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Ever stick your face in a cutout? Meet the kitsch genius who invented them.

A comic foreground pose at Brighton. Lookin' good!
A comic foreground pose at Brighton. Lookin' good!
Mac Steve via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Ever stick your head in one of those cardboard cutouts at the beach? They're the perfect symbol of summer on the boardwalk, when even the corniest gags turn hilarious.

These instantly recognizable pieces of Americana have a name: you can call them "carnival cutouts," if you like.

But you can also call them "comic foregrounds." That's the name used by the genius of kitsch who invented them — and who, amazingly, had another iconic piece of schlock to his name.

How Cash Coolidge made the boardwalk fun

A young child enjoys a comic foreground.

A young child enjoys a comic foreground. (PCurto via CC BY-NC-SA)

Cassius "Cash" Coolidge was an artist who made his living through hustling. After a few early entrepreneurial ventures, he founded a bank in Antwerp, New York, in 1872. He was also, apparently, a "lightning sketch artist" who sold street portraits and painted the village's signs.

All that led to his 1873 breakthrough: comic foregrounds. Here's the patent for his invention:

An illustration from the patent for comic foregrounds.

An illustration from the patent for comic foregrounds.

Google Patents

Coolidge notes that technically what we think of as comic foregrounds today were around before his version. But thanks to his patent — and the marketing gusto to make both versions successful — he became famous as the inventor.

As Joel Lewis writes in his history, Coolidge painted some of the most iconic cutouts we're familiar with — a muscle man, a woman in a bathing suit, etc. — and also built a mail-ordering business to market them.

The success of the comic foreground allowed him to pursue further flights of fancy. That same year, Coolidge moved to Rochester, New York, and started a humorous column called "Kash's Kolumn." He found work making funny cards in the 1870s, and he illustrated other cartoons for magazines and books. He also wrote parody operas: 1892's King Gallinipper made headlines for being one of the first operas about ... mosquitoes.

Coolidge died in 1934, and the above would be more than enough to secure his legacy as a comic genius who changed how we have fun at the carnival. But that's not the full story of his legacy.

Cash Coolidge is responsible for one other legendary piece of kitsch

Coolidge picked up a few gigs over the years, including one for a St. Paul, Minnesota, printing company named Brown & Bigelow. The company must have seen some of his distinctive paintings, because it requested an entire series in 1903.

So he gave Brown & Bigelow 16 paintings with titles like "Waterloo" and "Breach of Promise Suit." The most famous was called "A Friend in Need," though most people know it by another name:

"A Friend in Need" by Cassius M. Coolidge

"A Friend in Need" by Cassius M. Coolidge.

Public Domain

It's usually called "Dogs Playing Poker."