A century of political cartoons

Thursday, September 11, 2008 | 8:19 p.m. CDT; updated 10:04 a.m. CDT, Monday, September 15, 2008
Jackie Britt Eggers and Wally Eggers, B.J. '52, browse a MU School of Journalism Centennial exhibit entitled 1908-2008: 100 Years of Election Cartoons at the State Historical Society of Missouri on Wednesday afternoon. The pair married while Wally was enrolled at MU and working for the Columbia Missourian and Jackie was working for the Columbia Tribune.

COLUMBIA - During a 1960s election for president of the board of aldermen in St. Louis, the Republican candidate unexpectedly won the race. When a reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch researched what had happened to swing the votes, many cited a political cartoon that portrayed the Democratic candidate tiptoeing up steps toward a dark city hall with a black sky overhead , carrying his shoes. The caption read "Coming into the home stretch."

The political cartoon, drawn by Tom Engelhardt of the Post-Dispatch, is an example of the influence political cartoons can have on newspaper readers. In conjunction with the MU School of Journalism's Centennial this week, the State Historical Society of Missouri is displaying "1908-2008: 100 Years of Election Cartoons," an exhibit of 44 political cartoons from the past 25 presidential elections. Also, an exhibit of Engelhardt's cartoons, "Engelhardt on Elections," which opened Sept. 6, is on display.


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The centennial presents an opportunity for the historical society to show the breadth and depth of its collection of more than 8,000 political cartoons, said Joan Stack, the society's curator of art collections. Since it is an election year, the historical society decided to focus on election cartoons.

Founded by the Missouri Press Association, the society has a rich collection of political cartoons, particularly ones published before the 1970s. After the '70s, tax laws changed to make donations less favorable for donors. Engelhardt and John Darkow of the Columbia Daily Tribune lent cartoons to the historical society to fill in the gaps.

The media and politics are interdependent, and cartoons play an important role in that relationship, said Rod Gelatt, a professor emeritus of the MU School of Journalism.

"One drawing can kind of summarize a particular situation and bring it home to the readers in a way that neither words or photographs can," he said.

Another example on display is from the 1908 presidential election. The morning after the election, it appeared Missouri would support the Democrat, William Jennings Bryan, but in the end the swing state supported the Republican candidate, William Howard Taft, by less than 700 votes.

In a cartoon by John Tinney McCutcheon, "Standing Apart," that the Chicago Tribune published on Nov. 5, 1908, a man with a "Missouri" ribbon stands at the front of the Republican line. Those standing behind him giggle at a man wearing a "Solid South" ribbon and standing alone under the Democratic column banner. But in between the two darkened figures are footprints from a man that had circled between the two sides, which eventually end beside the "Missouri" character.

Engelhardt said it's the cartoonist's job to keep the heat on when politicians try to keep scandals secret. It's easier, he said, to lampoon politicians whose policies you don't like.

For 35 years at the Post-Dispatch, Engelhardt would spend about two hours each day brainstorming an idea and then another four hours drawing the cartoons with India ink, pen, lithographic crayon and rough paper.

But Engelhardt is unsure where his ideas came from.

"Nobody knows; it is a very mysterious process," Engelhardt said.

According to "A Century of Political Cartoons" by Allan Nevins and Frank Weitenkampf, there are three important ingredients for political cartoons: humor, at least one side of the truthand moral purpose. Engelhardt adds good drawing to the list.

While setting up the exhibits, Stack tried to follow Engelhardt's list.

"What I wanted to do was show off the quality of the art," Stack said.

But overall, Engelhardt said he is disappointed in recent political cartoonists.

"I don't get the feeling the present day cartoonists like to draw," Engelhardt said, citing today's simplistic cartoons. Instead of adjusting the angle, present day cartoon characters face forward and lack detail. The cartoons also lack moral purpose, he said.

At the historical society, located in the east wing of Ellis Library, the cartoons from 1908 hang opposite present-day cartoons. Stack noted that the issues cartoonists raised 100 years ago are still relevant today.

"Engelhardt on Elections" will remain open until Jan. 17, and Engelhardt will visit Columbia on Oct. 18 to walk through the gallery with visitors. The "1908-2008: 100 Years of Election Cartoons" will remain open until Jan. 4.




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