Transportation and political imagery

In two weeks, I'll be presenting a paper at the annual meeting of the Nineteenth Century Studies Association in Fresno, California. My paper is entitled "Images of Steam Transportation in Popular Culture," and it will include some my new research on images of steamboats and railroads in the antebellum era. I do not have a great deal of experience with analyzing visual culture, so I'm looking forward to the opportunity to get some feedback at this conference on my initial take on what some of these images mean.

When I was doing the research for this project, I was overwhelmed by the number of transportation images I found. They are everywhere: on currency, in children's literature, on broadsides, in comic almanacs, on sheet music—everywhere.

One such image is the broadside "Correct Chart of Salt River" from 1848 (from the Library of Congress). This example includes a railroad and a steamboat as part of its political imagery:

For Americans in the antebellum era, the phrase "Salt River" had the implication of a foolhardy journey, with a particular connotation in politics: during the 1832 presidential campaign, a pro-Andrew Jackson boatsman took rival Henry Clay literally "up Salt River," causing him to miss a speaking engagement (this from Liz Hutter's very nice essay "Ho for Salt River!").

This particular broadside mocks the problems which besieged Democrats during the election year of 1848. Candidate Lewis Cass is represented by a steamboat. Such a boat would seem to be an appropriate way to travel against the current, as the drawing depicts. But the boat is marked "free trade," a reference to Cass's opposition to high tariffs. Cass is about to face a series of disasters: Noise and Confusion Shoals, Santa Anna Pass, and eventually the Lake of Oblivion. By contrast, the (protectionist) Tariff of 1842 puffs ahead on a train, taking the direct route to Washington. Train tracks lead directly to the destination, avoiding the complex geography that awaits the steamboat.

Images of steam transport were common throughout the antebellum era. In this broadside, we see both types of transport recruited to make a political message: Cass's free trade about to navigate difficult waters, while the tariff has a direct route to the capital city.

Additional reading: For more on Cass, see Willard Klunder, Lewis Cass and the Politics of Moderation (1996).