Around the turn of the 20th century, political cartoons were an entertaining and influential presence in American journalism. As printing technology became more advanced and less expensive, readers of news weeklies and humor magazines delighted in the visual editorials that skewered public figures with satire, comedy, and caricature.
Whether they were laugh-out-loud funny or sent a chill up the spine, cartoons brought attention to critical issues and helped shape popular opinion.
Cartoonists Thomas Nast (1840-1902) and Charles Nelan (1859-1904) embodied the art form’s power. In the 1860s and 70s, William M. (“Boss”) Tweed, the leader of Tammany Hall, the New York city and state Democratic party machine, was fed up with Nast’s cartoons, primarily in Harper’s Weekly, that personified him as the predatory Tammany Tiger, and the bloated, dissolute “moneybags” who embezzled millions in taxpayers’ dollars. He railed at the press in a comment typically quoted as “I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles. My constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures.”
When New York Times exposés caused Tweed’s downfall, the public praised Nast. Twenty years later, Pennsylvania Governor Samuel Pennypacker, infuriated by Charles Nelan’s drawings of him as a parrot, for the mindless echoing of his Republican bosses, declared such cartoons and the journals that published them “a terror to the household.” He forced through the 1903 Anti-Cartooning Law, which forbade “any cartoon or caricature or picture portraying…any person as beast, bird, fish, insect, or other inhuman animal, thereby tending to expose such person to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule.” Nelan promptly devised other Pennypacker stand-ins, including a turnip and a beer stein. Voters’ objections prevailed, and the law was repealed.
In 1877 the new weekly satirical magazine Puck appeared. It was named for the mischievous character from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, best remembered for his comment “What fools these mortals be!” Puck offered humorous poetry, short fiction, and character sketches, but its cartoons drew the most attention. They appeared in color on the cover and on two-page spreads, and in black-and-white throughout the magazine. At ten cents an issue (Harper’s Weekly was thirty-five cents), Puck had both affluent and working-class readers. Its cartoonists primarily targeted political corruption and social injustice.
Cartoonist Bernhard Gillam (1856-1896), a colleague of Thomas Nast at Harper’s Weekly, joined Puck’s staff in 1880. His Kelly Strikes his Great Historical Attitude (1882) highlights Tweed’s successor in Tammany Hall: John Kelly, sardonically nicknamed “Honest John.” The party boss grins at us with a combination of guile and glee. Although Kelly seems weighed down by his girth, Gilliam does not particularly distort his features. Instead, the wide-eyed, determined expression and pugilistic stance convey the cartoon’s “plot.”
Kelly has just put down his carpet bag and top hat after arriving by train at the 1882 Democratic state convention in Syracuse, where Democrats would nominate their candidate for governor. The party was highly factionalized; there were threats that the Tammany delegates would not even be seated. Kelly is ready for battle, galvanized by a boisterous crowd under the banner of “Yammany,” reflecting their famously loud and raucous yammering. One wields a shillelagh, an allusion to the Irish immigrant supporters and main beneficiaries of Tammany’s patronage. (the name “Tammany” was derived from “Tamanend,” the Lenape leader who signed a peace treaty with William Penn and was revered as a model of political amity). Casual viewers might have simply inferred that “Honest John” and his coterie were up to their usual antics. Savvy news junkies, who followed recent press summaries of Tammany’s strategy meetings, and even the you-are-there reports of delegates boarding the Syracuse train at Grand Central Terminal, would have quickly grasped the full context of the cartoon.
A cartoon by Louis Glackens (1866-1933) make derisive fun of industrial capitalism in the Gilded Age. In a scene that today might be titled “corporate welfare,” a friendly Uncle Sam hands out free pies to a horde of already-overfed men. Although a few have donned tattered coats, others do not disguise their wealth. Several sport shirtfront diamonds. One is already gorging himself; another in a tam o’ shanter cap gestures back mockingly to the generous Uncle Sam. Glackens labels the men and their pies with various forms of corruption: Long Term Franchise, Graft/Tariff, Land Grant, Special Privilege, Public Service Corporation, Infant Industry, Trust, Public Land Thief, Predatory Wealth. To many Americans, the scene evoked a government that favored the fortunes of rapacious magnates over the welfare of the working class.
Although Gilded Age industrialization produced many economic benefits, they came at the expense of over-worked, under-paid, and bleakly-housed laborers, including very young children. By the 1890s, the Progressive movement was calling for reform. The 1912 cartoon Next! From the cradle to the mill by Art Young (1866-1943) refers to the factories, mines, mills, and sweatshops that used school-age poor, immigrant, and orphaned boys and girls for hardly any wages and in dangerous conditions, often for 12 or more hours, six days a week.
Young depicts a macabre, hollow-eyed specter clothed in spiky shreds bearing the word “Necessity” and holding a whip. Light falls on its diminutive victim, who has dropped an open book and clutches a doll. The apparition drags the child toward the smoky factory labeled “Machinery operated by children / Men need not apply.” An infant sibling looks on and awaits its eventual fate. The parent slumps from exhaustion or hopelessness over a littered desk. A miasma of foul air enters the window and pervades the room. The child and the specter—the antithesis of an angel—will pass through a door with the inscription “Lead kindly light.”
Young’s minimal words add layers of meaning. “Necessity” may refer to industrialists’ cynical insistence that child labor was needed to ensure production, and to poverty-stricken parents’ desperate need for even a child’s minuscule wages. The religious quotation may be a bitter indictment of society’s hypocrisy, or a sign of a family’s faith. It was not until the late 1930s that strong laws restricted child labor, although recent investigations continue to expose the practice in the United States.
No one paid a higher price for his cartoon fame than “Boss” Tweed. In 1875, after he escaped from jail and fled to Spain, he was captured and deported by police who recognized him from Nast’s cartoons. He died in jail in 1878. Nast worked until 1890. A New York Times commentary on his talent could serve for all the artists of political cartooning: “A man who can appeal powerfully to millions of people with a few strokes of the pencil must be admitted to be a great power in the land.” G&S
© Mary F. Holahan 2023