Cartoons and Cartoonists


American cartooning began in Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin (1706–90), who introduced cartoons to North America, used images to galvanize viewers to action on the issues of their day. As the political, economic, and cultural capital of the early United States, Philadelphia became a center for producing political cartoons and humorous caricatures. Although New York eventually supplanted Philadelphia as the nation’s primary publishing center, Philadelphia cartoonists and their work continued to thrive and influence the art of cartooning, politics, and popular culture of readers throughout the nation.

A political cartoon depicting a partially-coiled snake severed into eight pieces, each with letters beside it representing a colony name; beneath the image, the text "JOIN, OR DIE."
The political cartoon “Join, or Die” was reprinted in almost every newspaper in America as a rallying cry for colonial unity during the French and Indian War and became a popular pro-colonist image throughout the American Revolution. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Many historians consider “Join, or Die,” the iconic image of the segmented snake representing the American colonies, published in the Pennsylvania Gazette in May 1754, to be the first political cartoon published in America; it was certainly the first cartoon published in an American newspaper. Some consider “Non Votis,” a lesser-known illustration of a hapless wagoner appealing in vain to Hercules, from the political pamphlet Plain Truth (1747), to be the first American political cartoon. Whichever image deserves the honor, Franklin was responsible. Both affected the political climate of their day. Plain Truth and its imagery helped mobilize militia volunteers against the French. “Join, or Die,” quickly appeared in almost every newspaper in America as a rallying cry for colonial unity during the French and Indian War. It later became a popular pro-colonist image during the American Revolution.

Ironically, Franklin was also the first American public figure widely lampooned by cartoonists. Approximately half of the cartoons known to have been published in the 1760s (most produced in Philadelphia) criticized Franklin. In 1764, in the wake of Pontiac’s War and the Paxton Riot, illustrated pamphlets and broadsides flew back and forth—some going as far as to depict Franklin as a devil. These negative caricatures contributed to Franklin’s defeat in the Pennsylvania Assembly election of 1764.

During the War of 1812, Philadelphia’s cartoonists celebrated U.S. victories against the British and introduced cartoon characters that came to symbolize the United States and its people. Scottish-born etcher and children’s-book illustrator William Charles (1776–1820) churned out dozens of political etchings commenting on the war. During the War of 1812, “Brother Jonathan,” a country bumpkin character widely considered a precursor to Uncle Sam, came to personify the United States. Philadelphia cartoonists such as James Akin (1773–1846) popularized Brother Jonathan and other symbolic characters such as Columbia (female personification of America and freedom) and Major Jack Downing (another American everyman character and Uncle Sam precursor).

The Boost of Lithography

Prior to the 1830s, cartoons, engraved in copper or carved into wood, were expensive and time-consuming to produce. The introduction of lithography allowed images to be cheaply and easily reproduced, and cartoons proliferated. Beginning in 1828 and 1829, commercial lithographic firms established in Philadelphia, a major hub of this activity, published prints of all varieties, including cartoons and caricatures. Politics during the Jacksonian era provided plenty of fodder, and Philadelphia firms published widely circulated, biting artistic commentaries by artists such as David Claypoole Johnston (1799–1865) and Edward Williams (E. W.) Clay (1799–1857). Between 1828 and 1830, the Philadelphia-born Clay produced his most famous series of prints, Life in Philadelphia, in which he parodied middle-class African Americans for their perceived social and political aspirations. Clay’s racist caricatures were hugely popular and were reproduced and imitated by cartoonists in New York, London, and other cities.

Philadelphia-area lithographers still did brisk business and boasted influential cartoonists in the 1850s, though New York printers now dominated the American lithographic printing industry. John L. Magee (b. 1820?), for instance, produced numerous cartoons throughout the 1850s and 1860s that commented ironically on trends and events in Philadelphia and its environs, deplored the spread of slavery, championed the Union cause, and criticized the Reconstruction policies of President Andrew Johnson (1808–75).

In the 1850s and 1860s, while New York–based magazines such as Harper’s Weekly, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Magazine, and Vanity Fair launched the careers of several cartoonists, Philadelphia continued to play a role. The accomplished illustrator Felix O. C. Darley (1822–88) of Philadelphia and Delaware contributed fanciful cover illustrations for humor magazines such as the John-Donkey and the Lantern. Henry Louis Stephens (1824–82) of Philadelphia and Bayonne, New Jersey, drew caricatures for Leslie’s and Harper’s as well as illustrating and co-editing Vanity Fair.

A political cartoon featuring a Gov. Pennypacker-faced parrot and a cut with the face of Rep. Pusey. The cat is rubbing himself against the boot the parrot is perched upon, and the
A series of cartoons in the North American depicting Governor Samuel W. Pennypacker as a parrot inspired passage of the Salus-Grady law banning depictions of public figures as animals. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

With the rise of the daily newspaper cartoon from the late 1880s into the 1910s, Philadelphia cartoonists gained a new opportunity to shine. Philadelphia newspapers cultivated hosts of freelance and staff cartoonists. Some papers even printed their work in color. Cartoons and simple line drawings, easily produced with high-speed presses, now capable of printing in color, grabbed readers’ attentions. Philadelphia daily newspapers such as the North American, Inquirer, Public Ledger, and Record often published cartoons on their front pages. Several syndicated their content. Editors typically gave cartoonists free rein, and many produced political cartoons commenting on national and local people and events, sometimes as part of ongoing series. Walt McDougall (1858–1938), a staff cartoonist at the North American, claims credit for coining the term “graft”—then a carnival term for chicanery—as a non-libelous synonym for political corruption in a series that introduced a dinosaur-like “graft monster” to newspaper readers. McDougall was also co-producer of the first color comic strip in America, The Unfortunate Fate of a Well-Intended Dog (1894).

The Anti-Cartooning Law, 1903

Philadelphia newspaper cartoonists made national headlines around the turn of the century when cartoonists at the North American inspired the Pennsylvania state legislature to pass the Salus-Grady libel law (also known as the Anti-Cartooning Law) in 1903. Provoked by a series of cartoons by Charles Nelan (1858–1904) during the gubernatorial election of 1902 that depicted Governor Samuel Pennypacker (1843–1916) as a parrot, mindlessly squawking the words of his party boss (and relative) Matthew Quay (1833–1904), it banned cartoons or caricatures that depicted people as nonhuman animals. Nelan also mocked Pennsylvania state representative Frederick Taylor Pusey (1872–1936), who introduced the bill to the legislature, by depicting him as a “Pus(s)ey cat.” McDougall reacted to the bill’s passage by immediately publishing caricatures of Pennypacker and other Pennsylvania politicians as non-animal objects, such as oak trees, beets, chestnut burrs, beer steins, and turnips. Newspaper cartoonists in Philadelphia and elsewhere published caricatures of public officials as a virtual menagerie of different animals. The Salus-Grady law was never enforced and was rescinded shortly after Pennypacker’s term as governor ended.

A photograph of Marjorie Buell working on an illustration while sitting at her drawing table. A
Philadelphia-area cartoonist “Marge” introduced readers to the popular character “Little Lulu” through her nationally syndicated comic strip of the same name. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Many newspaper cartoonists also created nonpolitical drawings for sports and children’s pages and experimented with early versions of the comic strip. Philadelphia cartoonists created a number of strips of varying popularity and longevity. Some, including The Little Quakers (H. E. Godwin [n.d.], Inquirer, 1903–04), Little Billy Penn and His Doggy Schuylkill (Hy Gage [1878–1971], Record, 1906), It’s Philadelphia (Robert Vance [n.d.], Bulletin, 1947–54), and Silly Philly (Bil Keane [1922–2011], Bulletin, 1947–61), were of primarily local interest. Philadelphia cartoonists also created widely syndicated strips, such as Adventures of Willie Green (1906–20s), by Harris Brown (1884–1962), and Little Lulu (1935), by Marge (Marjorie Henderson Buell [1904–93]). Evening Ledger cartoonist and Temple University professor John J. Liney (1912–82) became the primary artist of the nationally syndicated Henry comic strip from 1945 to 1979. From at least the 1920s, when it ran the comic strip I Am Proud That I Am a Negro by “Jay Bee” Davidson, the Philadelphia Tribune incubated the talents of African American cartoonists, including the National Newspaper Publishers Association award–winning Samuel Joyner (b. 1924).

In the mid-twentieth century, Philadelphia-based editorial cartoonists such as Charles Henry (“Bill”) Sykes (1882–1942) in the 1910s–40s and Herbert Johnson (1878–1947) and Jerry Doyle (1898–1986) in the 1930s–40s drew influential cartoons that commented on World Wars I and II, the Depression and New Deal, workers’ rights, socialism, fascism, and American politics. Many comic historians credit Doyle with inventing “John Q. Public” as a symbol of the everyday American.

Two Pulitzer Winners

color photo of cartoonist Signe Wilkinson.
Signe Wilkinson won a Pulitzer Prize for her editorial cartooning at the Philadelphia Daily News. (Photograph by D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

In 1976, Tony Auth (1942–2014) of the Inquirer became the first Philadelphian to win the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning. In 1992, Signe Wilkinson (b. 1959), cartoonist for the Inquirer and the Daily News, became the first female cartoonist to win this honor. Both artists’ careers were affected by the technological changes—notably, the rise of the internet and of digital media—and the decline of the newspaper industry in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Auth, who enjoyed a long and illustrious career at the Inquirer for forty-one years, made a major transition when, in 2012, he began cartooning in a new medium, becoming the first “digital artist in residence” at, a web-based news portal of Philadelphia’s WHYY radio. Transitioning from the traditional drawing board to an app on his iPad, Auth continued to produce award-winning syndicated cartoons for NewsWorks until his death in 2014. With Auth’s death, Wilkinson, who has drawn cartoons for the Daily News since 1985, became the only remaining political cartoonist for a major Philadelphia newspaper, although readers became increasingly likelier to encounter her cartoons online at than on the printed pages of the Inquirer or the Daily News.

By the turn of the twenty-first century, as newspapers ran fewer and fewer comic strips—many cutting their comics sections entirely—so too did the number of Philadelphia-based comic strip artists decline. In the early twenty-first century, however, the Philadelphia area boasted at least two nationally syndicated comic strip artists: Robb Armstrong’s Jump Start (1989–), centered on an African American family in Philadelphia, and Terry and Patty Laban’s Edge City (2000–16), which explored the lives of a suburban Jewish family. Members of the Philadelphia Cartoonist Society, founded in 1997, kept the art of cartooning alive in the metropolitan area as they continued to push the boundaries of cartooning in its various forms—including comic strips, editorial cartoons, underground/alternative art, and web comics. Throughout the late twentieth century and continuing into the twenty-first, Philadelphia cartoonists, although smaller in number, continued the proud tradition of political commentary begun in the colonial era by Benjamin Franklin.

Rachel Moloshok is managing editor of publications and associate manager of scholarly programs at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, where she has helped to plan and execute several digital history exhibits, including Politics in Graphic Detail: Exploring History through Political Cartoons (2015). (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University


“Join, or Die,” Pennsylvania Gazette, May 9, 1754

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The British colonies were separated by great spans of wilderness resulting in slow communication and poor collaboration. While there may have been “colonial pride,” the colonies lacked an overall feeling of unity, despite near-constant conflict with both Native Americans and semi-hostile French and Spanish colonies. Benjamin Franklin originally published this image (created as a wood-carved negative) along with an editorial about a “disunited state” in the Pennsylvania Gazette, which would eventually be distributed to every colony preceding the impending French and Indian War (part of the Seven Years’ War, 1754-1763).

It became clear to colonists that the only way to survive war with the French, Indians, or a combination of the two (as would be the case), would be to fight together as one united faction. This idea of unity played a crucial role in establishing an American identity leading up to the boycott of taxed British goods and the American Revolutionary War. While this snake only represented the eight current colonies as its severed pieces, its message of strength in unity was universal, as Abraham Lincoln would say before America’s Civil War about a century later: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

William Charles, A Boxing Match, or Another Bloody Nose for John Bull, circa 1813

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

William Charles focuses on the bloody War of 1812 between the British and the young United States in this political cartoon, personifying England as “John Bull” (King George III) and the United States as “Brother Jonathan” (President James Madison). The British restriction of U.S. trade, impressment of American seamen, and American desire to expand its territory resulted in a declaration of war on Britain.

Depicted in this cartoon, we see John Bull, or King George III, leaning forward (as though attacking) with his fists forward, while James Madison leans backward with his fists up in defense. The blood pouring from the king’s nose represents the loss of the British warship “Boxer” in its naval “boxing match” with the American frigate “Enterprise” (the ships are depicted in the background to the right). While this only references one battle in the War of 1812 (in September 1813), the war would be full of individual losses and victories for America and would eventually lead to the burning of Washington, D.C., (in August 1814) before the British would finally be forced to concede. This cartoon was intended to raise American spirits and bolster patriotism in a back-and-forth war often referred to as “the Second War of American Independence.”

E. W. Clay, Philadelphia Fashions, 1837

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Edward Williams Clay would produce an entire series of political cartoons as social commentary from 1828 to 1830 called Life in Philadelphia. These cartoons focused on African Americans living in Philadelphia and their aspirations to live life as their white counterparts had. While the cartoons depict fashion, social class, and quality of life for African Americans in the early nineteenth century, they were intended to mock and insult their subjects, often featuring racist or classist dialogue and related themes. The dialogue, clothing, and posture of the cartoons’ subjects were often exaggerated to the point of absurdity, indicative of Clay’s racist ideology and his propagation of segregationist principles.

Charles Nelan, “Mutual Admiration,” Philadelphia North American, January 29, 1903

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Governor Samuel Pennypacker became furious about multiple appearances of a caricaturized version of himself as a mindless parrot that repeated whatever his party boss (Matthew S. Quay) told him to say. Pennsylvania Representative Frederick Taylor Pusey passed the Salus-Grady libel law in the governor’s defense, making it illegal to depict any person as a “beast, bird, fish, insect, or other inhuman animal.” This caused a major backlash from the media community nationally, leading to the production of even more deriding political cartoons, depicting politicians as various inanimate objects—unsurprisingly, even still including animals.

This cartoon by Charles Nelan can be viewed as a summary for the media’s reaction to the anti-cartooning bill (naturally depicting Pusey as a “Pus(s)ey cat,” rubbing himself loyally against a parrot Pennypacker’s boot). According to the North American’s hardly unbiased coverage, legislatures greeted Pusey with loud “meows” when he rose to speak in sessions. This bill was viewed as a preposterous piece of American history not only because of its absurd context, but also because it directly contradicted American First Amendment rights, including freedom of the press, and, indirectly, freedom of speech.

Walt McDougall, 1927

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Walt McDougall, a native of Newark, New Jersey, began his career as an engraver and would go on to become an illustrator for many publications. Improving upon his illustration skill, he would eventually be regarded as a master of caricatures. His work for the New York World was known far and wide. He once drew a likeness of journalist Edgar Wilson “Bill” Nye’s face on a letter (without an address), to which, based on the easily recognizable illustration, the post office workers then added an address and delivered to Nye’s home. McDougall was also responsible for hundreds of full-page Sunday comics for various newspapers—including writing and illustrating an original series, which he named “McDougall’s Good Stories for Children,” for the New York Herald.

“Non Votis,” frontispiece of Plain Truth: or, Serious Considerations on the Present State of the City of Philadelphia, and Province of Pennsylvania, by Benjamin Franklin (Philadelphia, 1747)

Library Company of Philadelphia

The pamphlet Plain Truth was published as a method for inspiring British colonists to join together in arms against French and Spanish privateers, armed soldiers who would raid American plantations or ships, pillaging any and all valuable resources (especially along the Delaware River). After the threat of piracy and Spanish privateering along the Delaware was brought to the Philadelphia City Council, Benjamin Franklin was handed the job of creating a political pamphlet to inform colonists of the militaristic dangers they faced and must be prepared for. He reminded colonists that they had grown too comfortable in peace times while their wealth had increased and, therefore, must strengthen their defenses with small arms and warships. While the port of Philadelphia was referred to as the prime example, this ideology applied to all colonies equally.

Marjorie Henderson Buell (“Marge”) with “Little Lulu" Doll

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Marjorie Buell was one of America’s first internationally famous and hugely successful female cartoonists. Publications quickly noticed her natural understanding of witty humor after she had her first cartoon published in the Philadelphia Ledger when she was only 16 years old (c. 1920). The “Little Lulu” doll beside her in this picture is evidence of her character’s strong identity as well as her ability as an entrepreneurial skill. Her character would make appearances on television shows, greeting cards, games, toys, coloring books, and even fashion accessories. Marge Buell not only served as a role model for female artists or cartoonists, but also as a role model for female businesswomen, as she retained complete creative control over all “Little Lulu” usages until she sold them in 1971.

This photograph is dated November 8, 1939.

Signe Wilkinson

Signe Wilkinson won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for her editorial cartooning at the Philadelphia Daily News. When Tony Auth left sister paper The Inquirer in 2012, Wilkinson became cartoonist for both newspapers.

The citation for the cartooning Pulitzer Prize says it is awarded "for a distinguished example of a cartoonist's work during the year in a United States newspaper, the determining qualities being that the cartoon shall embody an idea made clearly apparent, shall show good drawing and striking pictorial effect, and shall be intended to be helpful to some commendable cause of public importance, due account being taken of the whole volume of the artist's newspaper work during the year." (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

Tony Auth's View of Tony Auth

A self-portrait drawn by Tony Auth was projected during a memorial service for the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, who died in 2014. He had drawn for the Philadelphia Inquirer for forty-one years before moving to WHYY radio, where he continued to draw, producing a range of multimedia work for the station's NewsWorks online news site. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

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Related Reading

Auth, Tony, with David Leopold. The Art of Tony Auth: To Stir, Inform, and Inflame. Philadelphia: Camino Books, 2012.

Holtz, Allan. American Newspaper Comics: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012.

Hess, Stephen, and Milton Kaplan. The Ungentlemanly Art: A History of American Political Cartoons. New York: Macmillan, 1968.

Looney, Robert F., ed. Philadelphia Printmaking: American Prints before 1860. West Chester, Pa.: The Tinicum Press, 1977.

McDougall, Walt. This is the Life! New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926. Accessed via Hathi Trust Digital Library, University of Michigan.

West, Richard Samuel. “The Pen and the Parrot: Charles Nelan Takes on the Governor of Pennsylvania.” Target, Autumn 1986, 13–20.

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