The San Francisco Wasp

Click here for a selection of anti-Chinese cartoons published by The Wasp

The San Francisco Illustrated Wasp was a successful weekly magazine that concentrated on social and political satire. It was the brainchild of Francis Korbel, a Czechoslovakian who emigrated to the U.S. and began a career as a cigar maker as well as the producer of very fine cigar boxes and the beautiful lithographed labels that distinguished one brand of cigar from another.  Once established as a successful cigar maker, Korbel branched out into the printing business. According to Richard Samuel West, it was this latter move to printing that provided the foundation for The Wasp.

Korbel, a Democrat, did not admire President Grant and was “sickened” by the Republican Party’s blindness to the political scandals within the Grant administration.

Established in 1876, The Wasp rose above the dozen or so weekly magazines in the area, primarily due to its vibrant illustrations. Korbel tapped one of his cigar box lithographers, George Frederick Keller, to be the magazines lead cartoonist. Keller had experience at cartooning for a humor magazine, The Jolly Giant.

The magazine did what it could to sway opinion in the 1876 presidential race between Grant’s successor Rutherford B. Hayes and the Democratic candidate Samuel Tilden.  “Tilden’s election had been The Wasp’s raison d’etre” (West 11).  Flabbergasted by Tilden’s loss, The Wasp searched for a new reason to exist. “One topic, and one topic only, galvanized Korbel’s Wasp from then on: Chinese immigration” (West 12). The magazine was a mere four months old when it published its first anti-Chinese cartoon.

According to The Wasp’s historian, Richard Samuel West,[1] “the Chinese had no friends among the San Francisco press. All of the magazines freely indulged in the worst forms of Sinophobia”(15) and the Wasp was an active participant. West,  author of The San Francisco Wasp, An Illustrated History, and a cited authority on American political cartoons of this era, describes the six broad categories of anti-Chinese cartoons deployed at The Wasp. The Chinese were portrayed as:

  • An infestation
  • A subversive labor monster
  • Ruthless competitor
  • Immoral and diseased, and,
  • Analysis of anti-Chinese political movements
  • Exposés on the hypocrisy of people who complained about the Chinese but employed or patronized them (17-19).

Though it was decidedly anti-Chinese, The Wasp was no fan of Denis Kearney, a charismatic Irishman who organized frustrated white laborers against the Chinese, during the serious economic recession of 1873. They were predominately Irish. Unemployment was at double-digit levels in 1877 (West 14).

Kearney produced fiery speeches and blamed cheap, Chinese labor as the source of the economic difficulty. Kearney “whipped up” angry mobs in vacant sandlots crying “The Chinese Must Go” and his speeches incited many riots against the Chinese.

The Wasp took a dim view of Kearney’s tactics. The magazine agreed with his cause, but not the mass riots and destruction his speeches incited.  The publication was “Pro-Workingmen’s Party” and anti-Kearney.  For their “First Blow” cover (The Wasp’s first anti-Chinese cover) the magazine chose to feature a generic white laborer instead of Kearney’s face. Kearney’s “notorious visage never appeared in a Wasp cartoon” (West 15).

By 1876, under the editorial leadership of Ambrose Bierce, The Wasp was “the most read weekly on the West Coast” (West 86). It did not however, enjoy a national audience.

[1] West is frequently cited in books on American political cartoons, has published books and scholarly peer-reviewed articles on the subject of editorial cartoons. His interest in The Wasp and magazine publishing in general has been life long, and The Wasp plates featured in his book are from his personal collection. He is the owner of Periodyssey website and print publications of American periodicals. It was through this website that I made additional inquiries regarding Keller, and where I was the grateful beneficiary of an immediate response, and later suggestions of advice on this website.

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