Race and Ethnicity in the Early Comics

I recently scanned a bunch of huge ancient pages of ancient Sunday newspaper comics that will be appearing here… here is the first one.

I chose the most obviously offensive one to share first, as there is a lot to offend in these comics, so I figured I’d address this at the outset.

As with a huge amount of cartoons from the early part of the last century, it features tasteless racial depictions. As a person living in the modern world looking at old comics and cartoons, it is pretty mind blowing just how racist many early comics are. As these unfortunate and ignorant caricatures can sometimes taint the reading experience, I think it is worthwhile to analyze where these cartoonists were coming from with this stuff a bit.

First of all, I think it is worth observing that although the depictions are shallow caricatures, they are rarely hateful. For me, this is the largest part of the reason that I usually have no problem stomaching this stuff… sure the depictions are based on ignorant generalizations, but the motivation is almost always to amuse rather than to spread hatred.

Second of all, my impression from reading stuff from early in the last century, I don’t think that most people even had heard of the concept of racism. Race and ethnicity was not only viewed as a ripe source of humor… it was one of the most popular sources of humor.

Today’s newspaper comics (which I should note are incredibly tame in comparison to the early comics in almost every way imaginable) have their genres… domestic humor, office humor, funny animals, etc. If you were to divide up the major genres of the early (pre-1920) comics, it would have been something like racial and ethnic humor, devil children humor, unstable marriage humor, dim-witted woman humor, homelessness and poverty humor, violence and misfortune humor, and wacky surrealism.

Clearly, the world has utterly changed.

I find these comics to be important historical documents, depicting views of people from another world, and they are frequently hilarious and entertaining. I’m able to forgive, if not overlook, their often dim-witted views on race and ethnicity (not to mention women, the homeless, etc, etc, etc.).

I hope in viewing these old comics you will be able to enjoy them in spite of their shortcomings in these areas… there are many wonders to be found in the old comics, but they definitely aren’t for everyone. If you find these comics offensive, you are well justified, and if such is the case I encourage you not to view them.

So that all said, here are deeply offensive Chocolate Drops, by E. W. Kemble, circa July 23, 1911 from the American Examiner.

Oy. If you can handle this one, I doubt you’ll have any problem with the rest of the scans.

I can’t imagine a strip in a modern paper depicting young kids stealing a car for a joyride and laughing when they get some adults arrested, can you? Anyone who says the past was a more innocent time is talking out of their ass.

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