Cartoons & Illustrations, Poetry, and Songs in the Labor Movement
“…Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.
….Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too…”
James Oppenheim, “Bread and Roses,” The American Magazine, December, 1911.
The labor movement has long employed symbols to communicate complex ideas to members and the public, to lampoon employers and politicians, and to articulate shared values and community. Cartoons and illustrations are effective communication tools because they are easily understood and reproduced, comprehended by readers of various levels of literacy and language fluency, and often present in various printed and hand-drawn formats created by labor unions and activists.
Workers were not limited to writing polemics and prose; they wrote poems recording their concerns, values, and ambitions. Papers like the Seattle Union Record regularly featured poetry that examined current issues through a poetic lens.
Songs are another format used to create a sense of shared community. Labor songs often take on the melody of popular songs or hymns of the time. Perhaps the most visible proponents of the synthesis of songs and organizing, particularly in the era of the general strike, were the Industrial Workers of the World. Songs written during this era, such as IWW organizer, poet, and illustrator Ralph Chaplin’s “Solidarity Forever,” written around 1915, would later become known as the anthem of the US labor movement.
Political Cartoons About the Seattle General Strike of February 1919
Labor publications often contain illustrations to complement or augment text. Buttons and stickers as well as handmade formats like picket signs and banners also often use illustration to convey a political message.
This case includes a variety of formats featuring cartoons and illustrations, with an emphasis on those created during the era of the Seattle General Strike and the Centralia Tragedy of 1919 and those relating to the IWW. The case also contains images published in the Seattle Union Record during the strike, which regularly featured series of cartoons. As the official organ of the Seattle Labor Council, it portrayed a humorous and pointed perspective sympathetic to the shipyard and general strikers.
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IWW members were skilled at integrating song, poetry, and illustrations into their activism and organizing. One such example is the “Little Red Song Book” (a nickname for a variously titled songbook that was also called Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent and Songs of the Workers). Parodying or adapting popular and religious tunes of the day, these songs were meant to be sung at strikes and other direct actions.
This copy of the “Little Red Songbook” contains Katie Phar’s signature. It is unknown if this was her copy or if this is just her signature for a fan wanting their songbook signed.
Katie Phar was born in Spokane, Washington to John and Christina Phar, members of the Industrial Workers of the World. Nicknamed the “IWW Songbird,” Phar was familiar with IWW songs from a young age. It was common for children to attend IWW meetings with their parents and perform songs. Phar was a song leader and led an IWW children’s choir at their hall in Spokane.
Phar shared a love of music with famous IWW songwriter Joe Hill, and corresponded with him while he was in prison shortly before his execution in November 1915 when she was just ten years old. Hill encouraged her to continue her musical pursuits and asked her to help Elizabeth Gurley Flynn perform the song “Rebel Girl” during her visit to Spokane. Unfortunately, the letters she wrote Hill disappeared; however, his letters to Phar survived and have since been published.
Phar remained active with the Seattle IWW and as a performer into the 1920s and 30s. She died in June 1943 and is buried at Lakeview Cemetery in Seattle.
In addition to her editorials, Anna Louise Strong also wrote numerous poems, many of which were published regularly in the Seattle Union Record under the pseudonym Anise. Written in a style known as ragged verse, Strong’s poems rarely rhymed and used capitalization to place special emphasis on important words. Many of her poems, including the two featured in this case, focus on themes of labor, social justice, and politics, usually with a satirical or humorous tone.
These IWW stickerettes were also called “silent agitators” because they were meant to be adhered to any available surface to raise the class consciousness of workers and advocate for the IWW’s cause. Most stickerettes are printed in black and/or red on lightweight sheets of paper. Some have a light adhesive gummed backing, while others are simply meant to be licked and slapped onto a clean surface. Many were distributed by rail-riding IWW members on boxcars and railroad encampments; others were distributed in workplaces as a signal to fellow workers to organize for their freedom. Over the years, a myriad of different varieties of stickerettes in a variety of sizes were produced, most likely totaling millions over time. Ralph Chaplin was one of the first to have produced the stickers, which were created in various different languages. The stickers sold for as little as a dollar a thousand.