March 8, 1884

Charles G. Bush


Agriculture; Symbols, Columbia; Symbols, Uncle Sam; U.S. Economic Policy, Trade/Tariffs; U.S. Foreign Policy; Women, Symbolic;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.


Columbia: "I did it out of pure kind-heartedness and sympathy, uncle."

Uncle Sam. "Wa'al, never you worry, dear. It will be a cold day when he gets any more."

This Harper’s Weekly cartoon by C. G. Bush features one episode in a longer drama between the United States and European governments over food bans on the importation of allegedly diseased meat.

Throughout the late-nineteenth century, agricultural production in the United States continued to expand, providing the foundation for the rest of the country’s growing and industrializing economy. The extension of the railroad system to the American west and the development of faster steamships integrated farm products into wider national and international markets. By the 1870s, the United States was exporting over 60% of its pork to reign as the world’s largest pork exporter. Similar quantities of American beef were shipped abroad. The primary overseas markets for American meat were in Europe, which caused meat producers in those countries to pressure their governments to restrict the importation of the cheaper American meat.

Aiding them in that task were rumors that the American meat was diseased, particularly that the beef carried the pleuro-pneumonia virus and that the pork was tainted with trichinosis. In 1878, an Austrian physician claimed that 20% of American hams were infected. Except for some diseased cattle, it was never proven that American meat was infected more than its European counterpart, or that the pork was dangerous at all. Yet, in the late 1870s and early 1880s, the importation of American pork or meat in general was banned by the governments of Austria-Hungary, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Romania, and Turkey.

The most significant trouble for American pork producers began in 1880 when Germany, the largest foreign market for U.S. pork, prohibited its importation. For a couple of years, German custom officials ignored the ban on the relatively cheap and relatively safe American pork (e.g., by categorizing cloth-covered hams as "fine linens"). In 1881, James Blaine, the U.S. secretary of state, ordered an inspection of American pork, which found that it had a far lower occurrence of trichinosis than European pork. The next year, however, the German prohibition began to be enforced and was expanded to all American meat products. It was well known that most of the diseased meat originated in Russia, Austria, and Germany itself, but German chancellor Otto von Bismarck admitted he was trying to protect German farmers, a key constituency of the German monarchy.

American farmers, meatpacking officials, and other affected groups wanted the United States to retaliate economically with tariffs and bans on European products. The National Livestock Association called for a rigorous system of meat inspection, and in February 1883, President Chester Arthur announced the formation of an inspection commission and invited the Germans to participate. The German government did not respond until July, when it refused the offer. The inspection commission’s finding generally endorsed American meat products, but urged more stringent inspection methods. In May 1884, two months after this cartoon appeared, Congress established the Bureau of Animal Husbandry.

The specific context of this cartoon centered around the activities of Aaron Sargent, the U.S. minister to Germany. A political appointee, Sargent was loudmouthed and disrespectful toward Bismarck, conferred openly with Bismarck’s German Liberal opponents who favored free trade, and threatened retaliation for Germany’s prohibition on American meat imports. When the leader of the German Liberals, Eduard Lasker, died in early 1884, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a provocative resolution mourning his death, which Sargent then delivered to the German government. Bismarck adamantly refused to accept the resolution, and declared that Sargent’s continued presence was an insult to Germany. In April, Sargent resigned and was replaced by a tactful diplomat, John Kasson.

This cartoon seems to criticize both the German rejection of the Lasker resolution of sympathy, exhibited by a saddened and misunderstood Columbia, and American politicians, represented by a boorish and boastful Uncle Sam. In 1891, Congress made inspection of meat for export mandatory, and Germany lifted its ban.

Robert C. Kennedy

June 17, 2024

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