John Barton (“Johnny”) Gruelle was born in Arcola, Illinois, in 1880, to Richard and Alice Gruelle. His father was a self-taught painter, musician, and writer. John and his younger siblings, Prudence and Justin, inherited their father’s artistic talents. John turned his interest in drawing into a career as a political cartoonist for various newspapers in the early 1900s. John married Myrtle Swann, and they soon had three children. In 1911, John won a contest for a permanent position at the New York Herald, where he illustrated the comic strip “Mr. Twee Deedle” for nearly eight years. He signed his illustrated works “Johnny Gruelle.”
The legend of Raggedy Ann began in 1914, when John’s daughter Marcella found a faceless rag doll in her grandparents’ attic. John and his wife Myrtle helped to transform the old doll into a more appealing plaything. John wrote short fantasy stories about the doll and her friends to entertain Marcella, who fell ill in 1915. She died the following year. John poured his grief into the creation of more Raggedy Ann stories—this time adding colorful illustrations. John’s coworkers greatly enjoyed his stories and urged him to publish them. In 1918, the P.F. Volland Co. released Raggedy Ann Stories to much acclaim. The F.A.O. Schwartz toy store contacted John to request dolls to accompany the books, which were difficult to keep in stock based on demand from customers. Raggedy Andy, Ann’s brother, made his literary debut in 1920. John continued to write at least one Raggedy Ann and Andy story every year until his death in 1938.
Members of the Gruelle family, notably John’s widow Myrtle and son Worth, carried on the legacy of the Raggedy Ann and Andy franchise. Raggedy Ann’s popularity soared in the following decades, with sales of dolls, books, and related merchandise reaching millions of dollars annually. Arcola, Illinois hosted a Raggedy Ann and Andy Festival in 1990, which became a yearly event for two decades. Worth’s daughter (and John’s namesake), Joni, founded the Johnny Gruelle Raggedy Ann and Andy Museum, also in Arcola, in 1999. The museum showcased not only the beloved characters but also other works of John Gruelle. In 2009, the Raggedy Ann and Andy Museum closed, but its collections live on in the holdings at The Strong.