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No Holds Barred: Political Cartoons of the Gilded Age

Aug. 24 - Dec. 31, 2008
West Gallery

Image of No Holds Barred: Political Cartoons of the Gilded AgeAmong the most important developments in the popularization of the Gilded Age press was the increasingly sophisticated use of visual ridicule, political cartoons that informed, aroused, and pronounced on myriad contemporary issues. Favorite targets included the boodle, graft, and fraud that then, as now, too often characterized political life, most often at the local and state levels, but also at times at the national level. Political cartoons were widely "read" and quickly became "the most effective criticism available in this highly partisan political culture." Puck magazine, the source of this exhibit, was the premier journal of visual satire during the late 19th century. Moreover, it was essentially non-partisan. During its relentless battle against corruption and political machines, especially New York's Tammany Hall, Puck's talented artists based their "ill will" on moralistic principles derived from an elitist understanding of individual rights and the corrupting power of partisan politics.

Today's students and scholars, by focusing on political cartoons as an important form of documentary evidence, may not only deepen their understanding of this important period of American history, but facilitate their development of many of the same kinds of critical thinking skills that the study of printed sources makes possible. Cartoons, then, are more than mere illustrations. They are valuable primary sources of the American past. This exhibit of original political cartoons from the Gilded Age will demonstrate both the superb artistry of their creators at the same time that they provide a unique mirror of a bygone age, the residuals of which are still very much with us in this presidential election year.

-- An exhibit by Sam J. Thomas, Ph.D., Professor, MSU Department of History.

Image courtesy of Sam Thomas, guest curator.
"The Public Be Damned!" Puck, October 18, 1882.
Artist: Frederick Burr Opper (1857-1937).