Question of the Week
Who created the famous 1754 Join or Die cartoon?
Answer: Benjamin Franklin
The history of American political cartoons predates the founding of the nation. In 1754, Benjamin Franklin's famous “Join, or Die” drawing, which many historians believe to be the first American political cartoon, appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette. Franklin hoped that his image of a snake comprised of separate segments would foster a sense of colonial unity during the French and Indian War. The colonies recycled the illustration a decade later, as tensions increased with Great Britain in the lead up to the Revolutionary War.
During the early years of the nineteenth century, cartooning became a popular way for political parties, interest groups, and newspapers to express their opinions and rally support for a particular cause or candidate. By mid century, as sectional differences threatened to pull the country apart, political cartoons became increasingly biting and satirical. Not surprisingly, themes of race, slavery, and states’ and equal rights dominated the cartoons of the Civil War and Reconstruction years.
Most political cartoons of the era appeared in newspapers and periodicals like Harper’s Weekly, Puck, and The Wasp. In 1871, Joseph Keppler Sr. founded the German language humor magazine Puck in St. Louis. Production in English began in New York in 1877. The magazine contained full color cartoons that dealt with contemporary political and social issues, and it remained in publication until 1918. The political satire magazine The Wasp was founded in San Francisco by Francis Korbel, a Czech immigrant, and his siblings in 1876. It was produced weekly under various names until the 1940s.
The society holds a large collection of consolidated political cartoons dating from the 1750s to the 1970s in the HSP cartoons and caricatures collection. Many items on the collections are originals, though some are facsimiles and photocopies. Additional cartoons held among our collections can be searched in our card catalog.
About the Author
Look for these history stories every Sunday in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The stories, called Memory Stream, are published in the Currents section of the newspaper.