Under Dan Martin’s Steady Hand, 120-Year-Old Weatherbird Still Lands In Post-Dispatch Daily
Every evening, just as many people are shutting down their computers for the day and starting to think about supper, Dan Martin is gearing up to complete his daily drawing for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: a fresh depiction of the newspaper’s Weatherbird.
The artistic process gets going once news editor Brent Fisher sends him a budget around 5 or 5:30 p.m., summarizing plans for the next-morning edition of the newspaper’s front page.
“And I’ll choose one of those stories to draw about,” Martin, a longtime cartoonist and designer for the Post-Dispatch, explained to St. Louis on the Air.
Typically, Martin creates the next day’s bird within about 45 minutes or less.
“That’s if everything goes right,” Martin clarified. “Sometimes it’s a lot tougher to come up with ideas.”
First hired by the paper in 1980, Martin has been drawing the beloved Weatherbird character for 35 years now, taking up the task when his predecessor Al Schweitzer retired in 1986. He’s the sixth artist to carry on the legacy since the cartoon first appeared in the February 11, 1901, edition of the Post-Dispatch.
And while Martin serves in a variety of roles as part of his job for the daily, there’s something especially remarkable about being the keeper of the Weatherbird, the longest-running newspaper cartoon in the United States. He’s become a sort of curator of its legacy, in addition to continuing to regularly draw the bird.
“I’ve got fan mail from 1901, and I’ve got fan mail from last week,” Martin said.
On Tuesday’s show, Martin joined host Sarah Fenske for a closer look at the history of the Weatherbird.
He noted that at its start 120 years ago, only 10 birds were envisioned — not the tens of thousands that have since graced the Post-Dispatch’s pages.
“The originator was a guy named Harry B. Martin, a staff artist,” Martin said. “He was traveling back from an assignment out west back to St. Louis in February [of 1901], and he was looking at a magazine and saw a picture of shivering baby little black birds on a telephone wire.
“So when he got back to St. Louis he proposed to the editor that he draw up about 10 of these different things to run with the weather forecast. And so he drew up those, and the next time he repeated one, all of the readers of the Post wrote in and said, ‘No, we want another brand-new Weatherbird every day,’ and that’s when the madness started.”
Within the first few years, the Weatherbird was daily commenting on more than simply the weather. And as early as the 1904 World’s Fair, the cartoon had morphed into something of a local marketing and merchandise phenomenon.
“I liken it to just another bit of quirkiness, sort of like the Chicago Tribune has always had an American flag at the top of their paper, and of course the New York Times famously always had ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print,’ and so this is sort of our version of that,” Martin said.
The look of the bird has evolved over the decades, becoming more anthropomorphic.
“It was in [artist] Carlisle Martin’s tenure from about 1910 to 1932 that he lost his feathers and sort of grew hands,” explained Dan Martin. (He notes that while three of the six Weatherbird artists over the past century have the surname “Martin,” none of them are related.)
Martin, a St. Louis native who grew up loving the Weatherbird as well as the Post-Dispatch’s comics and sports pages, met one of his predecessors when he was just a child.
“I got to see a lot of Amadee Wohlschlaeger’s sports cartoons — [he] drew the Weatherbird from 1932 to 1981,” Martin recalled. “[And] there was a function downtown that my parents took me to where Amadee was drawing, and I waited about an hour in line to get an Amadee Weatherbird. So I’ve been conscious of the bird, and been a fan of it, ever since I was a little kid.”
It would be many years before the idea of becoming a Weatherbird artist ever entered Martin’s mind. But he worked for his college newspapers while studying art, with an initial eye toward a career in advertising or commercial art, and wound up taking prerequisites in reporting and editing.
That eventually led him toward newspapers — and the Post-Dispatch.
He started as a staff artist doing all sorts of illustrations, cartoons, maps and charts. But about five years in, the current Weatherbird artist, Schweitzer, approached him with the idea of taking over the bird once he retired. Martin told Schweitzer he was definitely interested.
“I drew about 10 Weatherbirds and we looked at them, and I would practice,” Martin said. “And then when he was ready to leave, they took my Weatherbirds in with Al’s Weatherbirds to the editor … and he couldn’t tell the difference. But Al and I could tell the difference, and it took me about 10 years to get into sort of a groove into how to draw it.”
“Newspaper comics are like View-Masters, providing a quick glimpse into culture and society at that specific moment in time,” she wrote in part.
That assessment resonated with Martin.
“It’s a reflection of what was going on in St. Louis,” the artist said, “and it is a good mirror. … If you were to go back, and I have scrapbooks of people that collected the Weatherbird from 1901, if you go back you can really judge what was going on in the world and what was important.”
The Post-Dispatch’s Beth O’Malley recently prepared a digital scrapbook of sorts of the Weatherbird’s first year, and that “Look Back” is available on the newspaper’s website.
And for even more about the Weatherbird’s legacy and Post-Dispatch artists, see HEC-TV’s newly released video feature on “The History of St. Louis Cartoons and Newspaper Comics with Dan Martin.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.