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Dry humor: the American cartoonists' view of Prohibition

by Dr Joyce A. Walker

If one believes the old adage, that journalism is just the first edition of history, it must be true that political cartoons published in newspapers are one of the most vibrant manifestations of history in the making. Historians have been notably lax in using the medium of cartoons for historical research but, happily, that is changing gradually as a growing awareness of the value of cartoons as a basic resource. As an Americanist historian, I am fascinated by the way in which it is possible to follow an event through the cartoons which were produced as the event unfolded, often over years. With cartoons produced concurrently to the event, we have none of the hindsight which can cloud much historical interpretation - we see the situation as it was seen by the people of the time.

In the 1920s the USA was blessed with, arguably, some of the most gifted cartoonists in the world. Artists such as Rollin Kirby, Jay "Ding" Darling, Daniel Fitzpatrick and John McCutcheon were household names at the time, and are still considered to be some of the finest exponents of the genre. Freed from the government-imposed restraints placed on them during the First World War (cartoons were produced for propaganda purposes only), they and their peers took full advantage of the freedom they had been given. One of the direct consequences of the war was the Paris Peace Conference, from which emerged the Treaty of Versailles and, as an integral part, the proposals for the formation of the League of Nations. America's ultimate decision not to join the fledgling League generated an immense number of cartoons, both for and against joining the League, but there were other major events taking place in the USA which, perhaps, interested Americans more than the rather arcane League of Nations debate. The 19th. Amendment to the US Constitution, which granted women the vote, became law in 1920 and engendered many cartoons, but the one post-war issue which produced most cartoons was the passing of the 18th. Amendment, which also became law in 1920. Prohibition of the manufacture, transport and sale (but not the purchase!) of alcohol was intended to produce a sober, happy workforce and to end the societal ills associated with the consumption of alcohol. We, of course, know that the "noble experiment", as it was termed by President Herbert Hoover, was a disastrous failure, leading to the rise of Al Capone and other notorious bootleggers and gangsters, but America in 1920 could not foresee that. The cartoonists were simply reflecting their own, and public, opinion on the subject - and not all of it disapproving! The introduction of Prohibition was greeted warmly in many quarters. That it ultimately failed was due to unsuspected criminal facets of human nature which the (albeit altruistic) authors of the Volstead Act did not see.

Rollin Kirby's cartoon is, perhaps, the most famous and enduring image of the Prohibition era in America. Kirby "invented" Mr. Dry, the black-coated, acerbic kill-joy who represented the worst elements of Prohibitionists. This image was quickly adopted by other cartoonists and can be seen in drawings from throughout the Prohibition era. It is a prime example of the development of a cartooning icon.

Cartoonists were willing to pick up on a good idea produced by a fellow artist, so long as that image was readily and easily understood by the public - an essential in any cartoon. Obviously, Kirby and the others who used the image were not in favour of Prohibition - or, at least, the most killjoy proponents of it! . Many people were, of course, against Prohibition, seeing alcohol as a purely natural produce to be enjoyed and appreciated as such. Prohibition became an issue in all the Presidential elections until its repeal in 1933, and Cartoon 4 shows the Democratic donkey sniffing suspiciously at a bottle labelled "Gov. Smith of New York". Al Smith, a potential candidate for the 1924 Democratic nomination was a well-known "wet", i.e. an anti-Prohibitionist. While people might, privately , disapprove of Prohibition, no political party could at that stage be seen publicly to support an anti-Prohibitionist - and Governor Smith duly was not nominated. Of course, Prohibition had been put in place by the Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson, and Smith was also a Democrat, but this does not mean the Democrats were the only party divided on the issue. Wilson's Republican successor, the unfortunate Warren Harding, was well-known as a 'closet' wet who publicly espoused Prohibition, while still serving alcohol to friends in the White House.

That Prohibition eventually did fail is due to many causes, the most important of which was, probably, insufficient political and legal will to ensure that it would succeed. The cartoonists simply told the story as they, as individuals, saw it - and have provided historians with a unique and vibrant record of a fascinating period in American history.