CLOSE
HarpWeek
HarpWeek

Can You Decipher These 11 Historical Political Cartoons?

HarpWeek
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 Few things are more baffling than an outdated political cartoon.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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Food
The History Behind Why We Eat 10 Dishes at Thanksgiving
iStock
iStock

Halloween is for candy comas, and on Independence Day we grill, but no holiday is as completely defined by its cuisine as Thanksgiving. No matter what part of the country you're in, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the below dishes will be making an appearance on your table this week. But what makes these specific entrees and side dishes so emblematic of Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the sometimes-surprising history behind your favorite fall comfort foods.

1. TURKEY

A roasted turkey on a platter.
iStock

Turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that most of us probably imagine the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans chowing down on a roast bird in 1621. Although we don't know the exact menu of that first Plymouth Colony feast, a first-person account of the year's harvest from governor William Bradford does reference "a great store of wild turkeys," and another first-person account, from colonist Edward Winslow, confirms that the settlers "killed as much fowl as…served the company almost a week." However, culinary historian Kathleen Wall believes that, although turkeys were available, it's likely that duck, goose, or even passenger pigeons were the more prominent poultry options at the first Thanksgiving. Given their proximity to the Atlantic, local seafood like oysters and lobsters were likely on the menu as well.

As the holiday grew in popularity, however, turkey became the main course for reasons more practical than symbolic. English settlers were accustomed to eating fowl on holidays, but for early Americans, chickens were more valued for their eggs than their meat, and rooster was tough and unappetizing. Meanwhile, turkeys were easy to keep, big enough to feed a whole family, and cheaper than ducks or geese. Even before Thanksgiving was recognized as a national holiday, Alexander Hamilton himself remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." The country followed his advice: according to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey in some form on Thanksgiving Day—an estimated 44 million birds!

2. STUFFING

Pan of breaded stuffing.
iStock

Stuffing would have been a familiar concept to those early settlers as well, although their version was likely quite different from what we're used to. We know that the first Plymouth colonists didn't have access to white flour or butter, so traditional bread stuffing wouldn't have been possible yet. Instead, according to Wall, they may have used chestnuts, herbs, and chunks of onion to flavor the birds, all of which were already part of the local fare. Centuries later, we're still stuffing turkeys as a way to keep the bird moist through the roasting process and add extra flavor.

3. CRANBERRIES

Dish of cranberry sauce.
iStock

Like turkeys, cranberries were widely available in the area, but cranberry sauce almost certainly did not make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Why not? The sugar reserves the colonists would have had were almost completely depleted after their long sea journey, and thus they didn't have the means to sweeten the terrifically tart berries.

So how did cranberries become such an autumnal staple? For starters, they're a truly American food, as one of only a few fruits—along with Concord grapes, blueberries, and pawpaws—that originated in North America. They grow in such abundance in the northeast that colonists quickly began incorporating cranberries into various dishes, such as pemmican, which mixed mashed cranberries with lard and dried venison. By the Civil War, they were such a holiday staple that General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded his soldiers be provided cranberries for their Thanksgiving Day meal.

4. MASHED POTATOES

Bowl of mashed potatoes.
iStock

Potatoes weren't yet available in 17th-century Plymouth, so how did mashed potatoes become another Thanksgiving superstar? The answer lies in the history of the holiday itself. In America’s earliest years, it was common for the sitting President to declare a "national day of thanks," but these were sporadic and irregular. In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt the holiday, and others soon followed suit, but Thanksgiving wasn't a national day of celebration until Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

Why did Lincoln—hands full with an ongoing war—take up the cause? Largely due to a 36-year campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific novelist, poet, and editor, who saw in Thanksgiving a moral benefit for families and communities. In addition to her frequent appeals to officials and presidents, Hale wrote compellingly about the holiday in her 1827 novel Northwood, as well as in the womens' magazine she edited, Godey's Lady's Book. Her writing included recipes and descriptions of idealized Thanksgiving meals, which often featured—you guessed it—mashed potatoes.

5. GRAVY

Plate of turkey and potatoes covered in gravy.
iStock

Despite a dearth of potatoes, it's likely that some type of gravy accompanied the turkey or venison at the earliest Thanksgiving gatherings. The concept of cooking meat in sauce dates back hundreds of years, and the word "gravy" itself can be found in a cookbook from 1390. Because that first celebration extended over three days, historian Wall speculates: "I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day." That broth would then be thickened with grains to created a gravy to liven day-old meat. And, if Wall's correct, that broth sounds suspiciously like the beginning of another great Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!

6. CORN

Plate of corn.
iStock

Corn is a natural symbol of harvest season—even if you're not serving it as a side dish, you might have a few colorful ears as a table centerpiece. We know that corn was a staple of the Native American diet and would have been nearly as plentiful in the 17th century as today. But according to the History Channel, their version would have been prepared quite differently: corn was either made into a cornmeal bread or mashed and boiled into a thick porridge-like consistency, and perhaps sweetened with molasses. Today, we eat corn in part to remember those Wampanoag hosts, who famously taught the newcomers how to cultivate crops in the unfamiliar American soil.

7. SWEET POTATOES

Bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.
iStock

In the midst of so many New England traditions, the sweet potatoes on your table represent a dash of African-American culture. The tasty taters originally became popular in the south—while pumpkins grew well in the north, sweet potatoes (and the pies they could make) became a standard in southern homes and with enslaved plantation workers, who used them as a substitution for the yams they'd loved in their homeland. Sweet potato pie was also lovingly described in Hale's various Thanksgiving epistles, solidifying the regional favorite as a holiday go-to. More recently, some families further sweeten the dish by adding toasted marshmallows, a love-it-or-hate-it suggestion that dates to a 1917 recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack company.

8. GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE

Plate of green bean casserole.
iStock

Beans have been cultivated since ancient times, but green bean casserole is a decidedly modern contribution to the classic Thanksgiving canon. The recipe you love was whipped up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist working in the Campbell's Soup Company test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey. Reilly's job was to create limited-ingredient recipes that housewives could quickly replicate (using Campbell's products, of course). Her original recipe (still available at Campbells.com), contains just six ingredients: Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions. Her recipe was featured in a 1955 Associated Press feature about Thanksgiving, and the association has proven surprisingly durable—Campbell’s now estimates that 30 percent of their Cream of Mushroom soup is bought specifically for use in a green bean casserole.

9. PUMPKIN PIE

Slice of pumpkin pie.
iStock

Like cranberries, pumpkin pie does have ties to the original Thanksgiving, albeit in a much different format. The colonists certainly knew how to make pie pastry, but couldn't have replicated it without wheat flour, and might have been a bit perplexed by pumpkins, which were bigger than the gourds they knew in Europe. According to Eating in America: A History, however, Native Americans were already using the orange treats as a dessert meal: "Both squash and pumpkin were baked, usually by being placed whole in the ashes or embers of a dying fire and they were moistened afterwards with some form of animal fat, or maple syrup, or honey." It's likely that Hale was inspired by those stories when pumpkin pie appeared in her culinary descriptions.

10. WINE

Two glasses of wine.
iStock

Chances are good that a few glasses of wine will be clinked around your table this November, but did the pilgrims share a tipsy toast with their new friends? Kathleen Wall thinks that water was probably the beverage of choice, considering that the small amount of wine the settlers had brought with them was likely long gone. Beer was a possibility, but since barley hadn't been cultivated yet, the pilgrims had to make do with a concoction that included pumpkins and parsnips. Considering the availability of apples in what would become Massachusetts, however, other historians think it's possible that hard apple cider was on hand for the revelers to enjoy. Whether or not the original feast was a boozy affair, cider rapidly became the drink of choice for English settlers in the area, along with applejack, apple brandy, and other fruit-based spirits. New England cider thus indirectly led to a less-beloved Thanksgiving tradition: your drunk uncle's annual political rant. Bottoms up!

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Rey Del Rio/Getty Images
arrow
Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
Rey Del Rio/Getty Images
Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


Patrick Smith/Getty Images

In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios