Ye Complicated Cartoons of Yesteryear

Randall Stephens

Political cartoons of today are quite unlike those of previous decades, and very unlike those of previous centuries. (Caveat: This is just me speaking as the armchair amateur.) Quite a few op-ed cartoons that run in Newsweek, the Globe, the New York Times and elsewhere are easy enough to figure out at a glance. Many a cartoonist makes his/her case with a visual pun and a on-liner. Look at quite a few prints from the postwar era to the present and you might note the grace and simplicity of the style and the clarity of meaning. (CLICK the detail of the cartoon to enlarge this famous 1956 Herblock cartoon.)

Not so with 18th and 19th century political and social satires. A tangle of text bubbles, symbols, and, in the case of 18th- and early 19th-century cartoons, gutter vulgarities crowd the page. It is fun to look at these antique prints that fed off political battles and showcased the personality clashes of the day. In my classes we spend quite a bit of time unraveling the meaning of various satirical etchings and lithographs. (Finding the dog urinating on something in an 18th century political cartoon is a like a Where's Waldo game.) And note the typically bizarre sexual quality of the devil in the print below.

So, here's "A political, anatomical, satirical, lecture on heads and no heads; as exhibited at St. J--ms's 1766" from the Library of Congress. (CLICK the image to enlarge.) And the description from the LOC site runs as follows:

Print shows the Earl of Bute holding up a bust of William Pitt as the starting point of his lecture on "Heads and No Heads"; on a table before him and on a shelf to the left are several busts identified by number with corresponding descriptions in the printed caption. A woman assistant, on the left, says "I hand them in" and the devil, on the right holding a burning candle in one hand and a candlesnuffer in the other, says "I hand them off", two extinguished candles sit on the table. Nine men form the audience in the foreground, each utters a comment, such as, "Good Lord deliver us", "A good Exhibition this", "Yes, the Characters are well drawn", and "My, all Birds of a Feather".

Hmmm. . . . A send-up of types? The accompanying text is a thicket. This one is still a real head-scratcher for me! Chris Beneke? Maura Farrelly? John Fea? A paleocartoonologist? Some enlightenment?