II) A Popular Medium

In the early years of its New York-based operation, Puck as a business enterprise depended almost entirely upon its appeal to the German community. Within a few years, however, it had become established as the first commercially viable illustrated humor magazine in America; by 1880 it boasted a circulation of eighty-five thousand [1]. The cartoons featured by artistic director Joseph Keppler and his publishing partner Adolph Schwartzmann expressed a liberal orientation occasioned by their German origins, and corresponded to that of the gentlemen reformers. David E. E. Sloane writes that Puck "tapped the great middle-class readership of America" and also attracted "upper and some lower class readers as well" [2]; in this fashion the magazine functioned as a link between elite intellect and popular imagination, transmitting the Mugwump ideology to the large body of voters who did not respond to the complex textual arguments of highbrow publications like The Nation. Whether they knew it or not, the Best Men had a weapon to compete with the barbecues and torchlight parades of mainstream partisan politics.

To be sure, Puck depended on all strata of the population, in that the political inspiration came from the intellectual aristocrats while the general public put ten cents down each week to keep the magazine in print. Price is by no means irrelevant in considering its impact on cartoon culture: with Harper's one would have to pay thirty-five cents for a regular illustrated newspaper that incidentally featured a couple of black-and-white Thomas Nast woodcuts; by contrast, Puck offered three full-color lithographs each week, on the front and back covers as well as a two page center spread. Editor Henry C. Bunner filled the remaining twelve pages with his own light fiction and verse as well as an endless supply of jokes, puns, and pen-and-ink drawings, creating, "in short, a good value for a dime" [3].

The cover price was not the only aspect of the magazine geared towards a large middle and working class. Keppler capitalized on the latest printing methods available so that his cartoons would appear "even more eye-catching than ever" to a public whose everyday world "reveled in color" [4]. The artist's experimentation with various types of chromolithographs bordered on obsession, but the work seems to have paid off: the ease in both drawing and printing made lithography "an ideal technique to distribute popular art forms" [5]. The attention of a large and loyal group of buyers ensured Puck's dominance in political satire through the end of the century.

"An Unexpected Blow" reflects both an understanding of the masses who bought the magazine, as well as a willingness to entertain them-- two qualities which the Best Men severely lacked. Considering the different components of the image, one can see that gusts of "Public Opinion" wind keep the "U.S. Grant" kite in the air, but also threaten to knock over the "Republican Party" chimney built with bricks labelled as the political machines of various states. To make matters worse, the kite is about to be struck by a bolt of lightning faintly captioned as the "Independent Press". Keppler surely saw himself as a non-partisan journalist, as his magazine would not actively promote a particular presidential candidate until after Grover Cleveland's victory in 1884 [6]; the press as lightning accurately characterizes the destructive potential of both entities. Representing the public opinion as wind is an equally astute observation, since opinions are somewhat abstract, intangible things that can shift rapidly and unexpectedly. Inasmuch as public opinion is a major factor in political contests, it is also essentially a force of nature which can exercise tremendous power. Keppler demonstrates through this cartoon that, like the wind, the public has a certain fickle quality that can both sustain the career of a hero-president as well as destroy the constructions of spoilsmen like Roscoe Conkling and Don Cameron.

Fischer writes that the success of a political cartoon rests in its ability "to influence public opinion through its use of widely and instantly understood symbols, slogans, referents, and allusions" [7]; a sampling of the lithographs from 1880 to 1884 indicates that there was a broad shared culture for Keppler and company to work with. "People cannot parody what is not familiar" to the audience [8], and so Puck's best cartoons incorporated popular amusements which emerged after the Civil War as well as universally-recognized themes from the Bible, Shakespeare, and other "classic" sources. This approach is of course not new; "Passional Christi und Antichristi" presents an instance of the artist basing his image in that first and foremost member of the public culture-- the Bible-- as early as the sixteenth century. Realizing that any cartoons not soundly based in shared culture would fare no better with the people than The North American Review, Keppler and his artists illustrated their editorial opinions with well-known narratives and activities.

In addition to the over-arching story which governed the picture, the typical Puck cartoon contained many other smaller embellishments; because they serve to ridicule individual public figures or specific issues, they seem to originate in the caricatura. Keppler was one of the principal caricaturists of the century, but his approach is far more realistic than the Italian, which, as "A Captain of Pope Urban VII" demonstrated earlier, is less concerned with fidelity to the subject's actual appearance. The attention to realism in his subjects' faces indicates an awareness of the growing power of photographs in the political arena as well as the culture in general; furthermore Keppler's molding of expressions which interacted with the degree of levity evoked by the cartoon's setting-- like James A. Garfield smiling coquettishly as he prepares to marry Uncle Sam-- provided another source of humor. [Go to the Rogues' Gallery to learn more about the relationship between caricature and photography in Puck.]

Building off of the person-oriented caricature, other small details in Puck usually regarded the transformation of certain objects into symbolic counterparts. Some of the cartoons look as if the main characters are about to be crowded out of the frame by the various and sundry symbols piled up around them; while this can be seen as a distraction from the image's overall message, closer examinations show that the clutter has concrete associations which lend rhetorical support to the editorial slant of the cartoon. The scene Keppler drew for "Inspecting the Democratic Curiosity Shop" is one such example.

Since Puck concentrated on political activity, its artists tried to reflect facets of that environment's general atmosphere and distort them in such a way as to illuminate particular criticisms. For many years sports had been one of the favorite cartoon metaphors for politics; Keppler and company wisely followed this current. The detail from "The Political Handicap" is such an example, as its parody lies in the comparison of equestrian ability and effectiveness on the campaign trail. The image juxtaposes 1880 Republican presidential nominee James A. Garfield's confidence in the saddle with the indecisive Democrats, who had been unable to elect one of their own since James Buchanan in 1856.

Another trait of the political arena that held a great deal of weight with the masses was its emphasis on masculinity. One scholar of the era concisely describes the nature of gender identity in this regard:

Late nineteenth century election campaigns were public spectacles that ended for one side in triumph, for the other in humiliation. Men described these contests through metaphors of warfare and, almost as frequently, cock fighting and boxing. Victory validated manhood. . . [9]
Spoilsmen like Roscoe Conkling proclaimed themselves as the men of politics; the women were invariably the polite intellectuals, publicly insulted with epithets like "political hermaphrodites", "eunuchs", "man-milliners", and "miss-Nancys". [10].

Obviously wanting to tap into all the metaphors created by successful public men, Puck indulged heavily in this interpretation of political contests. The dapper Conkling was a perennial target: in "The Only Baby", by Keppler's first assistant artist James A. Wales, the New York Senator can be seen with Pennsylvania spoilsman Don Cameron as nursemaids. The matronly indulgence of these two plain-jane nannies is a funny enough picture in itself, but the image is also a commentary on the relationships between prominent Republican presidential contenders and the powerful GOP managers. Roscoe and Don ignore James G. Blaine, John Sherman, and others who sought the 1880 nomination because of their infatuation with baby Ulysses; in addition, the cartoon implies that as long as they keep on feeding the baby his "3rd Term Pap" he will come to recognize their authority over him. The message about the internal affairs of the Republican Party is thus conveyed to the viewer in a familiar gender-bending context.

A more typical use of this humor in Puck can be seen in the detail from "The Cinderella of the Republican Party and Her Haughty Sisters". The supercilious air that likens Grant and Conkling to the wicked debutantes of fairytale is a perfect appropriation of the Stalwarts' own favorite weapon, and one which due to its simplicity would enjoy immediate public comprehension. Concentrating on these two figures, details within the detail can be found which specifically refer to the duo's shady behavior. The sash of Grant's dress is a representation of the "Complimentary Ticket Around the World" which he used after his second presidential term; the feathers in his tiara carry the labels of "War Record" and "Party Fidelity", implying that his records of military service and partisanship constituted the only 'feathers in his cap' responsible for his success. The medallion which fronts the gaudy headdress sports the number "306", which is the highest amount of votes he would receive at the 1880 convention. Conkling's hat is inscribed with numerous references to his "Greatest Effort"; apparently he would start off every oration with this immodest characterization. These elements of the cartoon probe deeper than the shared metaphor of cross-dressing humor, and illuminate the liberal reformers' opinion that Grant and Conkling lacked both the qualifications and honesty required to lead the country.

Going beyond the personal ridicule of trans-sexuality, Keppler combined the two backgrounds of sports and gender in "The Contest of Beauty". As the cartoon demonstrates, the men are voting solely on the basis of their attraction to the entrants; that the ballots are being placed in a box marked "First Prize = Presidency" is an emphasis on the high stakes involved in a matter taken so frivolously by the voters. The idea of a beauty contest is interesting because it can be seen (only in the context of the unenlightened historical period under discussion, of course) as a sport for women; in the same way that boxers relied on the supposedly inherent masculine talent of athletic prowess, women used their inborn aesthetic qualities to win whatever competition they might be engaged in. This cartoon is an exemplar of Keppler's notion that, regardless of gender orientation, politics in his day and age was a spectator sport that differed only slightly from other forms of amusement: it required no mental participation from the people, provided that they reward whoever entertained them the best. In addition to reflecting the mainstream culture, it illuminates by opposition the problem that the Mugwumps had in successfully bringing substantial, thought-requiring matters before the people. Puck's challenge was not only to be the best entertainer, but in the process make viewers confront the issues in some way.

The artists also drew material from other new diversions that cropped up in urban areas. Settings such as dog shows locate the viewer in peculiar but not unknown territory, and make criticisms of both the characters pictured within it as well as the prevailing conception of public affairs as fun and not "the serious responsibility of unselfish patriots" [11]. Besides the moral about the undue levity of contemporary politics, such a large amount of personally-directed satire is packed into the cartoon that at least a few of Keppler's reformist statements would get through to the average viewer. [Go to "Our National Dog Show" to examine these details further.] In 1884 Puck artist Bernhard Gilliam would exploit to the fullest this method of placing critiques of professional politicians in a publicly accessible setting with "The National Dime Museum", which played off P.T. Barnum's American Museum by displaying a diverse assembly of political freaks-- among them James G. Blaine as the tattooed man. By taking these elements of shared culture and giving them a "spin" in the direction of liberal reform, Keppler and company disseminated Mugwump ideology in a way that the aloof intellectuals may have never even dreamed of.

The famous series of tattooed man cartoons which featured 1884 Republican nominee James G. Blaine with the names of different scandals printed over his body has been explored by many scholars, including Fischer, West, and Samuel J. Thomas; an equally good series by Keppler founded on the premise of 1888 GOP candidate Benjamin Harrison shrinking into his grandfather William Henry Harrison's cavernous beaverskin hat has also been well chronicled. (FOOTNOTE) Although not united by the kind of narrative continuity of these two anti-Republican campaigns, the series of cartoons which lampooned Ulysses S. Grant as he aspired to a third term presidential nomination in 1880 present a compelling set of images which incorporate vivid and easily-understood situational contexts as well as Mugwump ideology to make their point about "Unconditional Surrender"'s unsuitability for the presidency. Continue on to the War Room to learn more. . .

In Conclusion
The decades of the nineteenth century after the Civil War offer many treasures for the student of American civilization. During this period political culture emerged as a distinct set of symbols, slogans, and practices; this and the increase in forms of public amusement oriented the political environment in the direction of spectacle and humor. After years of the political culture's exploitation by uncouth partisans a group of highly educated gentlemen organized themselves in an attempt to restore efficiency, honesty, and dignity to government administration. Unfortunately the Mugwumps confined their attempts at raising public consciousness to erudite or highly technical essays which were simply incompatible with a less educated middle or lower class mind. The establishment of Joseph Keppler's magazine Puck, whose cartoons drew artistic guidance from German and Italian archetypes and received ideological inspiration from Mugwump opinion, marked a significant moment in which the ideas of an intellectual elite could be successfully relayed to the masses. Using the medium of illustrated humor, Puck ridiculed the prominent figures of the day and engaged in fascinating commentary about the relationships between political activity and popular culture. This comparison points to Keppler and company's understanding of politics as America's true national pastime, a concept that still lingers with us today. Furthermore, the commercial success of the magazine as well as the triumph of certain liberal missions such as the prevention of General Grant's third presidential term remain a testament to the efficacy of Keppler's work. Puck celebrated its four hundredth issue with a lithograph which summarizes the perspective of the magazine, its artistic director, and the Mugwumps he believed in: "Men May Come and Men May Go, but the Work of Reform Goes on Forever!"

Go Back

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