Policy & Politics

Party Spirits

What happens when an 1880s cartoonist mixes science and politics to skewer his political enemies?

By Bert Hansen | April 18, 2013

In the fall we showed an 1887 alchemically themed cartoon lampooning the Republican Party as “Unsuccessful Alchemists.” In the spirit of those buzzwords “fair” and “balanced,” we present in this issue an 1882 election-year roast of the Democratic Party as doled out by the Daily Graphic and shown in the image above, “Very Poor Material for the New Party.”

The 1880s was a golden age for political caricature, and artists occasionally culled their visual metaphors from that era’s scientific landscape. This political alchemist is a slick newspaperman with mutton chops, toiling in his laboratory to create the spirit of a “civil service reform party.” A note hanging from his back pocket tells us he works for Harper’s Weekly. During the 1860s and into the 1870s Harper’s had supported the Republican Party, the party that won the Civil War and sought to establish racial justice in the South. Yet by the 1880s, with the scandal-burdened James G. Blaine leading the Republicans, Harper’s became more open to the idea of Democrats as possible reformers.

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Daily Graphic cartoon from 1882 satirizing the Democratic Party.

Science History Institute/Bert Hansen

But in the caustic view of the Daily Graphic’s unknown artist, Harper’s had only “very poor material for the new party” and was forced to work with faulty and worn-out ingredients to create something noble. The containers depicted bear political labels. They include:

“Tincture of Tammany”: A tincture is an alcohol extract from an organic ingredient. Tammany refers to New York City’s Democratic Party machine, which was led by Boss Tweed until a famous series of Harper’s cartoons by Thomas Nast secured Tweed’s arrest and downfall in 1873.

“Democratic Tongue Oil (whiskey)”: Tung oil, an important industrial chemical extracted from the nut of the tung tree and used to give wood and stone a durable surface, is used to make a pun about politicians talking so much. On the “tongue oil” canister the name is also glossed as “whiskey” to remind viewers of the Democrats’ reputation as booze enthusiasts. In the alchemist’s shadow we see what looks like an empty pocket flask.

“Temperance in Powders”: Powdered remedies advertised in the popular press offered a cure to “drunkards” and inebriates. Temperance associations played a large role in politics at that time, and artists and writers at Harper’s often supported them. (The temperance movement eventually succeeded in establishing Prohibition across the nation in 1919 through the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.)

“Will-Get-An-Office Salve”: The Democratic Party was notorious for using patronage offices to maintain its power.

And finally, “Republican Acid” in the broken bottle on the floor: This suggests that Harper’s Democratic alchemist was unsuccessfully trying to borrow Republican solutions.

Although the cartoon’s main visual focus is on the man and the party spirit, which the cartoonist equates to a hot-air balloon, laboratory items are visible. Look for distillation apparatus, funnels, an alembic, a mortar and pestle, flasks, and the traditional hand bellows to stoke the fire. The apparatus is realistic enough to suggest that readers would identify them with alchemy and its pursuit of the transmutation of base matter into something of high value.

Two mysteries remain. Why is this man winking at us? And why is he wearing only one of his boots, with the empty one visible under the table? Your guesses are invited.