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Aug. 30, 2012 Volume 34, No. 2

Cartoon exhibition suggests that not much has changed in American politics

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NAME-CALLING “The Crazy-Quilt!,” a cartoon by Harold Talburt (1895–1966) of the Washington Daily News, suggests that Democrats are in bed with questionable organizations. The show will be on display through November. Photo courtesy of the State Historical Society


The political cartoons, many from Missouri cartoonists, date from 1912 to 2010

Democrats are socialists. They are pulling America down from its greatness. If Democrats had their way, the federal government would run people’s lives. 

Republicans are ruled by money. They have Wall Street in their back pocket. They kowtow to the wealthy and want to rid the country of most government social services.

Those political characterizations have been in full view in recent years. 

And as the campaigns of United States incumbent President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney continue following the GOP Convention, expect the rhetorical jousting to heat up till Election Day, Nov. 6.

But the characterizations are nothing new. An exhibit through November on political cartoons at the State Historical Society of Missouri in Ellis Library shows how little has changed over the last 100 years in American politics.

“Donkeys and Elephants: Animal Symbols and Political Cartoons” features about 40 political cartoons, most of which appeared in Missouri newspapers. Some of the cartoons featured are by Harold Talburt of the Washington Daily News; Daniel Fitzpatrick of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Tom Engelhardt of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; and Lee Judge of the Kansas City Star

The exhibition focuses on how cartoonists used animals to symbolize contemporary political issues. Many cartoonists, for instance, portrayed Russia as a bear, a representation that dates back to czarist Russia. A dove represented peace, and a vulture or hawk at various times represented war. 

“To understand this symbolism, viewers must learn a visual language that changes decade by decade,” said Joan Stack, curator of art collections at the State Historical Society.

It’s not completely clear who first represented Democrats as a donkey and Republicans as an elephant. 

In the 1830s, several Republican cartoonists used a donkey to symbolize Andrew Jackson, a crude play on the seventh U.S. president’s name, whose followers established the modern Democratic Party. In the 1870s, the influential Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast used the donkey and elephant symbolism to portray the respective parties. A Republican, Nast had misgivings about his party’s future when he inked his first Republican elephant illustration. The rendering [not included in the show] is of a running elephant about to fall into a pit covered with boards labeled “Inflation,” “Reform” and “Repudiation.”

Despite the original derogatory intent of the early animal symbols, political leaders eventually embraced them as pictorial mascots.

In 1940, Fitzpatrick (1891–1969) used the donkey and elephant to suggest the biased science behind election polls sponsored by the parties. This was at a time when poll-taking was in its infancy. 

The crayon-and-ink drawing depicts the animals balancing precariously on teetering poles. The caption reads, “Take Your Choice of the Polls.”

Also in the show is “The Crazy-Quilt!,” a cartoon by Talburt (1895–1966) of a stressed donkey covered by a quilt checkered with supposed questionable organizations associated with the Democratic Party. Quilt blocks are labeled “Pinks,” “Communists,” “Fellow Travelers” and “New Dealers.” Tacked on the bedroom wall is a note: “Check Your Valuables at the Desk!”

Today a Republican-approved quilt might substitute “Socialists” for “Communists” and “Liberals” for “Fellow Travelers,” a pejorative used in the 1940s toward American socialist sympathizers of Soviet Russia. 

Other cartoons in the show depict Republicans as hawks, or war mongers, and Democrats as anti-American and wimps.

One rendering shows a donkey and an elephant each leading a rollicking traveling circus caravan — the kickoff to the national general election.

“Some concepts about Democrats and Republicans haven’t changed much since the 1920s,” Stack said.


Political Cartoon Show

• What: “Donkeys and Elephants: Animal Symbols and Political Cartoons”

• When: Through November 30

• Where: The State Historical Society Main Gallery in Ellis Library

• Times: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 9 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. Saturdays

Cost: Free