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Cartoonists of the Gilded Age

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Puck magazine, 1893 Puck magazine, 1893

In the world of cartoons, the magazine Puck reigns supreme, even though it ceased publication nearly a century ago. Today The New Yorker is often looked at for the cartoons more than the articles, but in an age without the visual media of television the cartoon assumed much greater prominence. It could be understood by a host of people, whatever their level of education or literacy, and did much to shape the culture of America in the Gilded Age.

This is the subject of a fascinating and much-needed exhibit of the original artwork at the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach. The accompanying catalogue is beautifully done, and deserves a serious look in the giftshop- it would make an excellent Christmas present.

Like the exhibit itself, the book offers a suite of cartoons thematically. Topics covered are Modern Life, Social Commentary, Love and Marriage, Culture and Society, Cast of Characters and Cornball Humor.

The original artwork on display is from the personal collection of Jean and Frederic Sharf, while the book is authored by Flagler Museum curators Tracy Kamerer and Janel Trull. They note in the preface that “because the cartoons consist only of the original figurative drawings, without the captions or stories that accompanied the published form, it isn’t always possible to “get” the jokes at first glance.” Their extensive research in conjunction with the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore has managed to flesh out this back story, so that the exhibit explains each one and usually shows the original issue each cartoon appeared in.

Pres. Roosevelt on Puck cover, 1902Pres. Roosevelt on Puck cover, 1902This is further supplemented by snapshots of the cartoonists themselves. For example the image that leads this article, Hurrah for the Red, White and Blue was the centerfold for the July 3, 1893 issue at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This stirring image was done by Joseph Keppler, who was born in Vienna in 1838.

It was Keppler who created the German edition of Puck magazine in 1876, and the English edition six months later. He retained his position as chief cartoonist until his death in New York in 1894. His son, Joseph Jr., is the artist of the other image shown here. It demonstrates the support by Puck magazine for the new president Teddy Roosevelt, showing that the steering wheel of the ship of state is in safe hands with him. It was the cover for New Years’ Day, 1902.

It was Joseph Jr. who sold Puck magazine in 1914; faced with competiton and without the Kepplers at the helm it foundered and ended publication in 1918. Joseph Jr. died in 1956.

The curators say in the catalogue that “during its run, Puck reigned supreme, constantly adjusting to stay on the forefront of humor but never losing sight of the core values the magazine was built upon.” As a window on the world as it was during the Gilded Age, Puck is unparalleled.

From cartoons of the immigrant Irish being portrayed as stupid, drunk and violent, to biting social commentary on women’s fashions and the dangers of the new-fangled automobile, these cartoons hit the mark every time. Well worth a visit to Florida’s finest mansion, now decorated in Christmas splendor. So take a holiday tour and see this exhibit before it ends!

The exhibit runs at the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach until January 3, 2016. Visit the website for tour details:

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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