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Cartoons (1850-1900)

By Karine Rousseau and Christian Vachon

The cartoon is an art form that allows its creator to critique society and political life in a unique way. Cartoonists attack their subjects by making us laugh at them.

The first acknowledged cartoons, or caricatures, in North America were produced in Quebec City in 1759 by James Wolfe's brigadier-general, George Townshend (1723-1807). The two men did not see eye-to-eye and Townshend, in an attempt to discredit General Wolfe, drew cartoons ridiculing him. Mocking in particular Wolfe's phobia against dirt and his predilection for women, the cartoons were distributed among the British soldiers stationed at Quebec. Seven of these cartoons are now in the collection of the McCord Museum. Ironically, during the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, Wolfe was mortally wounded and Townshend succeeded him as commander of the army.

The history of cartoons has evolved in step with that of the print media. There were no humorous illustrations in newspapers and magazines in Canada between 1752 and 1807, largely because the technology available at the time did not allow for the printing of illustrations in periodicals. Cartoons appeared after 1807, and the emergence of publishing and printing firms. But it was not until the 1840s that cartoons began to appear on a regular basis.

From 1858 up until 1900, the number of magazines and newspapers grew rapidly. This was also a period of great advances in printing and engraving techniques, with wood engraving being replaced by photolithography. These advances stimulated the development of the art of cartooning.

The pioneers

From 1850 to 1900 the publishers and editors of periodicals often produced and published their own cartoons.

The Irishman John Henry Walker (1831-1899), illustrator and engraver, is credited as the first in Canada to regularly publish cartoons. Walker emigrated to this county in 1842, settling in Toronto, where in 1849 he launched Punch in Canada, named after the famous British periodical. Walker's magazine failed when he tried to publish it as a weekly. He nonetheless went on to publish other humour magazines, notably, The Jester, Grinchuckle and Diogenes, none of which survived for long.

The first humour magazine in Quebec, La Scie, appeared in 1863. In a surprising and unusual turn of events for this country, its cartoonist, Jean-Baptiste Côté (1832-1907), was thrown in prison for publishing a cartoon that poked fun at a civil servant. In 1877, the Montrealer Hector Berthelot (1842-1895) began publishing Le Canard, another humour magazine that carried many cartoons. James G. Mackay contributed to the Montreal-based magazines Canadian Illustrated News and L'Opinion publique, and A. Leroux published his cartoons in the same publications in the 1880s. In Toronto, John W. Bengough (1851-1923) made a name for himself as the publisher of the satirical magazine Grip from 1873 to 1894; his own cartoons and those of several other artists appeared in its pages.

Canadian Illustrated News, the weekly published in Montreal from 1869 to 1883, and its French-language counterpart, L'Opinion publique, were peppered with the humouristic illustrations of several cartoonists, the most prominent of whom were Edward Jump (1832-1883) and Octave-Henri Julien (1852-1908). The latter gained considerable fame for his political cartoons, especially the "By-Town Coons," depicting the members of Sir Wifrid Laurier's Cabinet and published in the Montreal Star from 1897 to 1900.

The subjects

Early cartoons dealt with a variety of subjects related, in particular, to news of the day. Cartoons thus reveal social and political realities of the era in which they were created.

The often-biting cartoons of the second half of the 19th century regularly conveyed stereotypical messages that would probably today be considered unacceptable. But such works provide glimpses of the kind of thinking prevalent at the time.

Canadian cartoonists generally treated economic and political subjects such as Confederation, the rise of Canadian nationalism, famous politicians like John A. MacDonald and Wilfrid Laurier, Canada-U.S. relations, Aboriginals, the Rebellions, the Métis, tariff policies, railway companies and political scandals such as the Canadian Pacific Scandal. Among the social issues often depicted in cartoons were prohibition, poverty, disease, working conditions and civil rights.

Analyzing and understanding cartoons

To understand and appreciate political cartoons, you need a sense of their overall political context; early cartoons are often difficult to analyze outside of their context. Cartoons are generally published in newspapers and magazines alongside news of the day or week. You might understand a cartoon at first glance, but if it is especially subtle you might need knowledge of the event depicted or access to contextual information in order to fully decode it.

Cartoonists use several techniques and strategies to convey their messages, including analogy, exaggeration, distortion of reality, and allusion to famous figures (mythical, literary, etc.). They might also use words to help convey meaning. Many cartoons contain both visual and textual elements; included in the latter are titles, dialogue, captions, explanations and comments. Finally, signs, symbols, stereotypes, size and nuances of shading also provide clues. For example, certain objects, animals or individuals might represent a nation. Stereotypes, such as the fat and arrogant businessman and the skinny worker, are frequently seen. Often size is used to symbolize power and social status, while the colour black on certain figures might indicate shady or bad characters.

It is also important to consider the possible biases of the cartoonist; ask yourself, for example, if the artist's personal preferences, religion, ethic background, economic status, gender, historical influences, values or matrimonial status have tainted the cartoon. Once you have checked and analyzed all of these elements, the meaning of the cartoon should become clear!


Desbarats, Peter and Terry Mosher. The Hecklers. A History of Canadian Political Cartooning and a Cartoonists' History of Canada. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, National Film Board of Canada, 1979.

Hou, Charles and Cynthia Hou. Great Canadian Political Cartoons. 1820-1914. Vancouver: Moody's Lookout Press, 1997.

Hou, Charles and Cynthia Hou. The Art of Decoding Political Cartoons. A Teacher's Guide. Vancouver: Moody's Lookout Press, 1998.

"Political Cartoons." The Canadian Encyclopedia [online]
[](page consulted August 9, 2006).

"Cartoons and Comic Strips." The Canadian Encyclopedia [online]
[] (page consulted August 9, 2006).

"Bengough, John Wilson." Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online [] (page consulted August 9, 2006).

"Berthelot, Hector." Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
[] (page consulted August 9, 2006).


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