These days we see often see costumed mascots in various venues where they might represent sports teams, characters in advertising, in film and TV and also comic books and comic strips. And it was that type of character that visited Athens in 1924 when Spark Plug, from the Barney Google strip, appeared at the East Texas Cotton Palace and International Corn Show.
The Cotton Palace, a sort of county fair, was of course an Athens institution for some years and like at a fair today there were contests, judging of agricultural products as well as celebrity appearances and entertainment. In 1924 it ran from September 29 to October 4 and in the Athens Review article that announced the visit the reporter took on a folksy tone.
It started with the announcement that a race track was usually a show feature but not this time. However, “....special arrangements have been made for best known and fastest race horse in the world. His name is ‘Spark Plug’ known by every child and adult from the remotest regions of the earth.”
The reporter continued: “Yes, Siree. Barney Google’s coming to the Fair at Athens, whoopee! So let’s celebrate, he says, and forget our troubles! Children and grown folks alike are to laugh and get fat and live ten years longer.”
Spark Plug was to appear at the fair only the one night and the reporter stressed his appearance. “He will be increased [sic] in his highly colored blanket all buttoned up and everything.” So what would he do? “He will run for you and pull some of his stunts right before your eyes while you sit in the grandstand.”
There was more detail: “…he will be outlined in many colors of fire to emphasize his fiery disposition on the race track.” Then came another reassurance, “You will know him, even if you never saw him, because he will look exactly like he does in the funny papers.”
Indeed the audience was no doubt familiar with Spark Plug because he and the other characters in the Barney Google comic strip were well known in 1924. And in fact, the strip still runs today but under the additional name of another featured character - Snuffy Smith.
The Barney Google strip began in the newspaper sports pages about 1919, where Barney was depicted as a short, goggle eyed guy often involved with poker games, prize fights and of course horse races. Eventually Barney moved to the comics pages.
When Spark Plug first appeared in the strip in 1922 he was depicted as as Barney’s “brown-eyed baby,” as a bow-legged race horse almost totally covered by a patched blanket bearing his name.
Incidentally, Barney was also the subject of a popular novelty song recorded by Eddie Cantor and others. It’s reoccurring line ran “Barney Google- with the goo, goo, googly eyes…” became popular along the part where Spark Plug entered a race and ran the wrong way.
In 1934 Barney and Spark Plug visited the mountains of North Carolina, specifically an area called “Hootin’ Holler.” There they encountered a stereotypical hillbilly character named Snuffy Smith. Snuffy was wary of outsiders, called “flatlanders” and of course “revenooers.” After all, what’s a hillbilly without a moonshine still?
Snuffy’s name was later added to the title and by the 1950s Barney had disappeared.
So comic strip readers of 1924 would certainly know Sparky but the reporter still felt he had to describe his appearance: he would look “exactly like he does in the funny papers.” So was this a real horse, trained to tricks, and of course swathed in a blanket? Or was it, as costumed mascots today, one – or maybe two people - in a horse costume like you see in old comedies? We’re not told.
So though we no longer see Spark Plug his name has lived on as the nickname of a well-loved figure. For about the time the comic horse appeared in the 1920s there was born a baby who grew up to be cartoonist of note, and who had the nickname “Sparky” possibly from the carton horse. And it was a nickname he retained all through his life though his real name was Charles M. Schultz. “Sparky” Schultz of course created “Peanuts” and the beloved characters Charlie Brown, Lucy and Linus and others.