Photos: Portrayals Of Wall Street As Greedy, Selfish And Rotten - 100 Years Ago (Photos)
By Eleazar David Meléndez | Aug 19, 2012 12:25 AM EDT
To many people who follow daily activities on Wall Street -- indeed, to many people who have money invested in any global stock or bond instruments and pay them even the minimum of attention -- something seems terribly wrong.
Banks, investment houses and other financial services firms can't seem to keep their names out of the headlines -- and they don't get there for discovering a cure for cancer. Instead scandals involving money laundering, rogue investing, fleecing customer accounts and taking big risks with the little bit of money held by small investors are all too typical. No wonder that Wall Street and its ilk around the world have such a bad name. Indeed, the enduring perception of financial services firms today is that they are greedy and care little about their customers; "bank" has truly become a four-letter word.
Recently, IBTimes came upon a treasure trove of remarkable, hard-hitting editorial cartoons from the early 1900s that reveal again that the more things change, the more they stay the same. These wonderful illustrations show that a century ago, when most people did not have equity investments but rather kept their money in plain-vanilla savings accounts, the public's view of Wall Street was similarly jaundiced.
“In some degrees, the cartoonists were kind of spot on,” says Charles Calhoun, a professor in the department of history at East Carolina University who specializes in the U.S. Gilded Age around the turn of the last century. “In the early 20th century, you were really coming into the era of big business” -- that is, big business as a malevolent force, populated by monopolists, crony capitalists and, worse yet, thieves.
It wasn't always that way. Around the time of the Panic of 1873, a financial crisis that triggered a half-decade global depression, Wall Street was well-represented in newspaper cartoons but financiers at that time were seen as victims or, at worst, hapless bystanders in the calamities brought on laissez faire industrial capitalism.
In "Beyond the Lines," a book on pictorial reporting during the 19th century, City University of New York professor Joshua Brown writes that illustrations “of Wall Street investors, stockbrokers and clerks shown clamoring at the doors of the sealed Stock Exchange or struggling in front of failed banking houses in 1873” were intended to elicit empathy among readers for mistreated people with legitimate grievances, like those participating in an urban riot.
“To readers glimpsing such scenes, 'panic' indicated a specific type of rioting,” Brown writes of what he terms “engravings showing streets littered with wrecked fortunes.”
Indeed, in the late 19th century, when the industrialist robber barons, who owned railroads, steel mills, coal mines, real estate and water works, were common topics of devastating editorial cartoons, Wall Street was seen as merely another institution that these capitalists were abusing.
But by the early 20th century, financiers had become interwoven with the robber barons in the minds of most Americans.
“You had people like Carnegie and Rockefeller that ran big companies, trusts, if you will. But it was the bankers that were then seen as the wizards putting together these gigantic corporations,” says Calhoun.
That increasingly dim view of money-brokering reached a boiling point in 1907, the year of another Great Panic, as it was widely perceived that powerful banker J. Pierpont Morgan used the crisis to solidify his stature and flex his political muscle -- lending money to failing companies and governments in exchange for a great deal of control over their future activities, in essence creating a “money trust.” The all-night meetings in Morgan's personal library in New York attended by the nation's top bankers to discuss solutions to the 1907 crisis only cemented the perception that Morgan and his compatriots had taken control of the country. As did the fact that both Treasury Secretary George Cortelyou and President Theodore Roosevelt bent over backward to accommodate Morgan’s plans to handle the financial debacle, even when some of his ideas ran afoul of the law.
This new and expanded role for Wall Street -- the danger that many believed it held for the future of the country and individual economic mobility -- immediately became a prime topic for illustrations in the satirical magazine Puck, a liberal-leaning New York periodical. William Allen Rogers, the legendary political cartoonist who succeeded the famous caricaturist Thomas Nast at Harper’s Weekly, also poured a lot of ink on the topic, this time for the New York Herald.
Puck’s illustrations in particular are notable for their beauty, complexity and refusal to dumb down the somewhat complicated topic for the publication's audience. Some illustrations include references to works of classic literature and Greek history, for example.
The criticism in these cartoons include themes that would be very familiar today: Wall Street as a casino, the subservience of Congress to moneyed interests and the question of why financiers who break the law don't end up behind bars.
This first round of anger at Wall Street lasted well into the mid-1910s and in some quarters beyond that. However, from 1913 on, a bear market and increased regulatory scrutiny was reflected in some cartoons with a dose of schadenfreude, manifested by editorial illustrators making fun of the “newly poor” banking cohort.
Puck's founding family sold the magazine to newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in 1917. The publication folded a year later.
What follows is some of the most intriguing and compelling Wall Street inspired political cartoons from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
This 1907 Puck magazine cover image uses a Humpty Dumpty reference to illustrate the state of financial capitalism. A wall of "Rotten Finance" formed by figures like John D. Rockefeller, J. Pierpont Morgan and Edward H. Harriman has failed to prop up an egg labeled "Confidence."Source: Library of Congress
Wall Street representations in newspaper cartoons and illustrations were common around the time of the Panic of 1873, but financiers were seen as victims of the man-made calamity that was laissez-faire industrial capitalism. An 1873 cartoon by Thomas Nast in Harper's Weekly illustrates the point.Source: Library of Congress
In the late 19th century, Wall Street was seen as dominated by industrialists like William H. Vanderbilt and Jay Gould. Moneymen like Russell Sage and James R. Keene played a smaller role. Regardless, as this 1881 Puck magazine centerfold shows, small investors were foolish to stake their livelihoods on the constantly swinging markets.Source: Library of Congress
This 1901 Puck magazine cover image shows that, even the turn of the century, it was the industrial trusts who were blamed for wrecking investor's fortunes on Wall Street.Source: Library of Congress
The way speculative bubbles seemed to have a life of their own was grasped by editorialists after 1901, with Wall Street finance itself being seen as a source of evil market disruptions. Here's a Puck magazine centerfold from 1902.Source: Library of Congress
By 1904, Wall Street had become synonymous with the unchecked power of J. Pierpont Morgan. But a reformist president who had promised to take on the moneyed interests was seen as a populist champion. In this Puck magazine centerfold, President Roosevelt is drawn ready to do battle with Morgan and other big financiers, pictured as giants.Source: Library of Congress
Roosevelt's reputation preceded him and led many to surmise he was the right man to take on an out-of-control Wall Street. This 1905 cartoon by W.A. Rogers in the New York Herald makes the point.Source: Library of Congress
The Roosevelt administration, however, was seen as going back on its promise in 1907, when it allowed J. Pierpont Morgan -- in the middle of the year's Great Panic -- to organize a private financial bailout that ran afoul of anti-monopoly laws. Treasury Secretary George Cortelyou, pictured courting Wall Street in this 1907 Puck magazine illustration, was especially despised. Cortelyou was a life-long public servant who had worked under various presidents and, after becoming head of the Treasury, was mainly concerned with keeping banks in healthy footing, whatever the price. Sound familiar?Source: Library of Congress
A 1907 centerfold in Puck magazine criticizes government regulators for allowing themselves to be bowled over by Wall Street. The cartoon is a reference to the battle of Pelusium in 525 B.C. According to legend, Persian combatants won that battle by holding cats in front of themselves as they went into the field. The Egyptians, who considered cats sacred, allowed the Persians to storm their city rather than risk spearing a cat. In the illustration, "small investors," "widows" and "orphans" are tossed by the Persian "Wall Street syndicate" in front of the hapless "Washington Egyptians."Source: Library of Congress
Not that politicians were given a break in the collusion either. In this 1908 Puck magazine cover, the symbols of the Republican and Democratic parties, bag in hand, come to ask Wall Street for campaign donations.Source: Library of Congress
Lawyers, bureaucrats, newspapermen, lobbyists and nonfinancial speculators were all seen as cut from the same Wall Street cloth. In this 1907 Puck magazine centerfold, the "Spirit of Honesty" haunts a boardroom.Source: Library of Congress
Finance was depicted, as it is today, as a casino system where savings deposited by trusting investors were at the mercy of market manipulators and insider traders, as is depicted in this 1908 Puck magazine cover.Source: Library of Congress
A W.A. Rogers cartoon from 1908, published in the New York Herald, shows wolves dancing among the bulls and bears of Wall Street, ready to pounce on the sheep.Source: Library of Congress
A common topic in 1912 as in 2012 was why white-collar criminals did not see the same kind of treatment as other law-breakers. A Puck magazine centerfold from 1910 shows the difference between coin counterfeiters and securities fraudsters.Source: Library of Congress
Another issue that would have been as fitting to discuss a century ago as it is now, illustrated in a 1911 Puck magazine centerfold: Why is Congress so deferential to the greed and self-interest that undergirds financial malfeasance?Source: Library of Congress
Not all illustrators chose to focus on Wall Street to make fiery political statements. This 1913 cartoon by William Leroy Jacobs focuses on a lighter side of dishonesty and cheating in the financial industry. Titled "Panic in Wall Street," it shows a broker being surprised, while caressing his secretary, by an angry wife.Source: Library of Congress
Those that were focused on making statements, however, pulled no punches. This 1913 Puck magazine centerfold compares the public's ability to fight off big finance to "a snowball's chance in hell."Source: Library of Congress
By late 1913, a bear market and increased regulatory scrutiny meant some cartoons in Puck magazine, like this cover, carried a dose of schadenfreude. Here the finance spider is unable to attract the public.Source: Library of Congress
A 1914 Puck magazine centerfold, the last on the theme of Wall Street, was downright gleeful on financiers' misfortune. Among other scenes, it imagines the "nouveau poor" sitting down for a banquet of hot dogs, eating lunch out of a pail on the steps of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and brokering hens' eggs. Puck was sold in 1916 and shut down in 1918Source: Library of Congress