Most surviving likeness of the New-York Tribune editor Horace Greeley (1811-1872) are either caricatures or photographs taken in his later years. In political cartoons, he is often depicted wearing tiny spectacles, a top hat, and a voluminous overcoat with bulging pockets (one of his sartorial trademarks). In the post-Civil War photographs, Greeley is plump and sports a fringe of white beard, a little like Santa Claus but with beady eyes. Continue reading
For the January 30, 1864, issue of Harper’s Weekly, Thomas Nast drew a many-paneled illustration of Central Park in winter. Like many of his works, this one featured a large central drawing, surrounded by smaller vignettes in round and elliptical frames. The main drawing shows New Yorkers ice-skating on Central Park’s Pond. (The Park was then only a few years old.) Below that is a rather wild sleighing scene, in which genteel New Yorkers ride through a desolate terrain, as urchins throw snowballs or rocks at them.
The opening of Central Park coincided with ice-skating’s growing popularity, which took hold in earnest in the 1850s. The Park was most heavily visited in winter, when its pond became crowded with thousands of skaters, whose activities Nast captures here in wonderful detail. (Note the woman in the skating chair.)
Perhaps inevitably, Nast’s wonderland contains some politics, too. Two months earlier, President Lincoln had been reelected as an inconclusive Civil War dragged on, inflicting terrible casualties. New York, being a commercial center, had always viewed the war with ambivalence. The conflict was contrary to the city’s interests, disrupting a lucrative trade with the South on which New York’s economy relied. While many New Yorkers were ardent Unionists and Republicans, the city also had a large Democratic constituency, including a politically active immigrant population, which resented the war, the federal government, and the fuss about slaves. Many, wishing a return to peace, had lately voted for Lincoln’s challenger, Democrat George McClellan.
Anger over the federal government’s war policies had boiled into violence the previous July. New York became the scene of bloody draft riots, in which rioters lynched at least 11 blacks and 120 people were killed in street fighting between protesters and the police. Poor whites were inflamed against a draft bill that Congress had recently passed: while ostensibly requiring all fit men to serve in the Union military, it contained a loophole that wealthier Northerners would use to evade the draft: arranging for a replacement by paying a bounty.
In the foreground of his skating scene, Nast (who ardently supported Lincoln and the war) highlights several figures, including a military man at the far left wearing a kepi—a reminder of high-minded Northerners voluntarily leading the Union effort as officers. At right are two prominent New York newspaper editors, James Gordon Bennett Sr and Horace Greeley, who have run into trouble on proverbially thin ice. Greeley is teetering, while Bennett has fallen, both near a hole signifying treachery. Bennett had been an outspoken critic of Lincoln and proponent of McClellan, whereas Greeley, while fitfully supportive of the war, had recently embarrassed the Lincoln administration by engaging in bogus ‘peace negotiations’ with some Confederate representatives who turned out to be fakes.
Both editors, though overwhelmingly influential, earned Nast’s scorn because they were feckless peace-mongers. To have ended the Civil War through a settlement at that juncture would have rendered the suffering of the soldiers in vain.
Their presence heightens the allegorical meaning of the left side of the tableau, where three figures guard the safety of the family and society. Besides the Union officer, who holds a small boy in his arms, Nast’s own editor Fletcher Harper (with mutton-chop whiskers) stands over a young girl protectively, while a third man (unidentified, but probably a prominent editor, too) deferentially greets a woman standing at the edge of the ice. Nast depicts these figures as both benevolent and patriotic. Harper gave Nast a venue for his pro-Union and radically egalitarian views.
So what at first glance passes for an innocuous pleasure scene is a comment on specific editors, and a paean to the value of virtuous editors in a conflict-ridden time.
Image from this source.
President Theodore Roosevelt, holding his top hat in one hand and flanked by two officers and an unidentified man, looks down at the photographer from the back of a railroad car. The year is 1903. The spontaneity of this picture registers how mainstream photography and photographic portraiture were changing in the wake of George Eastman’s revolutionary invention of the hand-held Kodak camera.
By then the Kodak camera had been around for fifteen years, but its impact was still widening and generating change. Because the Kodak was not just a new type of camera, but a new type of film, and one that gave the user freedom from having to learn film processing, it made picture-taking easier for everybody. Amateurs began taking pictures like crazy. The Kodak process also represented a big leap forward in terms of stop-motion photography, suddenly endowing pictures of living subjects with greater immediacy.
Those qualities shine in this marvelous photograph of President Theodore Roosevelt, taken during one of his myriad railway journeys. Who was the photographer? Was it a professional photographer assigned to cover him, or an ordinary American, perhaps even a woman, who successfully beseeched the President to pose just this one time? Did he even consent? His aides look amused, but Roosevelt himself looks positively put out.
Image: from this source.
In 1940, a federal bureau called the Farm Security Administration (FSA) dispatched photographers to various parts of the States to document the American people’s condition. That the federal government would launch such an impolitic initiative is unthinkable today. The pictures are uncomfortably realistic, many outright grim, the country being still on the ropes after that period of economic woe we proudly refer to as the ‘Great’ Depression. That those in power cared enough to visit the nation’s suffering smacks of an unwavering democratic purpose unfamiliar now.
The corpus of FSA photography stands as a magnificent portrait of America: penetrating and stark, troubling yet thrilling, capturing the country’s natural richness, its varied peoples and economy, its dilemmas and opportunities.
For the most part, rural places and workers star in the FSA’s study of the mid-20th-century ‘political economy.’ A band of FSA photographers, who included Jack Delano, Marion Post Wolcott, and Russell Lee, fanned out across the South and West, documenting rural small-town folk as they went about their daily activities.
Indeed, many of the photographs—some shot with up-to-the-minute color slide film—show people living in conditions little changed since the previous century.
Besides documenting church picnics, horse auctions, and hard-scrabble farming, FSA photographers visited urban and industrial regions, where they more often shot in black and white. As the project went on, its output began to show the stimulus of World War II, when the demand for goods in war-torn Europe and the growth of war-related industries dramatically expanded the economy and work opportunities for many Americans.
The FSA project represented an interesting experiment on the government’s part, to use an expressive medium (photography) to supplement the ‘facts’ expressed through social science. Seventy-five years on, the FSA photos allow us to behold the ordinary American circa 1940, in a form more eloquent than statistics or sociology. Moreover, the characteristic themes of the photographs, including the unequal effects of modernization, Americans’ changing relationship with nature and the land, and economic vulnerability, are problems we continue to grapple with today.
All images from the Library of Congress.
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This photograph provides a measure of how much our style of choosing presidents has changed. In 1904, when this picture was taken, there was no doubt whatsoever of the power of political parties to select their presidential nominees. In the century since, both parties have lost that control.
Admittedly, the star of this picture, Theodore Roosevelt (in the white vest), was immensely popular, and the incumbent. His rise had been dependent, however, on his skill in gaining support of the major powers in his party–the political bosses who controlled large blocks of delegates, and the senior officeholders whom the bosses supported. A presidential hopeful had to take into account established figures and personally win them over. The months leading up to a convention were a period of intense jockeying, as hopefuls and their friends made the rounds, trying to gain traction within the organization. No way could a candidate hope to become president without the party establishment, because the power to select a nominee really lay, not with voters, but with their delegates.
Ultimately, delegates to the conventions chose the nominee. They could change their votes during the balloting if they pleased, and such changes were often necessary. This process forced the people who were most invested in a political party to come to an agreement about competing nominees and decide which of them best served the party’s interests. In the process of rejecting candidates, the party also closed off undesirable ideological directions it might have taken. (Both the Democratic and Republican parties curtailed the independence of delegates after the tumult of the 1960s, gutting the conventions of their essential purpose and drama.)
Young Roosevelt understood that his individual destiny was interdependent with that of the GOP. Early on, he labored to prove his loyalty to the Republican Party, despite his Progressive leanings and reputation for being an impetuous renegade. He recognized that, whatever his personal talents (which proved to be considerable), he needed the vast organizing structure of the party to propel him upward. After angling for years to get the party where he wanted it, the party finally acquiesced.
The ritualistic mating game they had played was epitomized in the nominating committee’s formal call on Roosevelt after the convention. They visited Roosevelt at his home on Long Island, Sagamore Hill, where he personally received them and demurely accepted their invitation to be the party nominee. The character of the event was not unlike an at-home wedding.
The accommodation that he and his fellow Republicans achieved gave Roosevelt the personal glory he craved, while benefiting the party, which, by organizing itself around Roosevelt, soared to new levels of popularity. In the general election that pitted him against Democrat Alton B. Parker, Roosevelt won every state in the North and the West, including Missouri, which hadn’t gone Republican since the 1860s. His margin of victory was 2.5 million popular votes, the largest in American history.
Roosevelt forgot what he knew about interdependence later in life. Having declared that he would never again run for the presidency, he yielded his place to William B. Taft, who retained the White House for the Republicans in 1908. In 1912, Roosevelt made a disastrous decision to run against his party, splitting it and effectively giving the presidency to Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats. It was that party’s first presidential victory since before the Civil War. Roosevelt’s go-it-alone mentality and determination to defy the stolid power of the parties betokened the ill-conceived and divisive presidential bids so prevalent now.
Image: from this source.