Political Potions

An 1887 caricature from Puck uses alchemical metaphors to skewer three prominent newspaper men attempting to make “political gold” for the upcoming U.S. presidential race.

An 1887 caricature from Puck uses alchemical metaphors to skewer three prominent newspaper men attempting to make “political gold” for the upcoming U.S. presidential race. (CHF Collections)

America in the 1880s might seem far from the long-past world of European alchemy, but the hoary image of the alchemist vainly trying to make gold was so familiar to the public that it could serve to mock politicians during the bustling time Mark Twain dubbed the “Gilded Age.” Cartoons like these are valuable not just for their humor or design, but also for the way they can take us into the minds of people in the past.

The Gilded Age was also a golden age for political caricature. A cohort of artists working for Harper’s WeeklyJudgePuck, and New York’s Daily Graphic transformed political discourse with a powerful new style. Many enduring political symbols were born in this era: the donkey and the elephant came to embody the Democrats and the Republicans, and “Uncle Sam” to personify the United States as a whole.

These caricatures equally eviscerated both parties. In the 1887 image above, the satire is directed at scandal-burdened Republican James G. Blaine. Blaine had lost the 1884 presidential election to Democrat Grover Cleveland, who campaigned on civil-service reform. With an eye on the 1888 presidential race the weekly magazine Puck mocks three newspapermen loyal to the Republican Party as “Unsuccessful Alchemists.” Blaine was expected to run again, and Puck’s artist, Frederick Opper, shows the three “trying to make political gold for Blaine out of anti-Cleveland dross.”

The scene features many elements common in paintings of alchemy workshops: the stuffed alligator or crocodile, the stuffed owl, a skull, papers strewn around, two condensing flasks, old-fashioned scholars’ gowns and caps, and even a “book of secrets,” here titled Manual of Secret Attack.

On the left, New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer wears his name on a feather in his cap; he works in front of an open copy of his newspaper, stirring “insincerity” into a bowl of “petty cavilings.” On the right Whitelaw Reid, editor of the New York Tribune, adds a batch of “sneers” into a steaming cauldron of “Republican hatred.” At his feet a flask holding “Dislike of Reform” condenses into a receiver labeled “slander.”

In the center Charles Dana, editor of the New York Sun, pours purified molten metal from a cupel labeled “Sun scurrility” into a bowl mounted on metal legs, where—to his surprise and horror—it blazes with a white-hot, phosphorus-like light that beams “Popularity for Cleveland,” clearly not the result he wanted.

Such references to the alchemist in his workshop were neither academic nor obscure in the late 19th century. The alchemical approach makes the cartoons rich and complex in both message and imagery, meriting more than the quick glance typically given to editorial cartoons today. The political references may seem esoteric to modern readers, but they appeared at a time when some elections drew as much as 90% of eligible voters. (In our “new media” era a 50% to 60% turnout is typical.)

Although the issues were national, by the golden age of caricature New York City had clearly already become the nation’s media capital. Readers from Maine to California were assumed to recognize the names of Manhattan newspaper editors and publishers and to know where they stood on the issues, even when cartoonists were etching the reputations of these men with spirit of vinegar and acid wit.

Bert Hansen teaches history at Baruch College of the City University of New York.