Content Note: This video reproduces a panel of art depicting the Ku Klux Klan. It appears at 10:55 in the video and continues to 11:55. Viewer discretion is advised.
Thomas Hart Benton, one of America’s premier artists during the twentieth century, painted series of murals about Indiana for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. A controversial collection of artworks, the Indiana Murals engaged viewers in a dialogue about Indiana’s complex history—a dialogue that continues to this day. The murals stayed in storage of the Indiana State Fairgrounds until someone believed they deserved a new home. That someone was Herman B Wells, the newly elected president of Indiana University.
Music: “Fresno Alley” by Josh Lippi & The Overtimers, “Lazy Boy Blues” by Unicorn Heads, “Progressive Moments” by Ugonna Onyekwe, “Creeping Spiders” by Nat Keefe & BeatMower, and “Plenty Step” by Freedom Trail Studio
First, here is some historical context. After the bombshell revelation of the Zimmerman Telegram on March 1, 1917, in which “German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann promise[d] the return of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to Mexico as reward for siding with Germany if the U.S. enters the war,” Americans increasingly became pro-war. Then, the breaking point occurred. Exactly a month later, a German U-boat torpedoed an American cargo ship, the S.S. Aztec, in British waters. The next day, April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson addressed a Joint Session of Congress, and called for action to make the world “safe for democracy” (we’ll come back to this phrase later). Wilson’s address likely inspired one of the earliest Abe Martin cartoons about America’s impending involvement in World War I. In the April 2, 1917 issue of the Indianapolis News, Hubbard’s Abe Martin quipped: “What’s become o’ the ole-fashioned patriotic citizen who used t’ say, ‘Well, I didn’t vote for him, but he’s my President jist th’ same’? Actions speak louder’n flags.” Hubbard, through Martin, is expressing an earnest, trusting patriotism that became a common theme for his cartoons during the war.
Congress declared war on Germany four days after Wilson’s address. For the next two and half years, Hubbard’s Abe Martin routinely commented on the war and its influence on the home front. As an example, Hubbard promoted an essential war-time product in his columns, the Liberty Bond. Liberty Bonds were the brainchild of William G. McAdoo, President Wilson’s Secretary of the Treasury, and facilitated a revenue stream for the federal government to finance the war. Within his cartoons, Hubbard encouraged purchasing Liberty Bonds and connected them to patriotism. In a cartoon from May 30, 1917, Hubbard opined that “Talkin’ big an’ flyin’ a flag from your radiator cap won’t keep an army goin’. Buy a Liberty loan bond!” The very next day, the News ran an advertisement for Liberty Bonds, available for purchase from the Fletcher American National Bank, with Hubbard’s passionate call the day before. A year later, another mention of Liberty Bonds emerges in Hubbard’s column. “One o’ th’ best returns from a Liberty bond is an eased conscience,” declared the humorist through his down home alter-ego, Abe Martin.
Hubbard also criticized what he saw as empty forms of patriotism through his Abe Martin cartoons. “Patriotism,” wrote the cartoonist, “that don’t git below th’ neckband, don’t help much t’ win th’ war.” Patriotism in wartime, in Hubbard’s eyes, also manifested itself through sacrifice. “It begins t’ look like we’d all have t’ wait till [former Secretary of State William Jennings] Bryan is President before git our hair cut,” Hubbard penned. Bryan left his post at the State department in 1915 over objections with Wilson’s pro-British support in the Lusitania’s sinking. Conversely, Wilson’s response also led to growing antagonism toward Germany. Hubbard is implicitly saying that until a peace-candidate like Bryan won the presidency and the war came to a close, consumer luxuries like haircuts must be jettisoned. In another cartoon from May 2, 1917, Hubbard wrote that, “It begins t’ look like even th’ feller that kin whittle out a wooden chain will be made t’ feel th’ war.”
Hubbard’s cartoons received national recognition from former Indiana governor, vice president, and jokester in his own right, Thomas Marshall. The News reported on December 19, 1917 that Marshall wrote to Hubbard and noted his precarious position as Vice President:
Dear Kin Hubbard—Not the least among your many admirable qualities is your memory of the needs of a Vice president [sic] to be cheered upon his lonely way. He is supposed not to talk, but the right chuckle is guaranteed to him. As a chucker in the laughter rib you never miss.
I thank God for you and for your friendship.
Despite Marshall’s kind words, Hubbard nonetheless continued his appraisals of American involvement in the war with Abe Martin as his proxy. In an April 12 1918 cartoon, Hubbard wrote that “if the United States would jest wake up an’ take t’ th’ war like it t’ belted overcoats an’ high shoes we’d git on faster.” Another column from May 28, 1918 encouraged leaders to “wait till we win th’ war an’ we’ll all have a banquet.” That doesn’t mean he was unwilling to rhetorically rough up the enemy. A May 2, 1918 piece noted how “th’ only time th’ kaiser’s [sic] six sons ever git in th’ front line is when somebuddy comes along with a camera.”
In the fall of 1918, Hubbard’s Abe Martin Publishing Company released a compendium of Abe Martin cartoons and musings under the title, On the War and Other Musings. Multiple ads for the book ran in the News, particularly during the holiday season. “Hundreds of Abe Martin’s inimitable paragraph’s touching on everything under the sun from sassafras to world peace,” read an ad from December 2, 1918. It was also fairly easy to purchase to book. For the low price of $1.06 ($15.71 in today’s dollars), readers could have their copy shipped to them as long as they were within 200 miles of Indianapolis. It’d be “return to sender” if the postage was farther.
Kin Hubbard’s “Abe Martin” earned him the respect of his readers, political leaders, and the broader general public. His cartoons during World War I showed a commitment to his community, his country, and his craft. Hubbard, through Abe Martin, gave readers a Midwestern, “crackerbarrel” embodiment of the home front: rustic, altruistic, and patriotic. While certainly idealized, Hubbard’s art represented a commonplace, earnest notion of America during the war.