Historical Analysis Skills: Interpreting Political Cartoons


World War 1 Alliances political cartoon main

A political or editorial cartoon is a drawing that provides critical opinions about an economic, social, or political event or theme. We interpret such visual mediums differently than written sources. First, we should scan the cartoon and look at the words and images. Next, we look for visual techniques, including caricatures, symbolism, and text usage. Finally, we determine the overall purpose and relevance of the cartoon. 

What Is A Political Cartoon? 

A political cartoon is a drawing that provides critical opinions about an economic, social, or political event or theme. Another word for political cartoon is an editorial cartoon. 

They are often amusing. Nonetheless, humor is usually only a means to an end. Political cartoons use humor and other techniques to persuade us to take a particular view. This is why they are called “editorial” cartoons. An editorial tries to convince the reader to support an opinion. 

Thomas Nast was a famous 19th century cartoonist. He used donkeys and elephants as symbols of the Democratic and Republican Parties. Herbert Lawrence Block (Herblock) was a popular 20th century cartoonist. 

We continue to enjoy political cartoons today. Sometimes, political cartoons use animation, showing some 21st-century techniques. 

First Looks 

Political cartoons are a visual medium. They use certain techniques that catch the eye. People with limited reading skills can often understand them. 

Take a look at the cartoon. Do you see the author? Different cartoonists have specific styles and goals. The cartoonist can also help determine the general time period of the cartoon.  

Do you recognize the subject or time period of the cartoon? A proper understanding of the historical context of the cartoon is a fundamental tool. 

What pictures are used? Do you recognize familiar symbols or themes that might be present?  Some examples of symbols would be national flags, clothing associated with certain people, and signs expressing personality (halos = good person). Common themes are nationalism, the struggle between two groups (employer/employee), and hard economic times. 

Are there speech bubbles with dialogue? Is there a caption? A caption is written text at the bottom of the cartoon that provides a specific message or explanation.  

What is your reaction to the cartoon? Do you feel specific emotions, including disgust, patriotism, or anger at people or institutions?  

Visual Tools

After a first look, we can take a closer look. You learn different literary techniques in English class. Cartoonists also use various tools in their craft.

A common technique is visual caricatures. These are physical exaggerations that overstate a characteristic of a person. Examples would include bushy eyebrows, a large head, or oversized ears. Theodore Roosevelt’s toothy grin would be an example. A caricature is an easy way to bring to bring to mind the person. It also can highlight certain traits, good or bad. 

A related visual tool is stereotypes. Stereotypes are oversimplifications of the characteristics of a person. They are often offensive, including the use of big noses to represent Jews. 

Cartoonists use text to help clarify their message. They label people or objects. They also use captions and speech bubbles. The text helps to emphasize certain themes and points of view.

Symbolism involves the use of objects to stand for ideas. The dollar sign is a symbol of money. Uncle Sam is a symbol of the United States. Hammers and sickles represent communism

Analogies are comparisons between two things to represent an idea. William Jennings Bryan famously used a “cross of gold” as a religious analogy for monetary policy.  

Irony is the difference between what you see and what you expect. If you see irony, think about the intended message. Political cartoons use irony and other humorous techniques to help convince the reader. The goal is not merely a laugh. It is to try to make a point  

Final Conclusions 

After a first look and a close examination of the visual tools of a political cartoon, the reader can determine the overall message the cartoon provides. 

What is the purpose of the cartoon? The cartoonist is trying to convince you of something. Benjamin Franklin’s famous “Join or Die” cartoon portrays a snake split into many parts. He labeled each part with the name of a different colony. His purpose was to promote unity.  

The motive is the personal sentiment of the cartoonist. The purpose of a cartoon can be to promote a war. The usage of stereotypes can suggest the motive is racism. 

Is the cartoon’s message accurate? Sometimes, we will not have enough information to make a complete analysis. Also, does the cartoon successfully promote its intended message? 

We can also place the political cartoon into an overall historical context. Cartoons have a specific relevance. They help us understand a historical time period. Cartoons show us what people are concerned about, what worries them, and their biases and prejudices. 

Finally, a helpful way to make conclusions is to answer the standard “w” questions. The six basic questions are who, what, when, where, why, and how. How does each apply to the cartoon?

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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