The master cartoonist 'Ding' Darling at work. 'Ding' Darling Foundation photo
The master cartoonist 'Ding' Darling at work. 'Ding' Darling Foundation photo

“Ding” Darling could draw. That's what he did for a living, but he was also a lover of wildlife and the outdoors and he saw the importance of conservation.

His political cartoons gained Darling his fame and they put him in a position to become famous in another way as the namesake of the world-famous J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island.

John Norwood “Ding” Darling got his middle name from the town of his birth, Norwood, Mich., where his father, Marcellus, was a minister. “Ding” Darling was born on Oct. 21, 1876 and when he was 10 the family moved to Sioux City, Iowa. During his college years, which began in 1894 at Yankton (S.D.) College and continued at Beloit (Wis.) College, Darling was drawing. It was during these years that he started signing his work by shortening his last name to “D'ing.”

The Sioux City Ledger found a place for Darling in 1900 as a reporter. In 1906 he moved to the Des Moines Register and Leader. He and his wife, Genevieve Pendelton, whom he married in 1906, were lured away to New York in 1911 for a job at the New York Globe. This was the first move in the years between 1911 and 1919 when he pinballed between Iowa and New York. The couple moved back to Des Moines in 1913. In 1916 it was back to New York and cartooning for the New York Herald Tribune. In 1919 he ultimately decided on Des Moines. It was with the Des Moines paper that he drew for the rest of his career, although his cartoons were syndicated in the Herald Tribune and nearly 150 other papers from 1917 to 1949.

Ding Darling drew his cartoons during the sweet spot of political cartooning in the United States. Political cartooning blossomed during and after the Civil War. Cartoonists got center stage in major U.S. dailies due to improvements in printing and later the ability to syndicate cartoons, which Darling did with the Herald Tribune's syndication service while drawing for the Register from his Iowa home.

Darling's style was from the old school of flowery work. That coupled with his biting satirical wit made him popular and relevant. He received the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1924 for his cartoon “In Good Old USA.” Eighteen years later, in 1942, Darling won a second Pulitzer for his cartoon “What a Place for a Waste Paper Salvage Campaign.”

It was cartoons like “What a Place for a Waste Paper Salvage Campaign” and “How Rich Will We Be When We Have Converted All Our Forests, All Our Soil, All Our Water Resources and Our Minerals Into Cash?” that highlighted “Ding” Darling's concern over conservation and preservation. He became an important figure in the conservation movement with several conservation cartoons. He was behind the initiation of the Federal Duck Stamp Act.

The Migratory Bird Conservation Act had been signed into law in 1929 by President Herbert Hoover, but it provided no consistent revenue stream for the preservation of wetlands. That changed in 1934 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act, which now is known as the Federal Duck Stamp Act.

“Ding” Darling drew the first Duck Stamp. It was two mallards about to land on a marsh pond. Since that first stamp by Darling, many noted wildlife artists penned Duck Stamps. In 1949 the government started a contest for the design of the Duck Stamp and it remains today as the only art competition of its kind sponsored by the government. Another Iowan, Maynard Reece, won the contest for a fifth time in 2011. Duck Stamps permit hunters to hunt, but they have also become collector's items due to their beauty, a tradition started by “Ding” Darling.

Although “Ding” Darling had no experience at such things, he accepted President Roosevelt's appointment as head of the U.S. Biological Survey. The Biological Survey had its roots in the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy, which was established as a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1885. Its early tasks were studying the effect of birds in controlling agriculture pests and mapping the geographical distribution of plants and animals in the U.S.

Darling's appointment as Chief of the new Bureau of Biological Survey came in 1934, the same year Congress passed the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act. This critical act protects fish and wildlife when federal actions result in the control or modification of a natural stream or body of water. The act provides for the involvement of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which was created in 1940.
Under the leadership of “Ding” Darling, the Bureau of Biological Survey began its mission of protecting and preserving vital natural habitats all across the country. Darling was also instrumental in the founding of the National Wildlife Federation in 1936 when President Roosevelt held the first North American Wildlife Conference.

Sanibel came on Darling's radar in the early 1940s. He was taken aback by the State of Florida's plan to sell 2,200 acres of virgin wetlands for the paltry sum of 50 cents per acre. Darling reacted quickly, gathering his allies and arranging for the Fish and Wildlife Service to lease the land and form the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge.

Darling died in 1962. In the wake of his death, his friends and admirers formed the J.N. “Ding” Darling Foundation and its first goal was to bring the lands of the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge under the control of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1967 the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island was named for him. It is one of the true treasures of the barrier islands and, as one of the top 10 hot spots for birds in the U.S., is a destination point for amateur and professional ornithologists alike.

The legacy of John Norwood “Ding” Darling lives on today in many ways. His Duck Stamp and his cartoons still live and his love and passion for conservation is celebrated with a famous refuge named for him. His work is being revived today through a program involving the Des Moines Register and Marvo Entertainment Group which is bringing Darling to life through both his cartoons and Marvo's award-winning documentary, “America's Darling: The Story of J.N. 'Ding' Darling.”

The Register recently moved. When it did, it discovered plates from Darling's cartoons. To preserve this collection, the Register and Marvo have entered into a four-year partnership titled “The Extraordinary Project” for the stewardship, temporary storage, cataloguing and digitizing of the collection.