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HarpWeek

Can You Decipher These 11 Historical Political Cartoons?

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HarpWeek

A challenge, Flossers! Few things are more baffling than an outdated political cartoon. Jokes about history lessons you don’t remember are presented in a style that is usually disturbing, if not flat-out terrifying. So here’s the game: We encourage historically inclined readers to explain the cartoons to the rest of us in the comments section. But, no search engines or wikis. Can you explain these peculiar entertainments from your own current knowledge?

I played the game fairly myself, using only my existing knowledge to try and decode these pictures. I failed fantastically. Let’s see if you can do better!

1. London, 1795 // "The Night Mare"

Yale Library

Components: There is a stoner Frenchman wearing a guillotine in the window. Then there is a fat man in a bed, with the Tax Goblin about to smother him with bread in his sleep. The chamber pot under the bed represents John Bull. I don’t know who John Bull is. Someone very English, I think.

Interpretation: Taxes will sit on your chest and press the life out of your inert body. We don’t need a cartoon to tell us that. Maybe that French beatnik is afraid he’ll be next and so he wears a guillotine to remind us that French people chop off the heads of leaders who try to force things the people don’t like, like taxes, or whole wheat.

2. American, 1840 // "The Political Dancing Jack"

Components: A drawing of two men who look a lot like the Smothers Brothers pulling the strings on a puppet who also looks like them. The puppet is a great “Holiday Gift for Sucking Whigs.”

Interpretation: I thought I had this one (some political guy named Jack is just a puppet for two other political guys) right up to the “Sucking Whigs.” Whigs are a political party, but I don’t know what they would be sucking. Maybe it’s an earlier interpretation of “You suck, Whigs! You’re a bunch of sucking Whigs! TORIES RULE!”

3. London, 1819 // "Royal Hobby’s, or the Hertfordshire Cock-horse"

British Library

Components: A Queen, evidenced by a crown and a queenly physique, is having a good time riding someone who I think may be the King. He’s not having as much fun, because he is a human bicycle. There is another military-ish, regal looking man in the background who is riding a non-human bike, and grumbling at the Royals.

Interpretation: I bet the signposts have something to do with it—the Royals are heading to Hertford and the Redcoat to Windsor. And what in the world is a Cock-horse? And I can’t imagine that magnificent dead-center bosom of the queen doesn’t bear heavily on the message of this satire. I just can’t fit it all together.

4. New York, 1871 // "The Ring Arithmetic – As Taught by the Modern Ceasers."

Components: A creepy man-head in children’s pajamas is doing math, which is in some way related to a ring. He is being supervised by a fat man who looks like a chicken. There are many bills on the wall. The fat man is a modern person who is trying to stop, or cease something. Or they might have meant “Caesar.” Either way, it’s just not coming together for me.

Interpretation: I zoomed in as far as I could and I still can’t make out what the two … men (?) are muttering at each other. But I think the man-head is upset. And the chicken man has the bloated belly often associated with corruption in old political cartoons. So whatever this cease-er/Caesar is trying to pull is probably jacked up. Don’t fall for it, man-head!

5. American, 1804 // "The Prairie Dog Sickened at the sting of a hornet or a diplomatic puppet exhibiting his deceptions."

HarpWeek

Components: Oh wow. Lot going on here. Well, the prairie dog has been stung in the rump by a hornet that is possibly French. He is vomiting what appear to be coins through his human mouth. Meanwhile, he is being cheered on in map-semaphore by a man with dainty feet and lovely sock garters who is saying, “A gift for the people!”

Interpretation: Maybe the maps represent the Louisiana Purchase? That would explain the hornet being French and the maps … but pretty much nothing else. Especially not the dainty feet.

6. American, 1840 // "The People’s Line"

HarpWeek

Components: There is a wooden train, and it has a face on it. It’s taking hard cider and log cabins … somewhere. Meanwhile the old man sitting on top of Uncle Sam’s carriage has crashed into clay, or something representing a man named Clay (likely the latter).

Interpretation: My intimacy with cable costume-dramas tells me that 1840 was a time of great railroad expansion. Maybe this was a flier telling people that houses and booze come by railroad, so support the railroad and give up on the broken down carriage routes. Cuz Clay or clay is just going to throw you off balance anyway.

7. London, 1809 // "John Bull Correcting His Child for Making a Wrong Use of the Mammon of this World"

British Museum 

Components: Oh! It’s John Bull again! He’s fat here, too, dressed like a goob, and disciplining a British solider, who may be the Duke of York. Two women look on sympathetically. One frets that the soldier is the color of Morocco, which is not an immediately identifiable hue.

Interpretation: After this I must find out who John Bull is. Is he a real guy or like England’s Uncle Sam? And the Duke of York has irritated him. And if we kept current with early 19th century London broadsheets, we’d probably know why.

8. London, 1788 // "The Morning after Marriage -or- A scene on the Continent"

Components: It’s the morning after some rich British guy’s marriage, they’re probably in France, and it would seem things went fairly well. Lots of stuff knocked over, that’s good. Some breakfast coming through the door, that’s always nice. The only thing that there is to really puzzle over is whether the groom is stretching and yawning … or has been terribly startled by something.

Interpretation: It all depends on the stretching/startling dichotomy. If he’s stretching, I’m not sure what the point of this picture is save that marriage and love-making are swell. If he’s startled, that opens a rich vein of curiosities. Could his wife have just shown him something appalling? Did the maid not knock? Are things upturned because he’s been fighting all night to get away from his bride and her disgusting demands? And in either case, what’s the political message here?

9. London, 1796 // "Fashionable Jockeyship"

British Museum

Components: Horrific, every one of them. A fat, flushed face man in regal dress is riding a skinny old man like a horse, demanding the man, possibly named Buck, to tell him how many fingers he is holding up. The horse-man answers, and doesn’t look too put out about it, “As many as you please!” And the whole thing is being watched over by an old lady in a big bed with a sly look.

Interpretation: No freakin’ clue. I suppose the old themes of the rich riding on the backs of the misfortunate is present here, but I don’t know why they’re doing it in front of this lady, or why they all seem to be having such a good time during their freak-out. Extra credit to the Flosser that deciphers this unsettling scene.

10. American, 1861 // "Modern Idolatry"

NY Public Library

Components: It shows four common European immigrants to America, or at least their “idols.” So we have a drunk Irish pig with a beating stick. We have some Scotsmen who are rubbing themselves against scratching posts, muttering something about argyle. A British … penguin? Cucumber in a cummerbund? He’s just standing there being fat. And then the German Idol, a friendly walrus sort who has come equipped with music, sausage, tobacco, and lager. The German dude rocks.

Interpretation: I get the idea of funny ethnic stereotypes … I’m just puzzled by the details chosen to represent those stereotypes. Are the Scottish known for rubbing their bottoms on posts? And come now, the Irish were fleeing a famine, a pig isn’t a good representation of that! He should be a lean angry badger or somesuch. Also why are the Scots still human? That’s the most insulting thing. A pig, a penguin-pickle, a walrus, and a Scotsman.

11. American, 1892 // "The Darwinian Theory – Variation from Environment"

NY Public Library

Components: A lady, possibly the same one, wore two dresses. One “knocked ‘em in the Old Kent Road!” which might be slang for something, hard to say. And the other “attracted al eyes at the church parade.” And it all ties into Darwinian Theory. Which suggests I know less about Darwinian Theory than I thought.

Interpretation: I’m not even sure this is supposed to be a joke. Maybe it’s a dress advertisement? “We can make dresses to make you adaptable to any environment! It’s a science!” I don’t know. That first dress is a real clunker, is that part of the joke? Actually I’m starting to think that the joke here is that it took me 10 minutes to realize there probably isn’t one.

12. American, 1892 // "The Bugaboo of Society and Theatrical Management"

NY Public Library

Components: Two little men, who have politician-faces, are being harassed by naked hobgoblins named McAllister and Gerry. They all have something to do with the bugaboos of society and …theatrical management. I do not know what a bugaboo is.

Interpretation: Actually this one is pretty straightforward. McAllister and Gerry are demons risen from Hell’s swollen shores, and the two men below them are about to become part of their Black Feast of the Damned. Nothing much left to add, I’d say.

Note: You will notice everyone in the cartoons I’ve chosen is white, and the subjects are all Euro-American. That’s not to say there weren’t cartoons featuring other races. There were reams of satires devoted to different ethnicities, Blacks and Native Americans particularly. But even the gentlest lampooning of these people comes across cruel and stupid by modern standards. Plus, they seldom needed interpreting. So, though they do have historical value and should not be overlooked in a more serious study, I chose to omit them here.

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Food
The Gooey History of the Fluffernutter Sandwich

Open any pantry in New England and chances are you’ll find at least one jar of Marshmallow Fluff. Not just any old marshmallow crème, but Fluff; the one manufactured by Durkee-Mower of Lynn, Massachusetts since 1920, and the preferred brand of the northeast. With its familiar red lid and classic blue label, it's long been a favorite guilty pleasure and a kitchen staple beloved throughout the region.

This gooey, spreadable, marshmallow-infused confection is used in countless recipes and found in a variety of baked goods—from whoopie pies and Rice Krispies Treats to chocolate fudge and beyond. And in the beyond lies perhaps the most treasured concoction of all: the Fluffernutter sandwich—a classic New England treat made with white bread, peanut butter, and, you guessed it, Fluff. No jelly required. Or wanted.

There are several claims to the origin of the sandwich. The first begins with Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere—or, not Paul exactly, but his great-great-great-grandchildren Emma and Amory Curtis of Melrose, Massachusetts. Both siblings were highly intelligent and forward-thinkers, and Amory was even accepted into MIT. But when the family couldn’t afford to send him, he founded a Boston-based company in the 1890s that specialized in soda fountain equipment.

He sold the business in 1901 and used the proceeds to buy the entire east side of Crystal Street in Melrose. Soon after he built a house and, in his basement, he created a marshmallow spread known as Snowflake Marshmallow Crème (later called SMAC), which actually predated Fluff. By the early 1910s, the Curtis Marshmallow Factory was established and Snowflake became the first commercially successful shelf-stable marshmallow crème.

Although other companies were manufacturing similar products, it was Emma who set the Curtis brand apart from the rest. She had a knack for marketing and thought up many different ways to popularize their marshmallow crème, including the creation of one-of-a-kind recipes, like sandwiches that featured nuts and marshmallow crème. She shared her culinary gems in a weekly newspaper column and radio show. By 1915, Snowflake was selling nationwide.

During World War I, when Americans were urged to sacrifice meat one day a week, Emma published a recipe for a peanut butter and marshmallow crème sandwich. She named her creation the "Liberty Sandwich," as a person could still obtain his or her daily nutrients while simultaneously supporting the wartime cause. Some have pointed to Emma’s 1918 published recipe as the earliest known example of a Fluffernutter, but the earliest recipe mental_floss can find comes from three years prior. In 1915, the confectioners trade journal Candy and Ice Cream published a list of lunch offerings that candy shops could advertise beyond hot soup. One of them was the "Mallonut Sandwich," which involved peanut butter and "marshmallow whip or mallo topping," spread on lightly toasted whole wheat bread.

Another origin story comes from Somerville, Massachusetts, home to entrepreneur Archibald Query. Query began making his own version of marshmallow crème and selling it door-to-door in 1917. Due to sugar shortages during World War I, his business began to fail. Query quickly sold the rights to his recipe to candy makers H. Allen Durkee and Fred Mower in 1920. The cost? A modest $500 for what would go on to become the Marshmallow Fluff empire.

Although the business partners promoted the sandwich treat early in the company’s history, the delicious snack wasn’t officially called the Fluffernutter until the 1960s, when Durkee-Mower hired a PR firm to help them market the sandwich, which resulted in a particularly catchy jingle explaining the recipe.

So who owns the bragging rights? While some anonymous candy shop owner was likely the first to actually put the two together, Emma Curtis created the early precursors and brought the concept to a national audience, and Durkee-Mower added the now-ubiquitous crème and catchy name. And the Fluffernutter has never lost its popularity.

In 2006, the Massachusetts state legislature spent a full week deliberating over whether or not the Fluffernutter should be named the official state sandwich. On one side, some argued that marshmallow crème and peanut butter added to the epidemic of childhood obesity. The history-bound fanatics that stood against them contended that the Fluffernutter was a proud culinary legacy. One state representative even proclaimed, "I’m going to fight to the death for Fluff." True dedication, but the bill has been stalled for more than a decade despite several revivals and subsequent petitions from loyal fans.

But Fluff lovers needn’t despair. There’s a National Fluffernutter Day (October 8) for hardcore fans, and the town of Somerville, Massachusetts still celebrates its Fluff pride with an annual What the Fluff? festival.

"Everyone feels like Fluff is part of their childhood," said self-proclaimed Fluff expert and the festival's executive director, Mimi Graney, in an interview with Boston Magazine. "Whether born in the 1940s or '50s, or '60s, or later—everyone feels nostalgic for Fluff. I think New Englanders in general have a particular fondness for it."

Today, the Fluffernutter sandwich is as much of a part of New England cuisine as baked beans or blueberry pie. While some people live and die by the traditional combination, the sandwich now comes in all shapes and sizes, with the addition of salty and savory toppings as a favorite twist. Wheat bread is as popular as white, and many like to grill their sandwiches for a touch of bistro flair. But don't ask a New Englander to swap out their favorite brand of marshmallow crème. That’s just asking too Fluffing much.

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The Hospital in the Rock
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History
Budapest’s Former Top-Secret Hospital Inside a Cave
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The Hospital in the Rock

At the top of a hill in Budapest, overlooking the Danube River, sits Buda Castle, a gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage site visited by thousands of tourists every year. Directly underneath the castle, however, lies a less-frequented tourist attraction: a series of ancient, naturally formed caves with a colorful and sometimes disturbing history.

The entire cave system is over six miles long, and most of that has been left unchanged since it was used as cold storage (and a rumored dungeon) in the Middle Ages. Between 1939 and 2008, however, a half-mile stretch of those caves was built up and repurposed many times over. Known as Sziklakorhaz or The Hospital in the Rock, its many uses are a testament to the area’s involvement in World War II and the Cold War.

At the start of World War II, the location served as a single-room air raid center, but operating theaters, corridors, and wards were quickly added to create a much-needed hospital. By early 1944, the hospital had officially opened inside the cave, tending to wounded Hungarian and Nazi soldiers. After less than a year of operation, the facility found itself facing its largest challenge—the Siege of Budapest, which lasted seven weeks and was eventually won by Allied forces on their way to Berlin.

As one of the few area hospitals still operational, the Hospital in the Rock was well over capacity during the siege. Originally built to treat around 70 patients, close to 700 ended up crammed into the claustrophobic caves. The wounded lay three to a bed—if they were lucky enough to get a bed at all. Unsurprisingly, heat from all those bodies raised the ambient temperature to around 95°F, and smoking cigarettes was the number one way to pass the time. Add that to the putrid mix of death, decay, and infection and you’ve got an incredibly unpleasant wartime cocktail.

A recreation inside the museum. Image credit: The Hospital in the Rock 

After the siege, the Soviets took control of the caves (and Budapest itself) and gutted the hospital of most of its supplies. Between 1945 and 1948, the hospital produced a vaccination for typhus. As the icy grasp of the Cold War began to tighten, new wards were built, new equipment was installed, and the hospital was designated top-secret by the Soviets, referred to only by its official codename LOSK 0101/1.

Eleven years after facing the horrors of the Siege of Budapest, in 1956, the hospital hosted the casualties of another battle: The Hungarian Uprising. Thousands of Hungarians revolted against the Soviet policies of the Hungarian People’s Republic in a fierce, prolonged battle. Civilians and soldiers alike lay side-by-side in wards as surgeons attempted to save them. During the uprising, seven babies were also born in the hospital.

Surgeons lived on-site and rarely surfaced from the caves. The hospital’s chief surgeon at the time, Dr. András Máthé, famously had a strict "no amputation" rule, which seemed to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, but in the end reportedly saved many patients' lives. (Máthé also reportedly wore a bullet that he’d removed from a patient’s head on a chain around his neck.)

The Hospital in the Rock ceased normal operations in December 1956, after the Soviets squashed the uprising, as the Soviets had new plans for the caves. With the Cold War now in full swing, the still-secret site was converted into a bunker that could serve as a hospital in case of nuclear attack. Diesel engines and an air conditioning system were added in the early '60s, so that even during a blackout, the hospital could still function for a couple of days.

The Hospital in the Rock

The official plan for the bunker was as follows: In the event of a nuclear attack, a selection of doctors and nurses would retreat to the bunker, where they would remain for 72 hours. Afterward, they were to go out and search for survivors. Special quarantined rooms, showering facilities, and even a barbershop were on site for survivors brought back to the site. (The only haircut available to them, however, was a shaved head; radioactive material is notoriously difficult to remove from hair.)

Thankfully, none of these nuclear procedures were ever put into practice. But the hospital was never formally decommissioned, and it wasn’t relieved of its top-secret status until the mid-2000s. For a while, it was still being used as a storage facility by Hungary’s Civil Defense Force. The bunker was maintained by a nearby family, who were sworn to secrecy. In 2004, it was decided that responsibility for the site fell solely on St. John’s Hospital in Budapest, who were seen as the de facto owners in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

By 2008 the bunker was renovated, refurbished, and ready to be opened to the public. Today it operates as a museum, with exhibits detailing life in the hospital from various periods of its history, as well as the history of combat medicine as a whole. The sobering hour-long walk around the hospital concludes with a cautionary gaze into the atrocities of nuclear attacks, with the final walk to the exit featuring a gallery of art created by survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

Another part of the caves beneath Buda Castle. Image credit:Sahil Jatana via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The caves beneath Buda Castle have certainly had a bumpy history, and walking through them now is chilling (and not just because they keep the temperature at around 60°F). A tour through the narrow, oppressive hallways is a glimpse at our narrowly avoided nuclear future—definitely a sobering way to spend an afternoon.

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