gertrude Van Houten was a local celebrity during the 1920s & 1930s, and she was almost lost to history.
A suffrage cartoon by Gert Van Houten

A suffrage cartoon by Gert Van Houten /Grand Rapids Press (10/31/1918)

Underwriting support from:

Gert, Grace and the Berkey & Gay Girls: Women, War & Work in 1910s Grand Rapids

Co-sponsored by the Greater Grand Rapids Women's History Council
Thursday, June 2, 2016, 7:00 pm
Grand Rapids Public Library, Ryerson Auditorium, 3rd Floor

Gert Van Houten, age 26, looking at a statuette of Little Gert

Gert Van Houten, age 26, looking at a statuette of Little Gert /Grand Rapids Press (11/16/1917)

Little Gert at the drawing board

Little Gert at the drawing board /The Interpreter (1970s)

Gertrude Van Houten, known to her readers as 'Gert', is the first known female cartoonist in the nation who made cartoons about a specific locale. As Grand Rapids citizens, we are extremely lucky that she chose to make our city her subject since 1917. Gert had the pulse on a broad range of topics, beginning in the Jazz age, which included everything from ice skating on Reeds Lake, politics and gossip, what it was like to ride the streetcars, recent efforts at the local Red Cross, pranks at a luncheon, fashion trends, high society, and so much more. Her first cartoon appeared in the Grand Rapids Press on January 15, 1917, and her work continued to appear on the front page of the paper every two to three days. Not only was it rare for a woman to have space for her cartoons on the front page of a newspaper during this time period, but her work also featured women and many different aspects of life that women experienced during this time period.

In the corner of almost every cartoon that Gert drew there was a character named 'Little Gert' who offered some sort of a conclusion, punch line, or witty quip. This character underwent many redesigns and was even used in a few different advertisements acting as a sort of celebrity endorsement for things like a coal company and a cafe. The readers were able to form a relationship with the cartoonist through Little Gert, and it's an interesting convention that we wouldn't see popularized until the underground & autobiographical cartoonists of the 70s.

Gert was a prolific cartoonist with an impressive list of accomplishments who has been uncelebrated for far too long. In 1918, the Grand Rapids Press sent Gert to Washington D.C. during World War I to inform the Rapidians of developments there during World War I and to raise money for Liberty Bonds. She created a series of cartoons to help the YWCA raise money to build their current facility on Sheldon in 1920. She began a successful career in advertisement and fashion illustration in the early 20s. Unbeknownst to many, she was paid $20 to create the drawing that was used to sculpt the John Ball statue which is still standing at the zoo entrance.

Learn more about Gert's life and accomplishments at the women's history sampler on June 2nd. This is a Grand Rapids Public Library program that is co-sponsored by the Greater Grand Rapids Women's History Council.

"Her Pichers: the Life and Work of Gertrude Van Houten" is a small biographical booklet published by Issue Press that will be for sale at the event for $5. It can also be purchased online or checked out from the library.


Disclosure: Drew Damron works for the Grand Rapids Public Library and will be presenting on Gert’s life and work at the 6/2 event. His booklet, Her Pichers, was released by Issue Press, an independent publisher of artists books run by a member of The Rapidian team.

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