Elmer Cecil Stoner was born October 20, 1897 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He was African American. His father was George W. Stoner. His mother was Mary Alice Stoner. His parents were married in 1896. He was the first born of their five children, but only three survived, Elmer, Charles, and Emily. They lived at 35 Orchard Street. His father was the sexton at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church. His widowed grandmother, Elizabeth Stoner, lived with them. Their neighborhood was almost entirely white families descended from Wales, England, and Ireland.
At that time in history it was customary for children in Wilkes-Barre to attend public school only until the age of eleven, after which point they were legally allowed to work in the local coal mines and contribute to the family income. So in 1909 Elmer Stoner left school, but instead of joining the other breaker boys at the colliery he worked as a stock boy at the local five-and-ten-cent store owned by Fred Morgan Kirby, a wealthy and benevolent parishoner at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church.
Kirby was one of the founders of the Woolworth store chain, which was a phenomenally successful nationwide franchise. He practised Christian kindness, championed civic improvements and sponsored philanthropic projects, such as college education for African-Americans at Lafayette College.
Elmer Stoner's natural drawing ability was appreciated at Kirby's store, where he grew interested in lettering, sign painting, and advertising. He soon found freelance jobs as a sign painter and graphic artist at other local businesses.
Pulp artists Rudolph Belarski and Sam Savitt both grew up in this same area, and they both received basic art training from a Scranton-based school, ICS (International Correspondence Schools). It is possible Elmer Stoner was also a student of ICS, where for only three dollars a month ICS offered courses in lettering, sign painting, advertising, graphic art, and illustration.
In 1916 a local business in Wilkes-Barre, named the Planters Nut & Chocolate Company, which produced Pennant Brand Salted Peanuts, sponsored an advertised contest for a company logo design. The winning submittal was a doodle by a Virginia schoolboy, from which Elmer Stoner created the first published image of a debonnair character with a top hat and cane, named Mr. Peanut, who first debuted in 1917 advertisements.
On September 12, 1918 Elmer Stoner reported for his draft registration in the Great War. He was recorded to be a "Negro" of medium height and build, with brown eyes and dark hair. He apparently did not serve in the military, because in 1919 at the age of twenty-two he was recorded by the U.S. Census as attending school. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1919 to 1922. His tuition was most likely paid by his family's benefactor, Fred Kirby, who became the Vice President of Woolworth & Co.
In 1922 Elmer Stoner married his first wife, Vivienne and moved to Harlem in New York City. This was during the historic Harlem Rennaisance, when African-Americans made the area a successful business center. Stoner's artworks were included in an exhibition of "Negro Artists" at a Harlem public library.
In 1924 his father died at the age of fifty-four and left him a modest inheritance. Elmer Stoner and his wife moved downtown to the trendy artist community of Greenwich Village, where he opened a gift shop for his wife on Christopher Street. He also began a lifelong sideline of buying undervalued buildings for renovation and profitable resale.
By 1927 his first marriage had ended.
In 1930 his illustrations appeared in the children's book, Mic Mac on the Track by Z. K. MacDonald.
In 1933 Woolworth & Co. produced a line of magazines, which were only sold at their stores. Fred Kirby was the publisher and the titles included Home, Illustrated Love, Serenade, and Tiny Tower. Elmer C. Stoner joined the art staff of Tower Magazines.
His first work for pulp magazines were interior line art illustrations for The Underworld Detective, which was produced by Carwood Publishing Co. In 1936 he painted covers for both of the two issues of The Witch's Tales, which were also published by Carwood.
In 1939 he illustrated a children's book, entitled Seeing The World's Fair. At this same time he also helped to create a one-hundred-and-sixty-foot diorama exhibit at the fair, entitled Railroads At Work.
Over the next ten years he worked as a penciller and an inker at several comic production companies in New York City. He worked on Breeze Barton, Spy Smasher, Ajax The Sun Man, Gang Busters, Martan the Marvel Man, The Blue Beetle, Phantasmo, and Blackstone Master Magacian.
He married his second wife Henriette around this time.
During WWII he volunteered to work with the USO, along with over four hundred artists from the New York Society of Illustrators. They sketched wounded servicemen recuperating at hospitals, such as Harlem Hospital. The finished sketches were sent to each soldier's designated family as a morale-boosting project.
In 1948 he formed the Gould-Stoner Publishing Company to produce Christmas Play Book, a fun activity book for kids that was only sold at department stores. This project most likely developed from contacts through his earlier work with Woolworth's Tower Magazines.
From 1948 to 1951 he drew a syndicated newspaper comic strip, Rick Kane Space Marshal, which was written by Walter Gibson, magician and famed author of The Shadow.
By 1950 Elmer C. Stoner was painting calendars for the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, and painting landscapes for sale at art galleries.
According to the artist, "Even with the simplest water color, I strive for perfection. It's only through dedication that anything great is ever acheived."
Elmer C. Stoner died at the age of seventy-two on December 16, 1969.
© David Saunders 2009