Culture Words

The Cultural History of ‘The Addams Family’

In the summer of 1938, a determined salesman dropped in on a haunted mansion to peddle his “vibrationless, noiseless” vacuum doubling as both a “great time and a back saver” that “no well-appointed home should without.” It was a single-panel cartoon on page nine of The New Yorker fetching the author a tidy $85 sum. It introduced the world to an unnamed brood that will, once again, be returning to the big screen on Friday.

It might stand to reason that the man behind the family, Charles Addams, was a lost soul with a troubled background who brought his pain to the pages of the New Yorker. But in reality, born in 1912 in Westfield, New Jersey, Addams grew up in a warm, loving household as the only child of devoted parents; his father sold pianos. Charles was known to be a scamp who loved a good gag—a favorite being when he would scare his grandmother by popping out of his home’s dumbwaiter. He once told Linda H. Davis, author of Charles Addams: A Cartoonist’s Life, “It would be more interesting, perhaps, if I had a ghastly childhood—chained to an iron bed and thrown a can of Alpo everyday. But I’m one of those strange people who actually had a happy childhood.”

What Addams always had was a love for the macabre (the common descriptor of his work he eventually grew weary of), be it exploring graveyards, trespassing in an abandoned neighborhood Victorian mansion, or drawing German Kaiser Wilhelm II in all manner of graphic death scenes.

In high school, Addams fell in love with illustration and ended up at New York City’s Grand Central School of Art. In 1932, while still a student, he sold his first cartoon to The New Yorker, a sketch of a window washer that paid him $7.50.


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