Political cartoons are not just entertainment– they are an engaging form of historical evidence. Produced for a specific reason and directed to a particular audience, political cartoons were designed to shape public opinion, support a cause, expose an opponent to public scorn, or caricature a person’s beliefs, motivation, or significance, among other things. (Our cartoons are below.)
In the 19th and early 20th century, cartoonists were reporters as well as social critics, just as they are today. So we can learn a lot by paying close attention to the details of their work. Cartoonists used symbolism, literary allusions, exaggeration, and of course the joke itself, to convey a message and support a point of view – or sometimes to address several points of view. In the process, they also revealed prevailing social attitudes, class and racial biases, and popular language and customs that might surprise or even offend us today.
Every cartoon has a thesis – a main point supported by evidence that may (or may not) rest on facts. How and why a cartoonist marshals this evidence is as important as the punch line.
Political cartoons provide an opportunity for students to analyze content, evaluate evidence, and experience the complexity of history – and the importance of historical context – first hand. Check out our cartoons to see how Gompers and the labor movement fared in the press. What do you think the cartoonist was trying to say -- and why?