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  • The San Francisco Wasp: An Illustrated History
  • Lucy Shelton Caswell
The San Francisco Wasp: An Illustrated History. By Richard Samuel West. Northampton, MA: Periodyssey Press, 2004. iv, 330 pp. Illus. Index. Cartoon index. $90.

Although its readers may have considered the Wasp as the West Coast version of Puck, the San Francisco weekly lived up to its name and never had the charm of its East Coast cousin. The most notable similarities between the two are their longevity and the complex chromolithographic cartoons that were featured in both. Although Puck's cartoonists were celebrated and many went on to successful careers at other magazines or with newspapers, the Wasp's cartoonists are obscure and none achieved commercial success. Thanks to The San Francisco Wasp: An Illustrated History, selected examples of their work are now available, including eighty-eight color plates. Although the racist stereotypes of many of the cartoons in this volume may offend contemporary readers, they provide important reminders of this cultural legacy and serve as vivid documentation of San Francisco history during the late nineteenth century.

Richard Samuel West is an independent scholar who founded and edited two journals on contemporary political cartooning, the Puck Papers and Target, and later wrote the definitive biography of Puck's founder and greatest cartoonist, Joseph Keppler. West states that the Wasp is unique among American magazines, standing "foremost at the intersection of various vital fields: American humor and satire, American political cartooning, Western Americana, and 19th-century chromolithographic printing." To date, little has been written about the Wasp, there are very few complete runs of the magazine, and many secondary sources related to it are unreliable. This volume, which concentrates on the early years of the Wasp, not only documents its history but also provides cogent descriptions of the men and events in San Francisco and California that provided the subject matter for its cartoons and editorials. This is a volume where the end notes and bibliographic essay are almost as interesting as the narrative.

The Wasp's founder was a Czech immigrant, Francis Korbel, whose primary business when the weekly first appeared in 1876 was printing lithographic labels for cigar boxes. During its first two decades, the Wasp had a series of owners of various political persuasions, twelve editors, and five chief cartoonists. It began by supporting Democratic causes, but with successive owners, its political stance shifted first to independent and then to Republican. Although Ambrose Bierce's five-year tenure as editor of the Wasp is usually ignored or dismissed as unimportant, West argues that it was the "apex" of his journalistic career that included his "noblest writings" and calls for new scholarship in this area. [End Page 225]

Published in an edition of 400 and priced at $90, this book will not be widely available. It should, however, be required reading for anyone interested in nineteenth-century editorial cartoons or the history of chromolithography in American magazines.

Lucy Shelton Caswell
Ohio State University


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