Try tilting your head just slightly…

They represent a type of carnage we can’t even imagine. Today they would cause more than a few gasps. And, yet unable to rewrite this tragedy, we feast on the spoils.

Okay, I’m being dramatic. But for archivists and librarians the idea that 600 cartoons were cut from Civil War era newspapers is a little hard to handle. Yet with the dirty work already done, the four boxes of cartoons represent a gold mine for scholars of mid-19th century America.

The secret to so much of scholarship is that it matters how you view primary sources. Historian Forrest McDonald spoke to this issue in a 1999 CSPAN interview

When I first worked at National Archives, they just turned me loose in the stacks. Now you’ve got to go in, and you’ve got to tell them what volume you want or what document you want and so on, and you sit down in a waiting room, and they will bring the stuff down for you, and that’s that… Whereas it would have taken generations to do what I did in the early ‘50s, now it couldn’t be done; it simply could not be done.

Of course, full-text searchable databases have unveiled a new type of researching that changes the game once again and offer possibilities unheard of to McDonald’s generation of scholars. But the fundamental fact remains that how you see impacts what you see: browsable stacks versus an online catalog; the results from a keyword search versus 20 volumes of an 19th century newspaper; 242 pages of minute scribble versus 50 typed ones. In time, context, and inspiration, we’re affected.


Which brings us back to the AAS Civil War Cartoon collection. The ability to rifle through folder after folder filled only with cartoons encourages your eye to identify themes, to see changes over the span of the war, and to distinguish recurring (or changing) symbols and caricatures. Of course, the speed and focus offered by the collection comes at the price of context. Pouring through the run of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper provides an important backdrop by which to judge a drawing’s point of view. Just opening the pages of an abolitionist paper, a Southern newspaper, or a national literary monthly immediately tell you something about the images and text you will find within them.

The cartoon collection does suffer from an absence of proper citations. Some cartoons are identified with handwritten dates. Others have confirmed sources, but the original locations of many are still a question mark. Cautioned of the collection’s shortcoming, though, it is a resource that offers new ideas with each viewing, and reminds us to go beyond the articles culled in a database search, to take the time to learn an 18th century scrawl, and maybe even just rotate the page a little.

Published by

Diann Benti

Assistant Reference Librarian

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *