Vintage Chicago Political Cartoons Depict Voter Concerns Across the Centuries

John T. McCutcheon (Courtesy of the Newberry Library)John T. McCutcheon (Courtesy of the Newberry Library)

A particularly great political cartoon from the Newberry Library’s John T. McCutcheon collection depicts interviews with various voters about their thoughts concerning the 1936 election – which would have seen Franklin Delano Roosevelt running for re-election amid the Great Depression.  

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A few voter opinions in that cartoon:

“The long campaign was all right before the days of radio and the daily distribution of newspapers throughout the land. Now you can reach everybody in a day or two. Six weeks is long enough from nomination to election.”

“I certainly want a shorter campaign. If the voters can’t understand the issues in six weeks, they never will.”

And this from 1936. Clearly these people never witnessed the modern day two-year election cycle.  

McCutcheon, an Indiana native, came to Chicago in 1889 and landed his first gig at the Chicago Morning News, which later became the Chicago Record, part of the Chicago Daily News. He later moved onto the Chicago Tribune, where he was their front page political cartoonist until 1946 when he retired.

While at the Chicago Morning News, McCutcheon worked from his own private space. Later, in the 1920s, the Tribune provided him with another private office space at Tribune Tower. Both were decorated with big game trophies including rhino and zebra heads (In addition to drawing, McCutcheon was also an avid hunter).

John T. McCutcheon in his workspace at the Fine Arts Center (Courtesy of the Newberry Library)John T. McCutcheon in his workspace at the Fine Arts Center (Courtesy of the Newberry Library)

The Newberry Library has close to 700 of McCutcheon’s cartoons. Martha Briggs, the library’s curator of modern manuscripts, walked us through just a few of those – many which still feel very relevant today, and all of which are available for public viewing at the Newberry.

McCutcheon’s first cartoon at the Chicago Morning News, Dec. 13, 1889.

“You can see already in 1889 – ‘No jobs,’ ‘Economy,’ ‘Non-partisanship,’ ‘Honesty.’ We can see some of the same issues. ‘No party machine,’ that’s a big one for Illinois,” Briggs said.

A closer look at McCutcheon’s first cartoon.A closer look at McCutcheon’s first cartoon.

“Campaign Contributions Will Be Small This Year,” election of 1908.

“This one, we’re looking at William Howard Taft. [Teddy] Roosevelt said he would not run for a second full-term so he designated Taft as his successor. Taft had been his Secretary of War and he ran against William Jennings Bryan of the Democratic Party who was a famous populist. This is 1908 and in 1907 the stock market crashed, that was the Panic of 1907. That’s why Wall Street is looking bruised and impoverished. So they’re looking at the campaign contributions from the big guys – John D. Rockefeller was Standard Oil and you can see here, in typical fashion, his says, ‘Providing committee gets $10,000 from someone else, he’ll give 50 cents.’ Rockefeller was a known tightwad,” Briggs said, with a laugh.

“Can He Get It?” Aug. 30, 1912.

“This is Teddy Roosevelt, who split off from the Republican Party to form the Progressive Party and therefore was splitting the Republican vote. The man is the state of Vermont and Vermont was still up for grabs and [William Howard] Taft, who was the candidate of the Republican Party, did go on to take two states, Vermont and Utah. Ultimately Taft was cut in half, enabling the Democrats to win,” Briggs said.

“The Great Presidential Obstacle Race,” Sept. 1, 1912.

“There were three major parties, so you see [William Howard] Taft, there’s Woodrow Wilson and that is Theodore Roosevelt who was running as a progressive in the Bull Moose Party. But there was actually a fourth candidate, Eugene Debs, who was a Socialist Party candidate and he’s not represented here in the starting line. This here is talking about the whole obstacle of getting to be president. But at this period most states did not have primaries. So really the race wasn’t as long. We’re talking about September here and they’re talking about it being an ordeal,” Briggs said.

“Intense Interest in the Campaign,” Sept. 27, 1924.

“Here we’re talking about the role of celebrity. Here’s your political candidate standing up giving a speech. And that was a pretty boring campaign – it was between Calvin Coolidge and a man who no one had ever heard of named John Davis. Jackie Coogan was a child movie star. He was at the height of his fame then, he was Charlie Chaplin’s sidekick in a movie called “The Kid,” and he was Oliver Twist in 1922. So somebody comes and yells, ‘Jackie Coogan’s outside!’ And this whole crowd leaves his boring speech to go outside to see the actor,” Briggs said.

“The Inquiring Reporter; He Asks, Do You Think Presidential Campaigns Are Too Long?” Nov. 8, 1936.

“This is the final, McCutcheon had 33 of these volumes containing all of his cartoons dating from his Chicago Record time all the way up through the Tribune. So here, this is 1936 – Roosevelt’s running for a second term during the Great Depression, it’s eight years into the Depression. He’s already gotten Social Security through and also unemployment benefits so he’s pretty popular at this point. This cartoon here is interviewing a bunch of people – a housewife, a businessman, probably a politician, a banker – about how the presidential campaigns are too long," Briggs said. "And that’s kind of interesting when we think of today with social media. We could have a campaign that’s one week long!

“Really we’re just showing you how everything that’s happening today has happened in some form before.”

Follow Chloe Riley on Twitter: @ChloeRiley84

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