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The Rise of American Industry, 1850-1900 • Business of America
Classroom Activities

Objective: Analyze a political cartoon to identify characteristics of 19th-century industrialists.

Key Questions:

  • What two terms were used to describe businessmen in the late 1800s? Explain the difference between their meaning and how the terms should be used.

Notes on Implementation:

  • To extend the activity, have students create their own political cartoons about today's wealthiest members of American society.

Student Activity: Students can access the below activity in The Rise of American Industry Topic Center within the American History database.

Student Activity:

"Robber barons" was a term used to describe industrialists, bankers, and financiers during the last third of the 19th century who often profited by unscrupulous business practices. Men such as Andrew Carnegie, Jay Gould, John D. Rockefeller, and Cornelius Vanderbilt were some of the first and most well known of the robber barons. While many criticized these wealthy men, over the years they have gained support from some historians who note the jobs they created and their contributions to charitable causes. One popular critique of these men came in the form of political cartoons.

In this activity, you will analyze a political cartoon to identify the author's position on the 19th-century industrialist.



  • Review the 1882 political cartoon, Our Robber Barons, under Resources.
  • Be sure to click enlarge to view all the details within the cartoon.
  • Use the Cartoon Analysis Tool to complete your analysis.


Key Understandings:

  • Wealth can be used to influence people and politics in positive and negative ways.

Possible Answers for Activity:

Political Cartoon Analysis


Identify the Source

When was this cartoon created?

  • June 14, 1882
Where was this cartoon created?

  • N/A
What publication ran the cartoon?

  • Puck Magazine

Place the Source in Context

What is the historical context of this cartoon?

  • The cartoon was created during the rise of industry that led to questionable business practices by industrialists.
What people, objects, or other elements can you identify in the cartoon?

  • Tax Payer
  • Business Man
  • Stairs
  • Castle
  • Hats
  • Workers
  • Closed factories
What is the message or opinion relayed in the cartoon?

  • The message is that Congress and business owners are working together to strangle the life out of tax payers.
What makes the cartoon funny or insightful or critical?

  • The people all have labels that identify their roles. Congress is identified by the feather in a man's hat; the same man is using a bandana that says "unjust tax" to strangle another man with a belt labeled "Tax Payer." Additionally, the stairs have different titles reflecting the legislative and political influence businesses have had on Congress. This is symbolic and shows the steps to the castle, or to wealth.


Analyze the Source Content

What is happening in the cartoon?

  • Congress is strangling the man with taxes, while corporations and businesses influence Congress to create policy and legislation that benefits their wealth.
What is the message or opinion relayed in the cartoon?

  • The message appears to be that business leaders only act in their own self-interest, even if it is harmful to their workers.
Who or what does the cartoon target?

  • Industrialists, robber barons
What makes the cartoon funny or insightful or critical?

  • The symbols make the cartoon interesting and provide historical context to the legislation of that time. For example, there is a chain link labeled "Protection" across the water; on one side are the industrialists, and on the other are closed factories. This shows the effect of protective tariffs on factories.

Assess the Source Perspective

How does the creator of the cartoon convey information and make a point?

  • The variety of symbols and the labeling provide the meaning of the cartoon. He uses several examples to demonstrate the negative effects of business.
Does the cartoon have a particular bias or perspective?

  • The cartoon criticizes big business and Congress
Does the creator try to motivate or convince people using this cartoon? If so, how?

  • N/A
How do you think viewers reacted to the cartoon?

  • If they were a worker they might agree with the representation. If they were a congressman or business owner they likely would disagree with the cartoon.

Evaluate the Source

Do you think this cartoon is an effective one? Did it amuse people or make them think?

  • It is thought provoking.
Why was this cartoon important to the people who created and viewed it, and why is important now for what it can tell us?

  • It was a way for people to express their discontent with the government and business. It allows us to compare and contrast government and business back then to today.
What connections can you make from this cartoon to politics, issues, culture and society, faith and religion, and historical change over time?

  • There is still a power struggle between workers and employees.
Does comparing this cartoon with other sources, past or present, provide valuable insight?

  • It allows you to see change and continuity.
How can you tie this cartoon into key themes, questions, controversies, and debates?

  • This cartoon supports the view that business and government work together to take advantage of the working class. You can use this cartoon to identify the questionable actions taken by congress and the industrialists.


MLA Citation

"Business of America." History Hub, ABC-CLIO, 2019, historyhub.abc-clio.com/Support/Content/2042969?cid=257. Accessed 15 Oct. 2019.

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