Cartoonists of the Gilded Age on Display at Driehaus Museum

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They come across like overdone versions of New Yorker cartoons: The illustrations published in Puck magazine poked fun at the relationship between men and women, at social inconveniences such as smokers on the train, and at the bewildering behavior of city policemen. And for decades the 32-page weekly was a hit. From 1871 to 1918 the New York weekly was printed in the Puck Building, a technological marvel on Houston Street between Layfayette and Mulberry streets in Lower Manhattan.

A new exhibition at the Driehaus Museum, “A Wink and a Nod: Cartoonists of the Gilded Age,” brings 74 original drawings from Puck magazine, along with the issues in which the drawings appeared, providing the sense that while much has changed in the last 100-plus years, some things haven’t.    

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“It’s very much like you know the Onion is today or Charlie Hebdo,” said Driehaus Museum Executive Director Lisa Dube-Scherr. “It captured a lot of what was going on and used humor and satire to reflect upon society and politics and the daily life of people.”

While cartoons warning against the destruction of nature for personal gain and greed (in a piece about developing the Arctic) and cartoons about unscrupulous men hiding box cameras in baskets and music cases, in order to snap photos of unsuspecting women in public, draw smiles of recognition, other cartoons remind viewers of how popular culture reinforced the worst impulses of the time. It is startling to confront a clearly derogatory panel that links Irish immigrants to stupidity and murder. (They are drawn to look like apes.) And African-American porters are drawn with facial features that are cringe-inducing.   

The exhibition is organized thematically. Attention is drawn to Puck’s color printing techniques, which were groundbreaking at the time. The drawings themselves show both the skill of their creators and their wit as well as the back-and-forth work of revision, printer’s marks and the dirt of the studio.  

“With these cartoons you’re actually seeing where the artists made changes–you can see the paper is dirty and frayed–so you’re really see the hand of the artist and the work they put into realizing these beautiful drawings,” said Dube-Scherr.

Two rooms are devoted to companion exhibitions highlighting Puck’s connection to Chicago (they spent the summer of 1893 producing their magazine out of a building at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Jackson Park) and to objects in the museum’s collection. “Women of Influence: Chicago’s Leading Ladies” points to the role of women in promoting and shaping the fair, and “Gilded Age Luxury” includes J.P. Morgan’s walking stick.

The museum is itself housed in a Gilded Age mansion, the Nickerson Mansion, built in 1877.

The exhibition, “With a Wink and a Nod: Cartoonists of the Gilded Age” continues through Jan. 8, 2017 at the Driehaus Museum. Check the museum's website for additional details.

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