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 Few things are more baffling than an outdated political cartoon.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