Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

Political Cartoons: Introduction to Symbols
Mark Adams
American History
Time Frame:
2-3 class periods
Political Cartoons

Grade Levels:
1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Classroom/Homework Activity to be performed:
  • Students divided into groups are asked to make a list of every day symbols they know of and write down what each symbol stands for. (Macdonalds arch, Nike swoosh, School mascot, football team logos, Yield and Stop signs, etc)
  • Discuss why symbols are used and why they are effective (visual short hand, advertizing, logos, attractive, visual is better than words, easy to remember, identifiable)
  • Now students should think about animals and how they are used as symbols or have other meanings (adjectives, logos for sports teams, nicknames for athletes) -- if a person is described as either a pig, a shark, or a vulture, what does this mean? These descriptive adjectives are also symbols. (A shark for example could refer to a sports team, some one out to make money at an other's expense, or refer to golfer Greg Norman!)
  • Have students divide into groups and consider the meaning of the following symbols:
    Elephant; Donkey; Uncle Sam; a Dove; Dollar sign ($); the Statue of Liberty; Justice Statue--holding scale and wearing blindfold; American Flag; John Q Public; Olive Branch How many different meanings can the students come up with for each symbol?
    Have each group decide upon one meaning for each symbol.
  • Have each group share with the rest of the class what their decision was. Then have a class discussion to see if the groups can all come together and decide what each symbol means.
  • Rationale:
  • Most students will identify the "Golden Arches" as the symbol for MacDonalds, but only a few will recognize the donkey as a symbol for the Democratic party. For the cartoonist the symbol constitutes a sort of visual short hand. Teachers must help students become familiar with this short hand. This activity begins with symbols students know and are familiar with. Then they are asked to help their knowledge further by considering all the meanings various symbols might have.
  • The students will then have to decide together what the actual meaning of each symbol is. The students can then show their knowledge through a group project where they develop their own carToons.
  • District, state, or national performance and knowledge standards/goals/skills met:

    Missouri Standards:

    1. Principles expressed in the documents shaping constitutional democracy in the United States

    2. Continuity and change in the history of Missouri, the United States and the world

    7. The use of tools of social science inquiry (such as surveys, statistics, maps, documents)

    Kansas Standards:

    Benchmark 4: The student engages in historical thinking skills.

    2. (A) examines multiple primary sources to understand point of view of an historical figure.

    Primary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:
    Full description of activity or assignment.
    • Introduction:
      • Divide students into groups and have them examine political cartoons at

        1948 Campaign Political Cartoons.

      • Make a list of the symbols used in these cartoons. Have each group discuss what they think the symbols mean.
      • Each group should then draw their own cartoon using any 3 of the following symbols correctly.
      • Elephant; Donkey; Uncle Sam; a Dove; Dollar sign ($); the Statue of Liberty; Justice Statue, John Q. Public
      • The groups can add other symbols and characters to help present their message. The cartoon can relate to any subject but would likely involve politics and/or American history.

    Full explanation of the assessment method and/or scoring guide:

    Assessment will be done orally though classroom discussion