Dear Straight Dope:
My question is about Kilroy, the bald headed cartoon guy that myself and others have drawn peeking over a wall for years. What is the deal with him, who invented him, etc. I think he has something to do with the Second World War.
SDStaff Dex and SDStaff Mac reply:
Ah, Kilroy. The little cartoon bald head, peering over a fence that hid everything except his eyes and his long U-shaped nose … and sometimes his fingers, gripping the top of the fence. And his proclamation, “Kilroy was here.”
Graffiti itself goes back to ancient times. Graffiti is found in the ruins of Pompeii, on the walls of ancient Jerusalem, in ancient Egypt. Kilroy follows a long tradition, but was far more famous and all-present than any of them.
“Kilroy was here” emerged during World War II, appearing at truck stops, city restaurants, and in military boardrooms. However, the first appearances seem to have been on military docks and ships in late 1939.
“The mischievous face and the phrase became a national joke,” according to author Charles Panati. In theory, he was a soldier, probably American, who travelled all over the world scrawling his immortal phrase. Clearly, the graffiti were scrawled by thousands of different soldiers, not a single one named Kilroy.
During the Forties, Kilroy was everywhere. Panati comments, “The outrageousness of the graffit was not so much what it said, but where it turned up.” He cites the torch of the Statue of Liberty, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the Marco Polo Bridge in China, huts in Polynesia, and a girder on the George Washington Bridge in New York. There were contests in the Air Force to beat Kilroy to isolated and uninhabited places around the globe.
The appearance wasn’t always of GI origin, although it was largely tied to the military services. More than once newspapers reported on pregnant women wheeled into the delivery room, with the hospital staff finding “Kilroy was here” written across their stomachs. Panati says, “The most daring appearance occurred during the meeting of the Big Three in Potsdam, Germany, in July 1945. Truman, Attlee, and Stalin had exclusive use of an opulent marble bathroom, off limits to everyone else. On the second day of the summit, an excited Stalin emerged from the bathroom sputtering something in Russian to one of his aides. A translator overheard Stalin demand, ‘Who is Kilroy?'” SDStaff Mac suggests Panati is a better storyteller than a scholar, though.
There has been much written about the origin and proliferation of Kilroy.
In December 1946 the New York Times credited James J. Kilroy, a welding inspector at the Bethlehem Steel shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, with starting the craze. Usually, inspectors used a small chalk mark, but welders were erasing those to get double-paid for their work. To prevent this, Mr Kilroy marked his welding work with the long crayoned phrase (“Kilroy was here”) on the items he inspected. The graffito became a common sight around the shipyard and was imitated by workers when they were drafted and sent around the world. As the war progressed, people began opening void spaces on ships for repair, and the mysterious Mr Kilroy’s name would be found there, in sealed compartments “where no one had been before.”
There are other origin stories, but they’re less credible.
The cartoon part of the graffito has a different origin. According to Dave Wilton, it is originally British, named Mr Chad, and apparently predates Kilroy by a few years. It commonly appeared with the phrase “Wot, no ____?” underneath, with the blank filled in by whatever was in short supply in Britain at the time — cigarettes, Spam, etc. The Oxford English Dictionary lists Chad’s origin as “obscure” but it may have been created by British cartoonist George Edward Chatterton.
Sometime during the war, Chad and Kilroy met and merged, the American phrase appearing under the British drawing.
The combined logo acquired momentum, appearing wherever servicemen travelled, and quickly infected the civilian population. The mania peaked during the war, lingered into the 50s, and then pretty much died out, the joke forgotten as memories of World War faded.
There have been recurrences and imitators. There was a Canadian version named Clem. In the late 60s, there was a version in Los Angeles called Overby. But none of these approached the popularity and ubiquitousness of the original.
SDStaff Dex and SDStaff Mac, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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