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Analyzing Progressive Era Political Cartoons to Introduce Social Studies Students to Economic Concepts

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 This post is by Jen Reidel, 2019-20 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

In the March 2020 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article features an assortment of political cartoons detailing the power of trusts in Progressive America and their financial consequences to the average American. Political cartoons were effective tools used by reformers to promote their criticisms of capitalism with the goal of holding robber barons accountable for excesses.

The article begins by providing background information on the artwork of political cartoonist Frederick Opper, whose work appeared in the magazine Puck and The New York Journal and targeted contemporary political and economic corruption, including his image, “[Anti-trust cartoons]: The little boy [Common People] and the big boys [Trusts] prepare for the baseball season” (“Little Boy…”). The article suggests that educators use Opper’s cartoons as a vehicle for students to learn about trusts.

Anti-trust cartoons]: The little boy [Common People] and the big boys [Trusts] prepare for the baseball season.

Nursery rhymes for infant industries. An alphabet of joyous trusts–no. 5 .

Nursery Rhymes for Infant Industries, No. 15: ‘O’ is the Oil Trust, a modern Bill Sikes; he defies the police, and does just as he likes.

Consider displaying the “Little Boy” image for students to analyze possible meanings. They may notice that each of the baseball players is larger than the boy in the middle who represents “the common man.” They also may note that each player has the name of a specific industry trust displayed on the jersey and that the small baseballs thrown at the average person are causing harm.  Additional questions from the Library of Congress Teacher’s Guides and Analysis Tool can support student observations and thinking.

To build student understanding of trusts, show or give students copies of Frederick Opper’s cartoons “Nursery rhymes for infant industries. An alphabet of joyous trusts–no.5” and “Nursery Rhymes for Infant Industries, No. 15: ‘O’ is the Oil Trust, a modern Bill Sikes; he defies the police does just as he likes,” both of which were published within a few years of the “Little Boy” cartoon. Depending on the background knowledge of your students, you might explain or have students look up who the character of Bill Sikes was in the book Oliver Twist and encourage them to use that information in their analysis of “Nursery Rhymes for Infant Industries, No. 15.” Support students’ analysis of both cartoons with a graphic organizer comparing the images, text, and overall message of the drawings. Students likely will identify how each of the alphabet of joyous trusts drawings depicts the trusts as an exaggeratedly large character with financial power over the average person.

Invite students to create a definition of trusts collectively using observations from all three political cartoons. They might use the following sentence stem to frame their thinking: The Progressive era political cartoons suggest that trusts are harmful to an economy because they ____________________  and _________________ . Facilitate a class discussion about trusts and why they threaten capitalist principles.

In addition to providing context and activities to use with Progressive Era cartoons, the article offers specific search strategies to use with Library of Congress collections. If you tried these suggestions, or a variation of them, with your students after reading the article earlier this month, tell us about your experience!

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