Join 3,564 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)

Mysterious political cartoons from the 18th and 19th centuries
June 3, 2014 8:14 PM   Subscribe

Here is a seemingly inscrutable collection of 11 political cartoons from before the twentieth century. Without cheating, how many can you make heads or tails of?
posted by codswallop (65 comments total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: Self/Friends linking; banned -- taz



 
The "Whispering Gallery" exhibit at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (for which Mr. McGee has some supervisory authority) has dozens of nasty contemporary editorials and cartoons of Lincoln (and his wife). Historical editorial cartoons turn out to have been WAY NASTIER than contemporary ones. It's a really interesting exhibit; it's a little shocking how much nastier historical campaigns could be.

(It's followed by an exhibit where Tim Russert anchors 21st-century-esque commercials for 1860 candidates, which is hugely entertaining and involves a CNN-style crawl that says things like "Frenchman Louis Pasteur claims that boiling milk kills what he calls `germs,' invisible agents that cause illness. American physicians call Pasteur a quack.")
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:30 PM on June 3 [4 favorites]


I was disappointed at the lack of actual answers. Is that John Tyler in the Whig puppet one?
posted by Gable Oak at 8:32 PM on June 3 [5 favorites]


...probably more if they hadn't shrunken the images so much that I can't read the damn writing.

Also, Ms. Therese O'Neill? Given that you don't even know who John Bull is means that perhaps writing witty comments about political cartoons isn't exactly in your wheelhouse.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:32 PM on June 3 [15 favorites]


John Bull : UK :: Uncle Sam : US
posted by Sys Rq at 8:32 PM on June 3 [3 favorites]


Is that really a guillotine around the "stoner Frenchman"'s neck in the first one, or did that cartoonist predict the 4th generation iPod nano 213 years in advance?!??
posted by valrus at 8:32 PM on June 3 [11 favorites]


Sherlock's new investigative procedures grow more and more invasive.
posted by Apocryphon at 8:32 PM on June 3


Humor is notoriously ephemeral. Unless it's scatological or slapstick, then it's universal and timeless.
posted by stbalbach at 8:33 PM on June 3 [4 favorites]


Baffling or no, some of these are just wonderful as works of art. Number 1 and number 12, in particular, would make awesome posters.
posted by Atom Eyes at 8:37 PM on June 3 [1 favorite]


Isn't the way the fat jockey is holding his fingers in #9 the rude British gesture implying that one should go fuck themselves? That one is dated 1796, so maybe King George? Possibly riding one of his prime ministers? Not sure who the lady in the bed would be... The painting of the cherub playing flute for the pig is also pretty funny. Wonder if that has hidden meaning...
posted by codacorolla at 8:45 PM on June 3


□ For all you farmers out there scratchin’ in the dry heat, tryin’ to get your sorghum planted before the soil blows away, here are a few little har-hars from bygone days. After all, if you can’t laugh at your troubles, you’re just lettin’ em get the upper hand.

“Yesterday I accidentally dropped my best chain down one of the cracks in my yard. This morning I went to see if I could fish it out, but by golly, I could still hear it rattling on its way down!”

Found that one in a book of jokes told by sod flippers here in the Midwest a hundred years ago, during the first Dust Bowl. (And yes, there was a first one. Had to be, didn’t there?) These gems were collected by the Federal Writers Project back in the 1930s… their version of Net Memory, I guess. Here’s some more from the same collection:

“I had a three-inch rain last week… one drop every three inches.”

“It was so dry over in Waco County, I saw two trees fighting over a dog.”

“It’s so dry in my parts, Baptists are sprinkling converts, and Methodists are wipin’ ’em with a damp cloth.”

As I sit here in the studio, spinning the old two-way dial, I see some of you have carried your holos out to the fields with you. I’ll try to talk loud so you can find your set later under the dust!

Well, okay, maybe that one wasn’t so good. Here’s two from the book I guess must be even worse.

“My hay crop is so bad, I have to buy a bale just to prime the rake.”

“This year I plan to throw a hog in the corn trailer and pick directly to him. Figure I shouldn’t even have to change hogs till noon.”

Anybody out there understand those last two? I have free tickets to the next Skywriters concert in Chi-town for the first ten of you to shout back good explanations. Meanwhile, let’s have some zip-zep from the Skywriters themselves. Here’s “Tethered to a Rain Cloud.”
posted by Apocryphon at 8:46 PM on June 3 [11 favorites]


not just the cartoons, but the political discourse in the 19th century was nastier (if you can believe it) than today. one of my faves, about congressman henry clay...

"like a dead mackerel in the moonlight, he shines and stinks."
posted by bruce at 8:55 PM on June 3 [3 favorites]


The "prime the rake" one may be a riff on how you used to sometimes have to "prime" a hand-pump well by pouring some water into the well pipes first (that did....something to the pressure to allow the pump to work properly). You usually only did that if it had been dry and air got trapped in the pipe.

The "buying hay to prime my rake" is a riff on that practice - you prime your well if it's dry by adding water to it first, just like you would prime your rake when it's been a bad hay crop by adding hay to your rake first.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:57 PM on June 3 [2 favorites]


They both seem to be variations on "My crops are so lousy this year!" In the first, the farmer has to buy a bale of hay to give his hay rake something to start on.

The second is implying that the farmer could feed his corn crop to a pig and after half a day of picking corn, the pig would still not be full.
posted by borkencode at 9:00 PM on June 3 [4 favorites]


the political discourse in the 19th century was nastier (if you can believe it) than today.

Ohhhh, I believe it - I used to do a lot of research on early-Americana for a theater company, and one time we had a seriously political theme to our season. As some sort of one-off we had a reading of a bunch of different political writings from throughout history, and yeah, some of it was brutal. The folklorist Oscar Brand has done a couple albums of campaign songs and presidential songs, dating all the way back to Washington; here's an interview with him.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:07 PM on June 3 [2 favorites]


The one about Darwin and environmental variation is clearly about eugenics and social Darwinism. Along the same lines as Ada Jukes and the Jukes family, or Only Healthy Seed Must Be Sown!
posted by ChuraChura at 9:08 PM on June 3


Is the outfit on the left in the Darwinism cartoon supposed to be scandalous?
posted by codacorolla at 9:25 PM on June 3


They're Macbeth. It's all Macbeth.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:28 PM on June 3


#1 is referencing this painting, which is a famous depiction of sleep paralysis.
posted by empath at 9:29 PM on June 3 [1 favorite]


The Night Mare, the nightmare, and the Night Mayor.
posted by unliteral at 9:30 PM on June 3 [3 favorites]


Priming pumps: metaphor candy.

Hand pumps had a short stack of leather washers mounted around a cob-like plug or a steel shaft, which acted similarly to the way rings on an automobile's piston act, to make a seal. The washers expanded when wet, and were flexible. If you don't use the pump for a while (days), the washers dry up. You pour a cup or so of water in on top of the piston (many pumps had a small cock on top for just this purpose), and let the washer soak it up and expand. Then you pump like hell until you feel the suction kick in.

Other versions of priming have to do with using short, curved tubes to move water from a small irrigation ditch into furrows to irrigate row crops. You submerge the tube in the water and cap the ends, then quickly lay it across the ditch bank, making sure the outside of the tube is lower than the water level of the ditch. That's how you place an irrigation siphon.

"Priming the pump" was an old saying among the adults of my mom's generation. It meant to save a bit (of something) to help you get something else. Maybe giving somebody (a fellow worker, for example) a smile to generate a bit of good will. It meant to take some sort of initiative. It also meant kissing a bit of ass to make your day a bit easier.

Metaphors lost. When we look back we see only the bones.
posted by mule98J at 9:35 PM on June 3 [6 favorites]


>Humor is notoriously ephemeral. Unless it's scatological or slapstick, then it's universal and timeless.

No kidding! I was watching episodes of Norm Crosby's Comedy Shop a few weeks ago on an obscure digital channel with the kids. The show featured both upcoming and established stand up acts. The material those 70s stand ups were using was (besides being pretty sorry) virtually indecipherable to my teenagers. I got the jokes because they largely referenced politics/events, personalities, and tv shows of the time that I recall, but have largely faded into obscurity. In fifty years, those videos are going to look like they must have come from Mars.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:44 PM on June 3


"that did....something to the pressure to allow the pump to work properly"

Still a thing that must happen! Houses have a stand pipe that sticks up from the roof that lets air into the pipe at the top which keeps the air pressure and gravity proper so your pipes don't let swamp gas back up into your house.

I don't really understand it but it is important.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:49 PM on June 3


As far as I know, the vents on the roof have little to do with swamp gas; they're mainly to let air in behind the water so it flows smoothly instead of glugging out like an upside-down wine bottle. It's the U-shaped traps under the sink that keep the swamp gas from coming out of your drains, since there's always some water sitting in the U to block it.
posted by Dr. Send at 9:53 PM on June 3


1. John Bull is he typical Englishman, being ridden in his nightmare by William Pitt the Prime Minister. The message of the 13d loaf and the French revolutionary at the window is likely that the price of bread is too high and it will lead to revolution. The price of bread was high because of the war, and corn growers became so used to it that the price was held artificially high after the war ended. The Corn Laws and their political fallout lasted until almost 1850, and helped spark both middle class and working class involvement in national politics.

3. Caroline of Brunswick is riding Prince George. I can't read the writing to tell you exactly what the meaning is, but read about the Pains and Penalties Bill (just a year after this cartoon) for more about their "marriage".

Non mi ricordo!
posted by Thing at 10:03 PM on June 3 [2 favorites]


I think #11 is actually an egalitarian, anti-class system statement. (Which makes sense if it's American in origin.) What's missing is the context that in 19th century England (old Kent Road is in London) low class = dirty and bad, and high class = clean and good. Thus, the foolish strumpet strutting in the street is exactly the same as the nice lady turning heads at the church parade. Only the environment makes them different.
posted by Kevin Street at 10:16 PM on June 3


OK. So Thing's #2 point led me into a Wikipedia spiral that ended here:

19th century selfie.

The filename makes it pretty clear who it is, and, yeah, it's a self portrait. It looks so modern.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:39 PM on June 3 [1 favorite]


My favorite is #4 — beautiful draftsmanship, and I'm sure it's the closest to looking like the people being portrayed.

And if you liked these, see if you can figure out who this is referring to. Took me a good 5-10 minutes. If you need a hint: He's got the same nose in one of the OP's images.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:48 PM on June 3


Leotrotsky, did you read the intro? She states flat out she doesn't have the innate knowledge to interpret these, ("I failed fantastically") and the challenge is for readers to try and figure them out in a discussion format. Also she somewhere mentions she tried making the originals larger and it didn't help. I don't think anyone was out to upset you. I thought it was fun.
posted by esereth at 10:55 PM on June 3 [1 favorite]


“This year I plan to throw a hog in the corn trailer and pick directly to him. Figure I shouldn’t even have to change hogs till noon.”

A corn trailer is hauled behind or integrated into a harvester, and the corn is pretty much shot into it after being processed by big grindy gears and blades. Back in the day I believe they pretty much just threw the whole ears into the trailer. The hogs are eating so much/he has so little corn that instead of putting the corn in a crib he's just going to be blowing processed corn/throwing the fresh picked ears right into it's mouth as he goes. Also he's spending from sunup to noon feeding just one of them so they're pretty ravenously hungry.
posted by mcrandello at 10:57 PM on June 3


These are all so pretty, maybe because they're so baffling. The Englishman in #10 is a pudding, not a cucumber, but that's all I got.
posted by queensissy at 11:17 PM on June 3


5 has to be the Louisiana Purchase. No clue what it's meant to imply, because I know nothing about the Louisiana Purchase beyond that it happened.

Is the fat man in #4 Taft?

#9 is definitely a cuckoldry joke: The fat man (one of the Royal Princes? The Regent? the 3 feathers on the nightstand and the blue sash suggest something like it) is making the sign of the horns (the insult thrown at a cuckold, a man whose wife is cheating on him) at the skinny man he’s riding. Buck might be Buckingham? The Duke of? God knows...

The assumption is that the fat dude is having it off with the skinny old woman in the bed, presumably “Buck’s” wife. She seems further caricatured by the pregnant sow image in the painting. The happy complicity of “Buck” implies that he’s a wittol (a willing cuckold) who’s happily prostituting his wife.

I’m a 16th and 17th Century girl, so I’m all at sea: no clue who these people are.

#11 is definitely social commentary: the woman on the left is working class, the woman on the right is wealthy, and both comments mean essentially the same thing (she’s turned out to admiration, is strikingly beautiful -- we still use the term ‘knocked them dead’). I assume that the joke is “Haw Haw look at how coarse and low working-class women are; those commoners have no taste!”. And, of course, it’s the same woman.

#8 might be the Regent and Queen Caroline? The same couple as in #3, where she’s riding him like a bicycle? He’s horrified and startled now that he gets a good look at her...
posted by jrochest at 11:40 PM on June 3 [1 favorite]


the political discourse in the 19th century was nastier (if you can believe it) than today.

Ma! Ma! Where's my pa? Off to the White House, ha ha ha ha!
posted by MartinWisse at 11:44 PM on June 3 [2 favorites]


This infamous one is fairly self-explanatory. [prev]
posted by dhartung at 12:08 AM on June 4


The Night Mare, the nightmare, and the Night Mayor.

Interesting. This is in fact the origin of the word "nightmare" - a spirit that site on your chest, not a horse. Source of a great Shakespearean pun.
posted by iotic at 12:09 AM on June 4


Unless it's scatological or slapstick, then it's universal and timeless.

Or about genitals.
Hamlet. My excellent good friends! How dost thou, Guildenstern? Ah,
Rosencrantz! Good lads, how do ye both?
Rosencrantz. As the indifferent children of the earth.
Guildenstern. Happy in that we are not over-happy.
On Fortune's cap we are not the very button.
Hamlet. Nor the soles of her shoe?
Rosencrantz. Neither, my lord.
Hamlet. Then you live about her waist, or in the middle of her
favours?
Guildenstern. Faith, her privates we.
posted by NoraReed at 1:18 AM on June 4 [1 favorite]


I recognised nos. 8 and 9 as the work of the incomparable James Gillray. I recalled that the man depicted in no. 8 was the Prince Regent, but forgot who the woman was and had to look her up. While most of Gillray’s satirical prints are naturally hard to fathom from 200+ years’ distance, some remain easy to read.
posted by misteraitch at 1:22 AM on June 4


This is a fun game, though I could have done without the LOL WEIRD HISTORY DUDES commentary. I guess nobody really expects history to make any sense.

In (1), the figure on the bed is William Pitt, forcing an overtaxed loaf of bread down the throat of John Bull (= England), while the figure outside represents the French Revolution. So the message of the cartoon is that the government is using the nightmare of foreign terrorism as an excuse to cut back on civil liberties. (Hard to imagine, but that's how it was in the olden days!)

In (3), the man tied to the coach is the Prince Regent, later King George IV, and the woman riding him is his mistress Lady Hertford (hence the reference to the 'Hertfordshire Cock-horse'). I think the figure in the background may be her husband Lord Hertford. So the message of the cartoon is that the Prince of Wales, the heir to the British throne, is having a not-so-secret affair with a married woman. (Crazy, huh?) It also shows how women in those days were slut-shamed for being overweight. (Yeah, I know, WTF?)

Some people say we can learn lessons from history, but that's just crazy talk. LOL HISTORY AMIRITE?
posted by verstegan at 1:25 AM on June 4 [6 favorites]


stbalbach: "Humor is notoriously ephemeral. Unless it's scatological or slapstick, then it's universal and timeless."

See also "sucking Whigs".
posted by chavenet at 3:17 AM on June 4


Metafilter: I don't really understand it but it is important.
posted by chavenet at 3:23 AM on June 4


In (3), the man tied to the coach is the Prince Regent, later King George IV, and the woman riding him is his mistress Lady Hertford (hence the reference to the 'Hertfordshire Cock-horse'). I think the figure in the background may be her husband Lord Hertford. So the message of the cartoon is that the Prince of Wales, the heir to the British throne, is having a not-so-secret affair with a married woman. (Crazy, huh?) It also shows how women in those days were slut-shamed for being overweight. (Yeah, I know, WTF?)

Ah, is that so? I just assumed it would be Caroline. Nice to know I'm wrong.
posted by Thing at 3:25 AM on June 4


sucking whpigs
posted by Herodios at 4:08 AM on June 4


It's followed by an exhibit where Tim Russert anchors 21st-century-esque commercials for 1860 candidates

Alas, Russert is already on his way to being history; he died in 2008. The exhibit must already be at least five years old.
posted by JHarris at 4:28 AM on June 4


YOU SHUT UP 2008 WAS NOT 5 YEARS AGO.
posted by Twain Device at 5:25 AM on June 4


#6 is Martin Van Buren (with the sideburns) and William Henry Harrison as the mixed-metaphor locomotive. "Clay" is probably a reference to Henry Clay.

Short summary from Wikipedia:

Said one Democratic newspaper: "Give him a barrel of hard cider, and ... a pension of two thousand [dollars] a year ... and ... he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin."

Whigs took advantage of this quip and declared that Harrison was "the log cabin and hard cider candidate", a man of the common people from the rough-and-tumble West. They depicted Harrison's opponent, President Martin Van Buren, as a wealthy snob who was out of touch with the people. In fact, it was Harrison who came from a family of wealthy planters, while Van Buren's father was a tavernkeeper. Harrison however moved to the frontier and for years lived in a log cabin, while Van Buren had been a well-paid government official.
posted by gimonca at 5:28 AM on June 4


YOU SHUT UP 2008 WAS NOT 5 YEARS AGO.

Indeed, it was six.
posted by kewb at 5:28 AM on June 4 [2 favorites]


NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO


In all seriousness though, I have to thank this entire thread. It is leading down some interesting learning holes. I've learned more about the etymology of some words and political history today than I probably have the rest of the year.
posted by Twain Device at 5:32 AM on June 4


I would have guessed that #10 was a temperance cartoon about how immigrants are all obsessed with drink except for the Scotsmen. I don't get that part.
posted by interplanetjanet at 5:32 AM on June 4


#11 is also making a joke about evolution and class (and women). The two women's different environments have caused them to diverge from each other, but they are both really the same.
posted by interplanetjanet at 5:37 AM on June 4


I have the same problem of understanding, but with the bizarre modern political cartoons from the spanish newspaper El País.
posted by Omon Ra at 6:13 AM on June 4


I think #3 is about Net Neutrality.
posted by stltony at 6:26 AM on June 4


SUCKING WHIGS
posted by swift at 6:33 AM on June 4


I have an anthology called The Library of Wit and Humour. I purchased it for $1 at a garage sale and it is full of stilted and/or unfuny old-time jokes. It was compiled in 1884. Below, I have reproduced portions of the anthology's printing of Joe Miller's Jests. It begins with a short introduction:
"Joe Miller's Jests" were compiled by Mottley when almost bedridden, in the intervals between violent paroxysms of the gout, and were first published in 1739...

[We reprint, verbatim et literatim the original edition of 1739 compiled by John Mottley, including a fac-simile (reduced) of the title page, omitting only about twenty "jests," which are unfit for family reading.]

Joe Miller's JESTS:
OR THE
WITS
VADE-MECUM.
BEING
A collection of the moft brilliant JESTS; the Politeft REPARTEES; the moft pleasant short Stories in the Englifh Language...

2. There being a very great Disturbance one Evening at Drury-Lane Play-House, Mr. Wilks, coming upon the Stage to say something to pacify the Audience, had an Orange thrown full at him, which he having took up, made a low Bow, this is no Civil Orange, I think, said he.

10. A Gentleman was saying one Day at the Tilt-Yard Coffee-House, when it rained exceeding hard, that it put him in Mind of the General Deluge; Zoons, Sir, said an old Campaigner, who stood by, who's that? I have heard of all the Generals in Europe but him.

131. A Gentleman asked Nanny Rochford, why the Whigs, in their Mourning for Queen Anne, all wore Silk Stockings: Because, said she, the Tories were worsted.

237. A Cowardly Servant having been hunting with his Lord, they had kill'd a wild Boar; the Fellow seeing the Boar stir, betook himself to a Tree; upon which his Master call'd to him, and asked him, what was he afraid of, the Boars entrails were out? — No matter for that, says he, his Teeth are in.
The title page of the anthology promises prose and poetry "SELECTED FROM THE LITERATURE OF ALL TIMES AND NATIONS." A little-known fact is that as of 1884 there were only two or three nations and just a couple centuries of recorded history.
posted by compartment at 6:41 AM on June 4 [2 favorites]


"Eat crow" is one of those old jokes from the mid-19th century that has lots its humor to time, but carries on as a fossil in the language. Everyone knows what it means roughly, but no one knows what it means really because the humor of the original story is obscure (has to do with smarty urbanites vs. rube farmers).
posted by stbalbach at 6:56 AM on June 4



posted by stbalbach at 7:14 AM on June 4


If you're wondering about the "civil orange" joke in compartment's post, this page pretty well explains it.
posted by kewb at 7:35 AM on June 4 [1 favorite]


Hard cider face-train is my new avatar.
posted by Halogenhat at 7:37 AM on June 4


> If you're wondering about the "civil orange" joke in compartment's post, this page pretty well explains it.

Pretty well, but gets an important point backward:
Thus, the joke: civil, pronounced “civ-VIL,” is a pun on Seville, where bitter oranges come from. Not only is it a play on sound, the oranges aptly describe Claudio’s bitter feelings, as well as his jealousy (people back then were orange, not green, with jealousy).
No, civil had first-syllable stress just as it does today, it's Seville that used to be pronounced SEV'l (rhymes with Neville).

Also, for those of you with a taste for antiquated humor, try the Jan. 1922 issue of Captain Billy's Whiz Bang. In naughty old New York you need cold cash to have a hot time!
posted by languagehat at 8:28 AM on June 4 [1 favorite]


From Captain Billy's Whiz Bang, October 1921:
"So you've been to Paris? How did you like the Eiffel Tower?"
"Eiffel Tower? Huh, I didn't have my eyes more than two feet off the ground all the time I was there."
Because of the ankles...
posted by librosegretti at 9:03 AM on June 4 [1 favorite]


And another (same issue) that shows a change:
"Sunday is the strongest day. All the rest are weak days."
posted by librosegretti at 9:06 AM on June 4


the Jan. 1922 issue of Captain Billy's Whiz Bang

See, stuff like this is one of the reasons I love MetaFilter. Before today, I somehow had no idea that Captain Billy's Whiz Bang was anything but a lyric from The Music Man.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 9:18 AM on June 4


This may have prompted a post of my own...(thinking.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:54 AM on June 4


"...because they are cur-tailed!"

Yeah, that's all I got.
posted by McCoy Pauley at 11:17 AM on June 4


There are some real thigh slappers in those Captain Billy's Whiz Bang's.

We are contemplating a boxing tournament on our farm with a "beautiful lamp" as a trophy.

People who get chilled to the bone ought to wear a hat.

It's a long lane that has no parked automobile.

"Well, that's all over," said Olaf, as he finished spreading the fertiliser.

What?
posted by unliteral at 9:55 PM on June 4


The fertilizer (farm animal shit in grandpa's day) is now literally all over the place. He is also now done with the (shitty) task of putting it there. This is humorous. It may just be the exception that tests the rule re: scatological humor being timeless. The rest I don't know about.
posted by mcrandello at 6:06 AM on June 5


From Billy's Whiz Bang Q&A:
Dear Cap.-Can you suggest some inexpensive amusement that I might indulge in when my husband is away?-Dottie

Take a bath and then spend half an hour or so playfully trying to loeate the soap.
That's, uh, probably exactly what it sounds like, right?

Edit: Also, that magazine would make an excellent FPP. It's like reading a seedier version of a Wooster novel.
posted by codacorolla at 6:52 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


« Older The dragons in Game of Thrones as a metaphor for n...  |  I think we're going to need a ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments