Exam preparation materials

Political Cartoons, Photographs, and Artwork

The maxim that a picture is worth a thousand words is certainly true on the AP exam. Political cartoons, photographs, and artwork may be used to test your analytical skills. These types of visuals often capture the mood of a period or an event more clearly than another source if you develop the ability to “read” these documents properly.

Political cartoons have appeared in newspapers and magazines since the colonial period; they’ve been used to rally support for a cause and, more often than not, take a position against those in power. The artists rely on caricature or distortion and familiar symbols to emphasize their points of view. It's important to place the cartoon in time. This task can be relatively easy if the subject is clear — a caricature showing Lincoln and his generals obviously is from the Civil War — or you can use the way the figures are dressed to come up with an approximate date. It’s also important to read the caption and any other printed words. In the nineteenth century, the figures in cartoons sometimes carried on a conversation. The printed information is critical in understanding the point the artist is trying to make.

Example 1

Source: Library of Congress.

1. The political corruption attacked in the cartoon above most likely refers to

A. the Teapot Dome scandal

B. urban politics after the Civil War

C. the scandals of the Grant administration

D. the spoils system under Andrew Jackson

E. the power of the trusts in controlling state government

The correct answer is B. A careful “reading” of the cartoon gives you the name of the artist — Thomas Nast. You should know from your reading that Nast’s favorite target was William Tweed, whose Tammany Hall political machine ran New York City in the 1870s. There’s nothing in the cartoon to indicate the Teapot Dome scandal or corruption in the Grant administration; you should recognize that the main figure in the cartoon is not Grant. The way the figures are dressed eliminates Andrew Jackson.

Example 2



Source: Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

2. Which of the following statements is NOT true based on the above cartoon?

A. The term of a franchise to the gas company was set by the city charter.

B. The cartoon opposed Charter Amendment 1-A.

C. The gas company wants a longer franchise from the city.

D. The gas company made excess profits under the existing franchise.

E. The gas company will make excess profits if Charter Amendment 1-A passes.

The correct answer is E. This cartoon does not pertain to any well-known event in U.S. history; it’s an exercise in reading a historical source. The basic information is as follows: The gas company supports an amendment to the city charter to increase the term of its franchise from twenty-one to thirty-five years. The artist opposes the amendment because twenty-one years is an “honest franchise” and because the longer franchise will result in excess profits. Note that the banner “$70,000,000 excess profits” is attached to the branch the gas company wants to “graft” onto the charter.

Example 3

Photographs are valuable tools in studying American history. They can tell us a great deal about the way people lived as well as chronicle major events, for example, Mathew Brady’s Civil War photographs. Photographs are often taken for a purpose. The images of slum conditions in American cities at the turn of the century were intended in many cases to point up the need for reform. Questions often ask you to identify what is taking place in the photograph or to put the photograph in historical context.

3. Based on the photograph, which of the statements is true?

A. The strike was over higher wages.

B. The strike was over the refusal of the company to hire African American workers.

C. The strike involved both labor and housing issues.

D. The strike took place before World War I.

E. The strike involved an 8 hour day.

The correct answer is C. The only clear information we have on the issues of the strike is the picket sign the woman is carrying. This clearly indicates that both low wages and high rents are the key issues. Although you may not be able to conclude with certainty that all the workers at Mid-City Realty were African Americans, the photograph does suggest this.

Example 4

4. Which of the following is the best caption for this photograph?

A. “Life in the Coal Mines”

B. “A Cause of Labor Unrest”

C. “Industrialization in the Late 19th Century”

D. “The Problem of Child Labor”

E. “Lamps and Lunch Boxes”

The correct answer is D. The photograph is of a group of coal miners, but the most important point is how young the miners in the photograph are. It is true that some unions did seek laws restricting the age at which children could work, but it was not a cause for strikes.

Example 5

Questions based on artwork — paintings, drawings, sculpture, architecture — are not as common as those using other types of visuals but they do come up on the exam. The types of questions are similar to those on photographs, and again it’s important for you to pay attention to the details.

Source: Library of Congress.

Source: Library of Congress.

5. The most significant impression the viewer gets from this nineteenth-century painting is that

A. Native Americans were a serious obstacle to westward expansion

B. wagon trains crossing the plains were small

C. the artist had a positive image of Native Americans

D. Native Americans provided settlers with essential supplies

E. Native Americans were willing to trade anything for liquor

The correct answer is E. The key element in the painting is the empty bottles on the ground and the bottle one of the Native Americans is holding. Clearly, the artist portrays the Native Americans as a rather pathetic group, which posed no threat at all. The wagon train is shown stretching out to the distant mountains, obviously indicating that it was quite large.

Most textbooks contain large numbers of charts, tables, graphs, maps, political cartoons, photographs, artwork, and other types of sources. Since these materials are often explained or referred to in the text, studying them carefully will help you see the value of a particular document in the context of a particular era of American history. Remember that there are just so many relevant illustrations of various kinds that may turn up on the exam. Going over the ones in your textbook may give you the answer to a question on your AP exam.

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