California Wants a Canal

cal bounty

I like these cartoons that feature California as a goddess in all her glory, so here is another one. This one shows California looking peeved. What has her so exasperated?

The caption reads:

A YEAR OF PLENTY: California — What shall I do with this bounteous harvest of fruit and grain? My barns verily burst with plenty and my cup runs over. Would that the Nicaragua Canal were completed, and then I might find market for my surplus.

You might wonder about the idea of a canal through Nicaragua, but it was an idea afloat at the time.

There had been talk of a canal to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans during most of the 19th century. The French began a canal across the Isthmus of Panama in 1881, and after great expense of lives and capital, gave up the project in 1894 when it went bankrupt. This cartoon appeared in the Wasp in 1891, when U.S. interests were speculating about beating the French across by taking a different route.

Instead, the U.S. took over the French project in 1903, after promoting a revolution in Panama that brought about its separation from Colombia. The Panama Canal was completed in 1914.

waspjulydec1891unse_0260BCalifornia also had the transcontinental railroad as a means of getting her produce to eastern markets, but the railroad wasn’t enough. California was (and is) so bountiful that she needs a vast transportation web to distribute the fruit of her fields.

This cartoon was by Charles W. Saalburg. You can read about his career here.



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How The Wasp Saw Women

As much as I enjoy paging through the Wasp and looking at the cartoons, I have to acknowledge that it was a newspaper produced by men for men. Two cartoons from 1878 issues of the Wasp will give you a pretty good idea of how the editor and cartoonists (who were all men) saw women.

The problems of women’s fashions:


Elaborate trains or “trails” stirred up dust, knocked aside small children, and created a public hazard to men crossing the street. Other than that, the Wasp liked to depict pretty women fashionably dressed. But they didn’t go along with the idea of giving women the vote. Shall women vote, they asked?


“To be sure they shall, the little dears!” was the condescending opinion of the Wasp.


Sigh. With that kind of attitude, it’s no wonder it took another 33 years for women to get the vote in California, and 40 years before they could vote in national elections.

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The Death of General Bidwell

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Account of General’s attack of heart trouble in Vallombrosa, April 4, 1900

The following account was written for Annie Bidwell by one of her maids, Florence, who had gone with General Bidwell on the morning of April 4, 1900. I don’t know Florence’s last name. The account can be found in the John Bidwell Collection in the California State Library.

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Chico April 4, 1900

On Wednesday morning at eight o’clock, General drove up the creek with William Conway, taking me with him to open the gate (when he came back) as he said he was only going to be gone about one hour. We drove up the South side, then crossed a little below the Dam, onto the North side. We kept close to the creek for a ways as the General said I am just going this way to mark out a new road. I will tell you what to do William and then I will leave you to your self as I am not going to stop today.

Mechoopda Band

The Mechoopda Band. William Conway is at the center of the front row, holding a trumpet. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Meriam Library, CSU Chico.

When we got down to where Harry was working the General told William to put on his rubbers and help him out of the wagon. I got into the front seat and held the horses when the General got to the ground he gave a little stamp and said there, I am as spry as a young boy. Now William our Log has burned pretty well but we will take the chain and pull it over a little way. Now Harry get your horses. They pulled it over and then the general took the crow bar and showed William how to knock the fire out of the root without putting out the fire. He then had William take the big ax and chop off a big knot from the stump they were burning. He then called Harry and had him pull the logs that were on the ground a little uphill to the spot where they were when he was take sick. He and Harry sawed a little while and then quit.

The General then went back to see how William was getting along then went and done a little more sawing, then quit and walked around a little while. Then he turned to me and said are you cold Florence, for I was sitting right in the shade with the North wind blowing hard. I told him I was and he had Harry drive the horses to the South side of the log in the sun and I was only there a few minutes watching the General as he poked around the fire and started a little blaze as the chips fell down from William’s ax.

It seems strange but I never took my eye off the General that morning. I followed every movement just with the thought the ground is so uneven and so many little rock and limbs lying around from the tree they were burning so as to warn him if he should happen to go near anything he would stumble over. While watching him he laid the crowbar down and stood for a moment with his hand on the stump as if thinking. Then he called to Harry and said, Harry you take the horses, and Florence you come here. Of course I waited for Harry to get to the horses before I let go of the reins as they were very restless.

William looked up and said I think there is something the matter. The General was then walking to the log with his head held down as if he had the neuralgia. I said Jump Billy and I jumped at the same time leaving the horses alone for Harry had not yet got into the wagon. We both got to the General at the same time. I said he has got neuralgia Billy hold him up. He was then sitting like he does when he had that pain. He had hold of him only a few seconds when he dropped his head back and gasped for breath like as if he were having a fainting fit. I said to William he has fainted and started Harry to town in all haste.

I ran to the creek and got some water and loosened his clothes around his neck and rubbed him as best we could. When we fixed up a place as best we could and laid him on the ground he seemed better in a few minutes and wanted to know what was the matter and what were we all doing. We said keep quiet General you will be all right in a little while and as he commenced to rally he wanted to be propped up and complained of too much weight on his chest though there was nothing there. As he got a little better he asked for some water then he complained of being cold and to cover him up. When you got to the spot and you now what. . .

Bidwell1890The account breaks off there, although there must have been a little more to it. The General was taken home in the wagon and died later that day. His heart attack came as he was doing one of the jobs he loved best — road-building.

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Another Cartoon from the Wasp


I am putting this one up just so you can admire the artistry of the cartoonist Charles Saalburg. It appeared in the Wasp on February 7, 1891.

Sometimes the Wasp explained the cartoons, but I couldn’t find anything in this issue. The cartoon deals with national politics and I think they assumed that the readers would understand the issues and know the players. I am not going to attempt to explain every figure, but I will point out a few things.

The driver of the “Stagecoach of State” is President Benjamin Harrison, and next to him is his Vice-President, Levi Morton. Two of the men riding on top at the back are Senators Henry Cabot Lodge and William McKinley, both Republicans. (The Wasp favored the Republicans.) Riding inside the coach is Uncle Sam.


Each of the horses is labeled with the name of a bill. Foremost among the opponents of Harrison’s plan of progress is former (and future) President Grover Cleveland (Democrat), with his boulder of Vengeance.


Other Democrats are shoving in logs labeled Ignorance and Capricious Obstruction. I don’t know who all of them are, but the one in the middle is Republican Senator John J. Ingalls of Kansas, who was getting a lot of criticism in the Wasp at the time.

If you would like to look at more of these cartoons, you can access the Wasp at the Internet Archive. (A fabulous resource, by the way.) Here is the link for the California State Library collection. On the left, search the collection for Wasp, or for Wasp 1890 (or some other year) for a particular year.





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Bidwell Cartoon

John Bidwell is struggling to carry the burden of two nominations for governor of California in this cartoon by Charles W. Saalburg from The Wasp, August 23, 1890.

Bidwell camel

Most of the political cartoons that appeared in the Wasp over one hundred years ago require explanation, and this one is no exception.

The caption at the bottom reads:

Pixley: Now you have done it! You have burdened him with too heavy a load!

McDonald: That may be; but yours was the straw which broke the camel’s back!



Daily Alta California, 9 May 1890

On the left we have Dr. R.H. McDonald, a leader in the California Prohibition Party. (Note his jug of water.) At their convention in San Francisco on May 9th, the Prohibitionists had nominated General Bidwell to be their candidate for governor. On the steps of the capitol, departing Gov. Waterman looks on. (I am not sure who the other man is).  Bidwell is faltering under the load of dual nominations.


On the right we have Frank M. Pixley, the colorful editor of the Argonaut, a rival publication to the Wasp. Pixley was an attorney and journalist and in the mid-1860s had been the Attorney General of California. Although a staunch Republican for most of his career, in 1890 he took a fling with a small nativist third party — the American Party.


San Francisco Call, 6 August 1890

Although General Bidwell did not seek the nomination of the American Party, the convention gave it to him anyway and put his name on their ticket. He wasn’t present at the convention in San Francisco.

In his diary for August 5 he writes:
Events: at ll a.m. received telegram from L.W.McGlauflin, delegate in American Convention at S.F. – At 5 p.m. another saying I was nominated.

The election was no sooner over than the American Party faded into obscurity.

And why is Bidwell depicted as a camel?

camelThe Democrats have their donkey, the Republicans have their elephant, and the Prohibitionists chose as their mascot the camel.  After all, a camel is “dry;” he drinks only water and plenty of it, and can survive for a long time in a parched desert.

Don’t you wish we had political cartoons this fun to look at today?



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The Wasp — California vs. Florida

Here is another cartoon showing “California,” as she is depicted on the State Seal.


The Wasp, 19 July 1890

The Wasp didn’t always explain its cartoons, but this seems to have reference to a short item in the paper:

Word comes from Chicago that California cannot have ten acres of ground space at the World’s Fair, because Florida might ask for that much room and the commissioners be unable to allow it.

Florida as portrayed here is hardly the equal of California. California has her magnificent bear; Florida has a healthy but lowly and dangerous alligator. California is accompanied by a hardy miner with a sack of gold over his shoulder, while Florida’s companion is a seedy-looking real estate promoter with a bottle of quinine in his pocket to fight off malaria. Florida’s little orange tree can’t compete with California’s chariot full of large oranges, olives, grapes, wine, and a pineapple.

A closer look at the pages:



Statue of Minerva in Heidelburg

California is dressed in her garb as Minerva (or Athena), with helmet, breastplate, shield and sword. Note the fashionable wasp-waist in the illustration.

Florida is nice enough looking, but not a rival in beauty or fashion for California.The_Great_Seal_of_the_State_of_California


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The Wasp


Looking for an entertaining and historical way to spend a few hours? Time will fly while you peruse the pages of The Wasp, San Francisco’s premier satiric periodical, digitized by the California State Library and available online at the Internet Archive.

The weekly Wasp began publication in August 1876 and continued into the 20th century; the online collection goes up to 1920. As stated in its first issue, “Its mission, as the name will indicate, signifies a busy,  industrious life, ever on the wing in search of news and ever ready to inflict a justifiable sting upon those who will abuse public trust.” It sought to be “fearless, bold, and independent, not owned or controlled by any men or party of men . . .” and took jabs equally at Democrats, Republicans, and third parties.

It was notable for its outstanding full-page color political cartoons and numerous line sketches and comics. I’ll show you some of these in upcoming posts. Many are now obscure, referring to long-dead controversies and long-forgotten public figures. But others are timeless and a delight to behold. Here’s one — the cover of the January 1st, 1881 issue:


The decade of the 1870’s had been a tough one, overshadowed by the Panic of 1873 and the Long Depression that lasted through the decade. Here California looks to the dawn of a brighter day as Hard Times fade away behind her. California is depicted as she is on the State Seal, as Minerva, goddess of wisdom, with the California grizzly bear at her feet and her shield embossed with the miner’s pick and shovel.

I hope you’ll enjoy The Wasp as much as I have.

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