What is a cartoon? I bet you already know that answer...
….Or do you?
The word cartoon comes from Italian and Dutch words for heavy paper. A cartoon used to be a preparatory drawing made (on heavy paper) before starting a tapestry, fresco, stained glass window, or painting.
The term evolved to mean humorous illustrations printed in newspapers and magazines. (We more commonly call them comics now.)
The word cartoon is most used these days to mean animated television shows.
Many early newspaper cartoons were not meant to be funny. Instead, they were meant to make a point—often a political point. We call these sorts of illustrations political cartoons. That's the case with this first American cartoon, published on this day in 1754 in Benjamin Franklin's newspaper The Pennsylvania Gazette. It showed a snake that was divided into eight pieces, and the caption read “JOIN, or DIE.” Can you imagine what the cartoon meant?
Second hint: Remember, there was no such thing as the United States in 1754. Instead, there was a series of British colonies up and down the coast of North America.
I think Franklin was warning people that the British colonies should unite together under one government, or they will not be strong enough to survive. The eight sections of the snake were (in order from the head to the tail) New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Notice that there were four colonies (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire) in New England, and Franklin left Delaware and Georgia out of the cartoon! Didn't see any details on why he made those decisions...
At the time that Franklin ran the cartoon in his newspaper, the colonies were in danger from French colonists to the north and from Indians. Franklin had proposed a union under the Albany Plan—and this cartoon was a quick visual argument for why others should go along with his plan. The cut-up snake became quite popular and was re-used and re-drawn many times. As a matter of fact, it's still current: A punk rock group named Sons of Liberty used the picture and caption for an album called “Join or Die,” and The Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson has the cartoon tattooed on the inside of one of his forearms!
Check out some more historical political cartoons at Harp Week, and current cartoons at Daryl Cagle's website.