Albert Wilbur Steele (1862–1925) was an early twentieth-century artist and editorial cartoonist for Denver newspapers. The first American cartoonist to appear daily in a newspaper, Steele drew front-page cartoons that appeared above the fold in The Denver Post for nearly thirty years. Celebrated by readers for his honesty and integrity, Steele’s satirical work generated wide admiration and occasional controversy. Giving visual representation to the reform crusades of the Progressive Era, he frequently skewered political corruption and monopoly abuses of power. Yet he was also known as a promoter of Colorado and the American West.
Born on June 18, 1862, in Malden, Illinois, young Wilbur Steele moved to Denver with his family in 1866. He grew up with the city itself, which had begun as a mining camp in 1858. His dad was a grocer, no doubt supplying the many miners who passed through the city on their way to diggings in the mountains. He graduated from East High School, briefly attended Colorado Agricultural College (now Colorado State University), and taught school for a time. A cousin of suffragist Ellis Meredith, Steele married Anna Crary of San Francisco in 1884. After working in his father’s grocery store at Thirteenth and Lawrence Streets in Denver, he eventually turned to illustration and political satire.
Steele began drawing cartoons for the Rocky Mountain News in 1890, then launched his long career with The Denver Post in 1897. During his time at the Post, Steele developed an impressive reputation for caricature and creative commentary on the political, social, and cultural developments of Colorado and the nation. He became the first American cartoonist to draw a daily cartoon for a newspaper, leaving an impressive legacy of several thousand published cartoons. At the time, text-dense newspapers dominated the media landscape, but English fluency was not a given for many new immigrants in Colorado. Steele’s images proved incredibly popular for condensing the main issues of the day into an easily understood visual form. Many readers bought the paper just to see Steele’s distinctive take on civic life, making him invaluable to the paper’s owners.
His second day on the job, Steele illustrated his instructions from Post editors Harry Tammen and Frederick Bonfils: “Give Every Fellow a Chance, but Let No Guilty Man Escape.” In keeping with that charge, many of Steele’s early cartoons focused on political machinations and economic monopolies. His take was typically aspirational, suggesting that bad actors could make the right choice to benefit the public interest the next time around. Regular characters included Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, and Woodrow Wilson. Steele drew on heavily gendered imagery to stress his creative message. Even the hypermasculine Roosevelt could appear in feminine guise when Steele felt the president had neglected to nurture the economy as its “unsuccessful wet-nurse.”
Closer to home, Steele commented on Denver and Colorado politics frequently, drawing Denver mayors and controversial governors such as Elias Ammons or Ku Klux Klan member Clarence Morley. He innovated on influential tropes from earlier cartoonists such as Thomas Nast and Joseph Keppler and, like them, cast public controversies in easily understood symbols. His party animals included the Republican elephant and Democratic donkey or tiger. In one 1908 cartoon, for example, reelected mayor Robert Speer prepared to carve up a “jobs” pie as eager party loyalists salivated in anticipation. Sympathetic to the good-government agenda of Progressive Era reformers, Steele regularly critiqued party machine networks of both Democratic leader “Boss” Speer and the Denver Republican Party.
Steele’s cartoons ranged from poignant defenses of Progressive Era reform to critiques of industrial violence such as the Ludlow Massacre in 1914. His running series on the Mexican Revolution offered Denver readers insights into tangled developments of the 1910s. His images of American experiences in World War I promoted a less hysterical patriotism than posters commissioned by the national Committee on Public Information. Amid the cultural debates of the 1920s, his cartoons focused on the influence of the Colorado Ku Klux Klan. The artist typically offered satire of Colorado Klan leader John Galen Locke that was more humorous than outraged, even as Steele skewered Locke’s bid for control of the state Republican Party. Depicting Locke as the new party “Boss,” with the Republican elephant wearing its own KKK hood, Steele inscribed Locke’s clownish Klan hat with a buffoonish title of his own invention: “Grand Hoogeram.”
Influence and Legacy
Wilbur Steele died on March 12, 1925, at age sixty-three, of pneumonia. He left thousands of political cartoons and a reputation for defending the underdog and reform causes. A colleague observed, “His cartoons were the most desired as well as the most feared factor in many a hard-fought political, social, or business battle.” Steele’s drawings could expose corruption and shape political fortunes, and they remain a testament to the power of imagery for swaying elections and molding public opinion.