“Uncle Sam’s Farm in Danger” 9 March, 1878

Chinese drawn as locusts invading a farm
“Uncle Sam’s Farm in Danger” The San Francisco Wasp by George F. Keller. 9 March 1878

George F.Keller’s 1878 piece, Uncle Sam’s Farm in Danger adopted and mastered classic invasion imagery and animal symbolism to devastating effect.

Swarms of Chinese locusts descend on an American farm, Uncle Sam’s farm, no less. The insects, perched for destruction, have sinister Asian faces. The editorial accompanying this double-page pictorial in the Wasp’s March 9, 1878, issue states in part,

Our artist has represented the possible immigration as a swarm of grasshoppers driven along by the inexorable hand of Famine…Uncle Sam, armed with the House Committee Resolutions, assisted by his hired man, the California Press, is striving to stay the torrent of yellow grasshoppers. It seems almost impossible for them to succeed; and it is certain that they will be overcome by the invader unless assistance of a more substantial kind be rendered” (Wasp 498).

The image is disturbing. Precisely what The Wasp had hoped to achieve. With this image, Keller perfected the technique of invasion/infestation imagery.

As the caption and supporting article made clear, The Wasp stoked the fear that widespread famine in China would drive millions of additional Chinese to emigrate to America. Something was needed to stop this danger! The Wasp knew exactly what fear-mongering buttons to push.

An uphill battle faces Uncle Sam as he fights off this swarm. Meanwhile, the dark, ghoulish specter of Chinese famine ushers in and emboldens new invaders to feast on an American bounty while the getting is good.

The caption reads “Seventy Millions {sic} of people are starving in the northern provinces of China. All who can do so are making preparations to come to the United States. Look out for the grasshoppers, Uncle Sam.”

Evoking this particular insect symbolism was a clever choice to grab attention and arouse the emotions of Californians whose livelihood depended on the continued success of the agricultural sector.  The grasshopper was acutely feared in California’s agricultural community. In 1828 a grasshopper plague caused near famine, and in the great plague of 1874-1878, the crop-munching insect was responsible for the wide-spread destruction in the Midwest, causing western governors to organize days of prayer to keep the tide from coming westward (Schlebecker).

“California was the locus of Chinese advances in agriculture” (Takaki 89). The Chinese were the anthesis of greedy locusts.The irony of course, is that California’s agriculture success was cultivated and directly benefited from the transformative innovations contributed by the Chinese. “Their work boosted the value of the land from twenty-eight dollars an acre in 1875 to one hundred dollars an acre two years later” (Takaki 89). Keller also used agricultural imagery in his cartoon Devastation.

For an example of Nast using invasion imagery, see his “The American River Ganges

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