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The Golden Age of American Political Cartoons

On exhibit exclusively at the Hayes Museum
through June 8, 2008

Congressman and Massachusetts governor Ben Butler was a favorite subject of political cartoonists.American political cartooning came of age after the Civil War. The first great American political cartoonist Thomas Nast used his stark, unrelenting attack style to destroy the corrupt Tammany Hall regime and to re-elect President Ulysses Grant. Nast’s work for Harper’s Weekly proved that pictures could be more powerful than words in shaping public opinion. His chiding, hard-driven style gave way to the wittier, satiric, and colorful works of Joseph Keppler and his colleagues and imitators at Puck and Judge magazines. It was 19th century political cartoonists that associated images of the elephant and donkey with political parties.The cartoonists hoped to serve as a moral compass to keep America on the path to becoming a world power in the new industrial age. Many scholars consider the political cartoons created between the Civil War and 1900 to be the finest in American history. It was truly “The Golden Age of American Political Cartoons.”

This exclusive Hayes Museum exhibit uses original sketches and published political cartoons from 1868 through 1900 to detail the evolution of the art form as well as the lives of popular cartoonists of the day, including James A. Wales of Clyde, Ohio – the first U.S.-born American political cartoonist.

It was 19th Century political cartoonists who began the use of symbols to give instant recognition in their cartoons. The images of Uncle Sam or Miss Liberty as surrogates for America signaled the reader that a cartoon was about the United States. Similarly, the elephant and donkey were used as symbols for the Republican and Democratic parties. Symbols could lend dignity or ignominy to a subject. A politician prefered to be associated with Abraham Lincoln or George Washington than the devil, or the grim reaper. Cartoonist Thomas Nast is credited with popularizing several enduring symbols, including the donkey, elephant, Boss Tweed, Uncle Sam, Santa Claus, and Miss Columbia.

Attention teachers! Check out a great website that offers resources for incorporating political cartoons into your curriculum: