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Darwin Correspondence Project

4.52 'Wasp' caricature

Less than a fortnight after Darwin’s death, an irreverent portrayal of him appeared on the cover of a Californian satirical magazine. The Wasp, based in San Francisco, resembled the better-known New York magazine Puck in its blend of political comment with humour, and in the use of chromolithography for a lavish spread of cartoon drawings, influenced in style by the modern Germanic idiom. However, while Puck treated Darwin as a hero, The Wasp was invariably hostile, despite the admiration that its leading journalist, Ambrose Bierce, expressed for Darwin’s intellectual achievements.  

‘The late Charles Darwin’ features a framed portrait of him – a rather poor likeness, probably derived from photographs by Elliott and Fry, or perhaps by Lock and Whitfield – which is being unveiled by two anthropoid apes; bats or owls flying over the jungle add a touch of the sinister. Darwin’s supposedly intimate connections with humans’ simian relatives had been repeatedly pictured in cartoons ever since the early 1870s, but it is surprising to find an image of this kind at a time when his death and funeral prompted tributes and expressions of sorrow from across the world. A fortnight after the publication of the cartoon, The Wasp’s editor noted laconically, ‘Darwin and the link are both missing’, and in the same issue he told an angry letter-writer, ‘There was of course no element of “ridicule” in our portrait of the illustrious Darwin. We are surprised that your three friends thought the picture in bad taste, when but one of them was a journalist. Perhaps, though, the others were lunatics.’  The Wasp even mocked Darwin’s burial in Westminster Abbey, and Francis Darwin’s intention of writing ‘the life of his illustrious daddy’, rather than carrying on ‘the monkey business at the old stand’. This venomous image may reflect the magazine’s racist views in the years after the Civil War –  views which would have made it antagonistic to Darwin’s belief in human monogenesis from a common simian ancestry. Such hostile attitudes related principally to the demographic threat posed by the growing Chinese population in San Francisco, but they were apparent also in cartoons featuring grossly caricatured African Americans as the dreaded ‘future representatives of our nation’. For many white American readers of The Wasp, distinctness from supposedly ‘lower’ races and primitive forbears was a matter of critical importance.  

The founder and editor of The Wasp and its offshoot The Illustrated Wasp was a Czech political refugee, Francis Korbel. With his brothers, he had built up a business in commercial chromolithography in San Francisco, designing and printing decorative labels for cigar boxes. He founded The Wasp magazine in 1876, but sold it to the representatives of the tycoon Charles Webb Howard in 1881. By that time it is said to have had a circulation of over ten thousand copies, rising during the 1880s to fourteen thousand. The artist who had been employed to design the Korbels’ cigar box labels, George Frederick Keller, took readily to cartooning in The Wasp, and was its leading artist until 1883, working very much in the idiom of Puck’s Joseph Keppler. 

  • physical location California State Library 

  • copyright holder California State Library. Photograph and information kindly provided by Professor William Friedman 

  • originator of image George Frederick Keller (signed bottom right) 

  • date of creation April 1882 

  • computer-readable date c.1882-04-01 to 1882-04-27  

  • medium and material chromolithography 

  • references and bibliography ‘The late Charles Darwin’, cover illustration in The Wasp, 8:300 (28 April 1882). The other references to Darwin in The Wasp cited here are 8:292 (3 March 1882), p. 134; 8:302 (12 May 1882), pp. 291, 299; 8:303 (19 May 1882), p. 317; 8:310 (7 July 1882), p. 419. These are accessible online at https://archive.org/stream/waspjanjuly188208unse#page/n309/mode/2up. Kenneth M. Johnson, The Sting of the Wasp: Political and Satirical Cartoons from the Truculent Early San Francisco Weekly (San Francisco: Book Club of America, 1967). Bruce Johnson, ‘The Wasp’ in Edward Chielens (ed.), American Literary Magazines (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), pp. 432-7. Gray Brechin, ‘The Wasp: stinging editorials and political cartoons’, Bancroftiana (Fall 2002). Richard Samuel West, The San Francisco Wasp: An Illustrated History (Easthampton, Mass.: Periodyssey Press, 2004). Nicholas Sean Hall, ‘WASP: racism and satire in the 19th century’, originally published in California History, 90:2 (2013): online at ‘Foundsf’ (https://www.foundsf.org). 


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