A savage anti-slavery cartoon

David Claypoole Johnston, THE HOUSE THAT JEFF BUILT , Boston, 1863.
Etching, 11"h x 14 ½"w plus margins, uncolored

David Claypoole Johnston (1797?-1865) was an multi-talented artist specializing in caricature and satire. Born and trained in Philadelphia, he moved to Boston in the 1820s and produced lithographs for the Pendletons before transitioning to self-publication. He is best known for his Scraps, a series of quarto pamphlets published in the 1830s-40s, each containing several plates bearing a number of comic sketches.

Though his bread and butter medium was comic caricature, Johnston also produced a number of political cartoons, of which The House That Jeff Built is among the best known. Whereas most satires of the time employed a single image The House That Jeff Built involves a full dozen, each accompanied by a verse mimicking the nursery rhyme “The House that Jack Built.” As such it is structurally more akin to a modern cartoon strip, though the tone of unvarnished outrage is a product of the virulent 19th-century debate over slavery.

Johnston was not the first to repurpose “The House that Jack Built” as a satire, but its use here is both unusual and highly effective. The format of the nursery rhyme emphasizes through repetition the horrors of slavery, while the narrative progression from stanza to stanza identifies the network of owners, traders and “breeders” responsible for its perpetuation. Such effects were difficult or impossible to attain through the more common format of the single-panel cartoon. For example,

“Here the slave breeder parts with his own flesh
To a trader down south, in the hear of secesh.
Thus trader and breeder secure without fail
The lasting attachment of him with a tail
Who owns the small soul of that thing call’d a man
Whose trade is to sell al the chattels he can,
From yearlings to adults of life’s longest span
In and out of the house that Jeff built”

Clarence Brigham, “David Claypoole Johnston: The American Cruikshank” (reprinted from the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society for April 1840). Marcus Wood, Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780-1865, pp. 276-279. Frank Weitenkampf, American Graphic Art, p. 251.


Minor soiling and marginal mends, but very good or better