While processing a collection of Civil War scrapbooks, I was surprised to find imagery that reminded me of today's internet memes. A meme is a graphic often encountered on social media, combining an image and a comical phrase that is widely circulated and shared. Examples include success kid celebrating life's small victories and Grumpy Cat being, well, grumpy. The Civil War images I encountered were quick to consume and lightly lampooned current events.
While today's memes and political cartoons spread through posts on Facebook and Twitter, these images spread through the mail. You didn't even have to open your mail to encounter it—the image was right on the envelope in many cases! Writing letters was one of the few ways to stay in touch with family members separated by war and the messages on the envelopes were an easy way to flaunt one's attitudes about the war.
Northern printing companies readily capitalized on this business endeavor. They printed hundreds of different designs supporting the Union army and the quest to keep America united. Propaganda on envelopes depicted symbols and leaders of the Confederacy as incompetent or untrustworthy and depicted the South as lacking in morality and intelligence.
Twisting the meaning of quotes was popular. In a speech, Davis once said
, "All we ask is to be let alone—that those who never held power over us shall not now attempt our subjugation by arms." Northern cartoonists took that and ran with it. Davis is depicted saying this phrase in a variety of comedic situations, including one that transforms him into a sobbing toddler.
Companies in the South also produced many envelopes supporting their cause, but production was hampered by paper and ink shortages. The South relied on trade with the North and England for their paper and some ink because their economy did not involve much manufacturing. When the North put blockades in place in 1863 isolating the South from importing key materials, their production of envelopes and propaganda dropped dramatically. The envelopes the South did produce mainly depicted the Confederate flag, and they added a star whenever a state left the Union.
Newspapers also spread these comedic images. Most worked to create a sense of nationalism, while some derided the enemy. They pushed political boundaries and expanded on certain ideals in a humorous way.
Have you seen other images from history that remind you of memes, combining images and text to convey a humorous message? Researchers are welcome to make an appointment to visit
our Archives Center and explore this fascinating collection.
Rebecca Kuske is a reference intern for the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History.