Progressive Era Political Cartoons

Home Education Unit Plans The Progressive Era and Economics Progressive Era Political Cartoons

Progressive Era Political Cartoons

This interdisciplinary lesson plan is focused on political cartoons as a way to teach economics and the Progressive Era. The cartoons range from late 1880s to the 1912 Presidential Election, and a PowerPoint is included with background knowledge for students and teachers on the Progressive Era that works in conjunction with the cartoons. These cartoons depict several events from the time period with differing opinions. Students will be asked to analyze the cartoon to discover the author’s point of view as well as place the cartoon with background knowledge of the era. Students will also be asked to compare and contrast the cartoons to form a well-rounded opinion of the popular culture shown through the cartoons.

Drawing on a variety of sources helps students generate their own opinions and enhance their knowledge of the subject while having exposure to primary sources. It will also increase their literacy skills by improving their critical thinking ability.

Essential Questions

How has social disagreement and collaboration been beneficial to American society?
What role do multiple causations play in describing a historic event?
What role does analysis have in historical construction?


Students will be able to:

• Interpret political cartoons by finding connections between the cartoons and the Progressive Era.
• Students will be able to describe the Progressive Era by locating the people involved, and the economic situation
• Examine and evaluate the use of symbolism, point of view, irony, and other literacy techniques by analyzing political cartoons from the Progressive Era.

Suggested Instructional Procedures

1. Introduce the subject matter: A PowerPoint is included in the Other Materials Section with pictures, vocabulary definitions, common symbolism, and each cartoon. There are also several background materials listed to be used as needed. This is a very brief overview, yet it allows for a basic understanding of the era or a nice refresher on the content that the political cartoons will cover. These cartoons encompass Big Business, Economics, William Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson. Begin with the PowerPoint and, as you go through the information and other background materials, have students write down the vocabulary words, in bold, and their definitions.

2. Introduce how to dissect a political cartoon to understand what it represents and how it relates to the subject matter. Use the cartoon “Revising It” as an example. Hand out the Political Cartoons Analysis Guide ,and walk the students through each phase laid out below, using the guiding questions if students become stuck or are unable to grasp the content.

         Observation Phase: Remember to record observations.

  • What objects do you see?
  • Write down the cartoon caption (if there is one).
  • Locate words or phrases and decipher meaning

Reflection Phase: Remember to record observations.

  • Symbolism and metaphors: A symbol in a cartoon is an image that is created to stand in for some other thing, person, idea…etc.  A metaphor uses an analogy to describe one thing as similar to something completely different.
    • What is TR cutting?
    • What does the image of the club symbolize?
    • What does the building in the background symbolize?
    • Who is TR, and what is his expression? What was his nickname as we learned previously?
  • Irony/Satire: Form of humor that is especially appropriate for political cartoons because it mocks the direct meaning of the image and represents a contradiction to that meaning.
    • TR was known as the “Trust Buster,” so what is the irony of this image? How is the author showing irony and satire?
  • Stereotype: Oversimplification of a particular group.
    • How are the images represented? Which images are large ,and which are small?
    • How do you feel about TR based on this image?
    • How does the author stereotype TR, the United States, Big Business, and Economics just from this cartoon?
  • Exaggeration: A distortion of an object that enhances and highlights the aspect the author would like to become dominant to the viewer.
    • What aspects of the cartoon are exaggerated to make the audience notice them?
    • What emotions do you see in TR? Are they exaggerated for effect?

          Question Phase: Remember to record observations.

  • What is the message of the political cartoon?
  • What is the author trying to tell the audience? Knowing the background knowledge of this time period, does the message surprise you?
  • What attitude does the author have on Big Business, TR, and Economics?
  • How does this relate to the Progressive Era? Which side of the conflict is this author portraying?
  • How does this relate to what you already know about the Progressive Era, and how does it fit in with the larger picture of US History? Does it surprise you or does it seem consistent with other aspects of US History?

3. Repeat the whole-class scaffolding method with the cartoon “Please Omit Flowers,” and make sure students are able to grasp the plethora of symbols. Remember to use the symbolism guide also found in the PowerPoint to help.

4. Divide the class into pairs and project another cartoon “The Hardest Job they Ever Tackled.”

a. Have each pair complete the three phases: Observation, Reflection, and Questioning and record their answers.

b. Each group will then present their findings, leading to an open class discussion on what the cartoon reflects.

5. Feel free to repeat this process with all the cartoons, or allow for students to look at the rest of the cartoons individually and record their observations followed by a class discussion.

6. If this lesson is in conjunction with ones that show political cartoons on other topics, ask the students to compare and contrast the similarities and differences in the cartoons.


Agrarian society: Society based around producing and maintaining crops and farmland.

Andrew Carnegie: U.S Steel manufacturer known for his success in the industry and for his philanthropy. (1835-1919)

Big Business: A large scale industry.

Captain of Industry: The head of a large business

Dividend: The sum of money paid to shareholders of a corporation from the earnings of the corporation.

Free Market: An economic system in which prices are determined by unrestricted competition between privately owned businesses.

Industrialization: The process in which a society or country (or world) transforms itself from a primarily agricultural society into one based on the manufacturing of goods and services.

James Sherman: Vice President to President Taft.

John D. Rockefeller: U.S. Industrialist who dominated the oil business and made a fortune. (1839-1937)

Laissez-Faire: “HANDS OFF” or no government interference in business.

Monopoly: The exclusive control of the entire supply of goods or of a service in a certain area or market.

Shareholder: Someone who is a holder or owner of shares in a company or corporation.

The New Nationalism: Teddy Roosevelt’s philosophy during the 1912 presidential election. He argued for the government protection of human welfare and property rights.

Theodore Roosevelt: President of the United States from 1901-1909. Known as the “Trust Buster” and a Progressive.

Trust Company: A trust refers to a large corporation where is a person who holds the property rights and generally has a monopoly or a very large piece of a certain industry. For example, US Steel and Standard Oil.

Urban: Designating a city or town. A more populated area.

William Howard Taft: President of the United States from 1909-1912. Often poked fun at for being a very large man. He was the protégé of TR, yet he is known as more conservative than his predecessor even though he is responsible for several reforms.

Woodrow Wilson: President from 1913-1921. He campaigned on a progressive platform called “New Freedom” that believed in individualism and state’s rights. In 1918, as WWI began to fall in favor of the Allies, he wrote the “Fourteen Points” speech which outlined post-war aims, including the League of Nations.