Aspen’s political cartoons pleased and provoked readers during the mining era | AspenTimes.com

Aspen’s political cartoons pleased and provoked readers during the mining era

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies

Benneit, “Stop the ceremony, I want to put this in to show future generations what slick commissioners Pitkin County had in 1890.” Crowd responds, “Better put the records in too Jim before the next grand jury sees them.” Source: political cartoon from 1890 Aspen Times, likely drawn by A.F.Willmarth

As a political junkie, I scan the Aspen Times' editorial cartoons before I turn to other content. Cartoonists' talent to summarize complicated issues with one simple drawing stimulates my imagination. And I admire their ability to prompt me to think differently about an issue.

The Colorado Historical Newspapers Collection, a joint project with the Aspen Historical Society, archives digital copies of many of Colorado's newspapers, including a dozen from Aspen. To seek relevant content from thousands of pages, I use a search word. During this process, I accidentally discovered a few local political cartoons from 1891. Newspapers of the 1890s rarely credited writers or illustrators, and I found it difficult to track them down. But general examples from the period shed light on the state of the art.

Thomas Nast has been credited as the "father of the American cartoon." A great portion of his work was published between 1860 and 1890, with Harper's Weekly a major publisher. Nast's drawings helped Americans imagine what Santa Claus looks like, as well as scenes from the jolly old elf's daily life. And Nast's cartoons established the elephant as the Republican Party icon. During a period that predated photography, newspapers employed illustrators to enliven advertising and depict drama. Harpers Magazine, Lady's Home Journal and others built their patronage through the work of talented illustrators. As illustrators did not often receive attribution, women such as Alice Barber Stephens held important jobs that otherwise would have been reserved for men. Fashion magazines in particular relied on the work of perceptive illustrators.

It appears that Aspen Times' political cartoonists started out as illustrators for the newspaper. James Pierson worked there for several years and left in 1892 to become the cartoonist for the Colorado Sun. Pierson, an early prospector who owned claims on Smuggler Mountain and in the Conundrum Valley, most likely worked part time for the newspaper.

I also tracked down A.F. Willmarth, who worked for the newspaper in 1891. He moved to Denver to work for the historical department of Colorado's exhibit for the 1892 Exposition in Chicago. Aspen sent the Silver Queen statue to that exposition.

In 1898, The Durango Wage Earner praised Willmarth's cartoons about the Spanish American War, "Mr. Willmarth's conceptions are products of deep thought and keen patriotic interest in the Cuban situation and relations which America bears to the cause of independence."

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During B. Clark Wheeler's reign as editor, the Aspen Times supported Republican views. It appears that Willmarth championed the Republican cause as well. He worked for the Denver Republican and, during the 1920s, published the Park County Republican and Fairplay Flume.

The 1890s Aspen Times featured only a few political cartoons. But during that same period, Puck printed three Aspen-connected cartoons. Louis Dalrymple in 1895, and Charles Jay Taylor in 1894 and 1896, depicted Davis H. Waite, Colorado's populist governor from Aspen. Each double-page spread appeared in color.

Refined across a century, today's simple political cartoons retain the power to incite or inspire Aspen's readers.

Tim Willoughby's family story parallels Aspen's. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.