Explaining The Powerful Monopoly Of Rockefeller Through Political Cartoons

Political cartoons were used as tools to help U.S. citizens understand what was going on in their government. Check out these cartoons about J. D. Rockefeller.

Comics & Graphic Novels Just For Fun Pop Culture
John D. Rockefeller near a monopoly board and a dripping oil can.

To celebrate the birthday of John D. Rockefeller, here are some political cartoons and what they stand for. Whether you dislike Rockefeller or strongly dislike him, there is something to be said about how he handled the politics of his time. He is regarded as the richest man in history, and for good reason. He had near-complete control of the oil industry in America and created the first great U.S. business trust. His methods teetered on the fringes of legality and morality, but credit where credit is due. The monolith he made was impressive, even if it was egregious.

The Trust Giant’s Point of View by Horace Taylor

The Trust Giant’s Point of View, drawn by Horace Taylor, was created during the height of Rockefeller’s power and wealth. The cartoon depicts Rockefeller as a giant who has complete control over the Supreme Court as he slides money bags to those inside the building. In the background, the Capitol Building has smokestacks and is surrounded by a field of oil drums. At the time, Rockefeller was the richest man in the world and, thanks to that, had a lot of political influence.

A giant Rockefeller slides money bags to the Supreme Court. Behind him is the Capitol Building and a field of oil drums.
IMAGE VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The cartoon was designed to convey to the poor and middle-class Americans how Rockefeller’s monopoly of oil distribution would strain their lives. The cartoon shows that his business practices would only benefit him and that he had complete control over the government. Thanks to this comic, the average citizen finally understood how Rockefeller used absurd amounts of money to sway the government.

Standard Oil Octopus by Udo Keppler

Titled The Standard Oil Octopus by Udo Keppler, this cartoon depicts Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust as an octopus with strangling tentacles. Its grip seems to stretch across the globe to squeeze political buildings, such as the Capitol and the White House, as well as the steel, copper, and shipping industries. The octopus closes in on the White House, displaying Rockefeller’s use of bribery to influence Congressmen and other officials to prevent anti-trust and anti-monopoly laws and showing how he used other industries to empower his monopoly.

An octopus labeled as Standard Oil choking out political buildings of the U.S. and businesses.
IMAGE VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Thanks to comics like these, Americans began to realize what was going on in the corrupt government system and the ruthlessness of industrialists such as Rockefeller. People like him became enemies of the public and were constantly portrayed in a negative light. Americans started to distrust corporate systems as a whole because of the power that Rockefeller had.

The King of the Combinations by J.S. Pughe

John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil was the biggest and most controversial business in the post-Civil War industrial era. Rockefeller entered the oil refining business in 1863 and began to merge with or drive out his oil competitors. Originally, it had been a competitive market, but Rockefeller eventually came to control 90% of the oil refining business through the Standard Oil Trust.

"The King of the Combinations" political cartoon with a big-faced man with a moustache wearing a crown of oil drums, train cars, and a dollar sign as the tip of the crown. He wears royal garments and looks stern, standing on top of an oil drum that says, "standard oil."
IMAGE VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

In this cartoon by J.S. Pughe, Rockefeller’s crown is labeled with the names of the rail lines he controlled. He kept transportation prices low, which allowed Standard Oil to deliver less-expensive oil than the competition and eventually drive them out. Once the competition was gone, Rockefeller was free to raise prices. Because of Standard Oil’s size and wealth, no other oil company had a chance to compete.

Unnamed by William C. Morris

This cartoon by William Charles Morris depicts Rockefeller and Uncle Sam in a checker match. Pieces litter their feet, with only four pieces remaining on the board, two for each player. Uncle Sam’s pieces are labeled “The Law,” while Rockefeller’s are labeled “Standard Oil Company.” Uncle Sam is relaxed, puffing a cigar, and telling Rockefeller it’s his move. On the other side of the table, Rockefeller looks stressed as he ponders his next move.

John D. Rockefeller plays checkers against Uncle Sam but has no chance of winning the game.
IMAGE VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

A closer look at the board shows that Rockefeller is trapped. No matter where he moves his pieces, Uncle Sam can respond by taking the piece and be in a safe spot at the edge of the board. This cartoon, published around 1908, shows how the US government began to dissolve Rockefeller’s oil trust. However, it wasn’t until 1911 that the Supreme Court ruled the Standard Oil Trust be dissolved and split into multiple different companies.

These political cartoons, while entertaining, were largely used to educate the public about politics. When these cartoons were published, the American public was not as educated as it is today. At the time, schools weren’t mandatory, and most people lived miles from towns. It’s estimated that roughly of half the American population during the 19th century was illiterate. In other words, half of America had no way of reading and forming their own opinions about politics. These cartoons and caricatures allowed the uneducated to understand what was happening in the government, lending truth during a time when corruption was beginning to run rampant and one man nearly conquered America. So, in honor of John D. Rockefeller, we salute these hilarious yet poignant media of a bygone era.


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