"Inspecting the Democratic Curiosity Shop"
September 1, 1880

Although the immediate reaction is to tune out most of the clutter which surrounds primary characters General Winfield Scott Hancock, Democratic Party Chairman W.H. Barnum, and Senators Hill, Lamar, and Hampton, a close examination of the overall composition of the cartoon shows that it is actually a well-organized editorial about that other political organization of Gilded Age, the Democratic Party. The image plays off of two general themes, to which the multitude of objects serve as symbolic evidence. The most immediate political context is that Hancock, a competent though non-political Union general, had been lured into the position of representing the Democrats in the 1880 presidential election. Building from this foundation, the intimate history of the party is incarnated as a curiosity shop whose knicknacks are on display for Hancock's inspection. The Democratic Party, which for many years after the Civil War carried the stigma of secession, is likened in this manner to a minor commercial phenomena as well as a novel by Charles Dickens, one particular author whose "influence was strong" across class lines [1].

The curiosity shop is a tailor-made setting for a political cartoon, because the shop makes a business of showcasing items which-- as in cartooning-- are linked to deeper stories or issues. Each of the objects found throughout the Democratic Curiosity Shop are associated with different elements of Southern/Democratic culture; if general categories were constructed for them, one group would pertain to slavery and another to the Confederacy as a political and military system. (There are also a handful of stereotypical cracks at the South as a regional culture, like the stuffed alligator and the banjo in the upper-center area of the image.)

Several pieces relating to slavery and race are collected in the lower left corner of the cartoon; some of these 'curios' are either a poor attempt at sarcasm or an indication that the artist was as limited in his worldview as most other passively white supremacist gentlemen of his era. Moving clockwise we see a Whipping Post, a Lamp Post Gallows for "Niggers", a Slave Tracking Bloodhound, and a Sambo-ish body which is curiously labelled Torpedo. On close inspection, "Niggers" is printed in quotation marks, and so it could indicate the artist's understanding of the word's pejorative nature. However, unless Keppler is trying to convey the idea that the average white Southerner put such little value in his slaves that he would use them as cheap weaponry, the "Torpedo" is beyond me. Hanging from the ceiling of the shop is a sign with the words Fugitive Slave Act; since it has no other visual reference the sign would appear to be an unimaginative attempt to pull out of the closet as many pro-slavery skeletons as possible. In spite of the questionable taste of his satire in this case, Keppler is emphasizing the victimization inherent in the slave system and associating its brutality with those who followed its political incarnation.

The second group of symbols is particularly interesting if one takes into account that the artist did not live in America prior to 1867; the cartoon reflects a knowledge of sectional conflict from as far back as the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1856. Starting clockwise from the lower right corner a cannonball mounted on a pedestal is the infamous First Shot Fired at Sumter, and a punctured section of masonry is labelled as the Hole Made By Same. Next up is Preston Brooks' Cane that Struck Sumner in the Capitol after the Massachusetts Senator's vitriolic "Crime Against Kansas" speech. In the upper right corner is the Confederate warship Alabama, a British-built vessel which had terrorized commercial ships crossing the Atlantic during the war. The "Alabama Claims" were a set of grievances the United States lodged with England demanding compensation for their aiding of the Confederacy; the international scope of this incident may be the reason for Keppler's familiarity with its occurrence. Similarly, the assault of Charles Sumner and the battle at Fort Sumter made headlines throughout Europe. Inside of glass cases are K.K.K robes, a variety of torture implements, and a derringer marked as Booth's Pistol, all of which require little explanation for a domestic or foreign reader. The ring of keys symbolizing the Cipher Dispatches is one of the few allusions to post-war Democratic politics; this series of communiques implicated New York governor and 1876 presidential contender Samuel J. Tilden in election fraud and other related transgressions. Leaning against the aforementioned lamp post is a Rail Ridden by Union Men Down South, and the remains of a hoop skirt marked Disguise of Jefferson Davis, which reminds viewers of the Confederate president's ill-conceived escape from Union soldiers. The last item referring to rebel politics is the pile of Repudiated Bonds, with which the Southern states tried to save their economy during Reconstruction.

Two pieces in the shop may point to one source of Keppler's knowledge of the South. In a glass case is an Andersonville Skeleton; just in front of it is a Rag Baby which symbolizes the former Confederate states' need for "soft money", or currency not rigidly based on a gold standard. The Andersonville prison in Georgia is one of the more gruesome footnotes to the history of the Civil War, and as such it may have retained a particular macabre hold on the public imagination and been introduced to the artist in this fashion. However, it is also equally plausible that Andersonville came to Keppler's attention via the one artistic entity serious scholars as well as myself have regularly defined him against: Thomas Nast. In the 1872 anti-Liberal Republican cartoon "Let Us Clasp Hands over the Bloody Chasm" Horace Greeley is depicted as someone who would be willing to forgive even the grossest of Confederate atrocities in order to get elected. The Rag Baby is even better proof that Keppler got his history from cartoons, as Nast created the Baby and featured it in numerous lampoons of Democratic economic principles, including "The Haunted House". Though perhaps not as potent, this symbol is much like the "Join or Die" snake because they have each been associated with the same ideas over substantial periods of time. The inclusion of the Rag Baby in this lithograph adds a further dimension to an already diverse reflection of the era in which it was produced: the public's imaginative cosmos contained not only literary settings like Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop or more concrete historical metaphors like Jefferson Davis' dress, but also images from favorite cartoons of the recent past.

The final item in the shop constructs a specific critique of Democratic politics, and also can be interpreted as a droll allegory of American political history. The horizontal stitching on the one end of this stuffed beast is labelled "Inflation" while that on the other is labelled "States' Rights"; the vertical stitching is "Secession Sympathy". The idea seems to be that secession sympathy holds together Northern Democrats who advocated soft money and Southern Democrats who adhered to anti-federalist legacies. On another level, though, the sign that says "Democratic Donkey, Stuffed 1860" could be a reference to small-d democrats and the notion that they all died when the Civil War began. The original balance of power in America was between the mercantilist federals from New England and the agrarian Southerners who looked to the libertarian principles of Jefferson and Calhoun for ideological guidance. One of the animal's rumps is labelled as North, and the other as South: America is thus a double-assed donkey, an artificial creation which raises a rather amusing paradox when its ability to walk forward is questioned.

The evidence assembled against the Democratic Party is designed both to emphasize the inhumanity of white Southerners-- in their treatment of Northern Caucasians as well as Negroes-- and also demonstrate their economic and legal incompetence. In this manner the disordered paraphenalia of the curiosity shop becomes as well-organized assault on the Democratic Party, and the cartoon moves beyond the simple irony of a Union general representing the party of slavery and secession to a razor sharp satire Jonathan Swift would probably be well pleased with.

Return to "A Popular Meduim"

Introduction | A Brief History of Cartoons | Mainstream & Elite Political Culture | A Popular Medium
"Our National Dog Show" | The Campaign Against Grant | Caricature and the Carte-de-Viste | "Inspecting the Democratic Curiosity Shop"
End Notes | Cartoon Archive | Bibliography