Political Cartoons in History Lesson Plans

Using visuals in history lesson plans promotes student analysis skills and activates higher level thinking abilities. Activities involving political cartoons, works of art, and photographs are easy to put together and complement other parts of a teaching unit. Additionally, these activities are enjoyed by students.

Political Cartoons in American History

Although political cartoons in American History are often identified with the great 19th century cartoonist Thomas Nast, every generation saw the use of such media in influencing thinking. Whether it was a depiction of a snake cut into pieces with the caption “Join, or Die” by Ben Franklin or a cartoon depicting Andrew Jackson as King George III, political cartoons help students understand the key issues within lesson plan units.

After discussing the role and impact of political cartoons, have students use the internet or history texts to find other examples relating to the unit under study. Demonstrate that political cartoons are still used to elicit reader responses by exhibiting contemporary cartoons from newspapers and magazines. Ask students to share any similarities and differences (19th century and early 20th century cartoons are often more difficult to interpret and frequently have several messages).

The purpose of the lesson plan should be to develop acute powers of observation. From this will flow analysis based on the historical facts already taught.

Campaign Literature

American History is full of campaign literature including posters, buttons, and other advertisement. An 1896 campaign “card,” for example, printed on behalf of the McKinley campaign, used pictures and bold print phrases that differentiated McKinley from William Jennings Bryan. The “card” addressed tariff issues as well as monetary concerns.

Old campaign buttons also help to relate candidates to key issues while at other times they might have seemed bland: why did everyone “like Ike” in 1952? In both American History and World History classes, a creative assignment might be to ask students to create their own buttons or bumper sticks. When teaching the ancient world, teachers might say, “Develop a bumper sticker one of the Roman emperors could put on his chariot.”

Paintings and Old Photographs

Although some famous historically-themed paintings were created more to glorify an event or person and thus perpetuate historical myths, they are still a good source to encourage student observation and analysis. What were the people in the painting wearing? Does this indicate a level of prosperity? What action in the painting does the artist want the audience to focus on? Have students initially develop their own questions and then write a brief analysis of the painting.

The same can be done with old photographs. Ask students to bring old family photographs to class for discussion. Photographs may depict old neighborhoods – perhaps ethnic enclaves in American cities, or some of the first suburbs after 1947. Students can be shown how to use photographs as historical sources and how they further illustrate an understanding of the past.

When Art Changes with the Time

The May 29th, 1943 edition of The Saturday Evening Post featured a Norman Rockwell cover: the iconic “Rosie the Riveter.” Ask students to compare the propaganda message of “Rosie” to American women with later 1950s Rockwell depictions of American women as happy housewives. Lesson plans can explore how cartoons, posters, and other media were used as propaganda. This was particularly true in World War I and World War II.

Another area students may wish to explore involves military recruitment posters used throughout the 20th century and the changing role of “Uncle Sam” in those depictions. The bottom line is that enough material exists, at least in American History, to incorporate fun and creative activities into lesson plans that encourage observation, analysis, and high level skills.