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18 September 2014
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Victorian Britain

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The Age of Steam: The Cartoon as Source Materia

By Mike Winstanley
Detail from cartoon, showing Victorian industrial landscape
Detail from cartoon below, showing Victorian industrial landscape ©

Cartoons can be valuable sources of information for anyone interested in the past. Examine a well known image from the Victorian era, and find out what a historian makes of it.

Cartoons as a primary source

Allegorical cartoon of the significance of steam power
Allegory on the significance of steam power, c.1850 ©
The Victorians were acutely aware of the power of the image to communicate complex ideas to audiences, and to influence their perceptions of the age in which they lived. The cartoon shown here, an allegory on the significance of steam power in the Victorian era, is a good example of a potent image of this type.

Historians, however, need to handle such sources with care. We need to ask who produced it, for what purpose, and whether it accurately represents contemporary realities.

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