International School History - Skills - Sourcework - The usefulness of historical sources

  Much of what can be said for newspapers can also be said for cartoons, but cartoons are so popular with examiners that they merit a section all of their own.

Why so popular? i) Good cartoons are condensed, concentrated snap-shots of important historical events ii) Students need to know some history to be able to interpret them iii) Examiners (and text book writers) like to use pictures to break up text.

As a consequence cartoonists like David Low (below) have become a major influence on the way generations of students have grown up studying history.  

Strengths   Limitations
Cartoons offer an insight into public opinion at the time they were published. Newspapers and journals often employ a cartoonist to produce topical cartoons once a day. Contemporaries would have been expected to recognise the characters, the events, jokes and satire in the cartoon and therefore the cartoon provides a window (albeit a strange one) on the past.

Public opinion polls are a recent (post WWII) development therefore cartoons can offer us a rare insight into public opinion in the more distant past.
  The weaknesses of newspapers are often also true of cartoons. Cartoons also have the disadvantage of exaggerating and simplifying complex historical events. They are often politically motivated and make no attempt at objective, independent analysis.

They can also be very unrepresentative. They may reflect the views of the readership of a newspaper. But this is one newspaper with a limited circulation in one country. They may not actually reflect the views of most of the readership.

Many cartoons are polemical and intended to shape political opinion. David Low is recognised as one of the greatest cartoonists of the 20th century, but if his views had reflected those of a wider public, Britain would have gone to war much sooner than September 1939.

This David Low cartoon offers an insight into what British public opinion
knew and thought  about European dictatorships in the 1930s.
Produced in June 1940 after the defeat of France, does this David Low cartoon accurately reflect the British public's defiance in the face of Nazi invasion?

Further reading

Richard Scully, Using cartoons as historical sources.


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