This past year the American Antiquarian Society has been hard at work proving the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, especially when it comes to cartoons.
AAS holds a comprehensive collection of political cartoons produced in the United States between 1764 and 1876. The separately published American cartoon collection holds over 600 examples of caricatures, satires, and political subjects (European Political cartoons are housed separately). The collection includes everything from very early cartoons relating to the establishment and operation of the federal government (including a cartoon comparing Jefferson to Washington – unfavorably (see right)), to slanderous depictions of local politicians. The cartoon collection is widely used by a variety of scholars and collectors looking for evidence of historical activities, trends, and motivations.
The Society’s collection is included in our main online catalog with brief records for each cartoon (some better than others), which include the artist’s name, the title, the publisher, date, and a short description of the image. Subject headings such as “War of 1812” or “Slavery” are helpful, but not having full descriptive text is very limiting. It was decided in August of 2012 to set up the cartoons as a side project for our digital photographer to work on “as time permits.” It has taken nearly a year, but the images are now all digitized and linked to our catalog record. You can now easily see images relating to the campaign of 1840, the Mexican-American War – from the Mexican side of the border – and the Civil War. Each image can be enlarged so that all the words in the various speech bubbles are legible and details are easily understood. (Click on the links above for the catalog records of the examples shown below.) These scans can also be downloaded for teaching purposes and used in PowerPoint presentations by students and scholars alike.
We still want to upgrade our political cartoon records to include richer descriptions of these complex objects. While some are easy to understand from just a quick look (such as that seen to the right), understanding the joke in others takes more digging and looking and digging again (see below). Now that we have all the images in place, let the digging begin!