The Cartoons of Herbert Johnson

By Deb Arenz, Associate Director, Collections

(From Nebraska History News, July-August-September 2014)

John Falter, featured in a 2012-13 Nebraska History Museum exhibit, isn’t the only Nebraska artist with ties to The Saturday Evening Post. Sutton native Herbert Johnson was a nationally renowned political cartoonist with the Post. Johnson donated 250 of his original drawings to the NSHS in 1944. 

Born in 1878, Johnson attended the Western Normal College and the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and began his professional career as the assistant cartoonist at the Denver Republican in 1896. After Denver, he found employment at the Kansas City Journal, as a freelance cartoonist in New York, and at the Philadelphia North American, before landing with The Saturday Evening Post. Johnson served as the Post’s art editor and cartoonist from 1912 to 1915 and continued as a cartoonist until his retirement in 1941. 

Most of the pieces in the NSHS collection were produced for the Post. In one of Johnson’s letters to NSHS staff regarding the donation, he described his process of developing cartoons for the publication: 

“I try to think of all the things that should be said. The best of these I sketch rapidly on a sheet of scratch paper, with no consideration of drawing or composition, merely trying to convey the idea . . . .” Johnson would then submit the sketch to the Post’s art editor. For a cartoon to be considered, it needed to meet several criteria: “(a) Will the idea ‘stand up,’ that is will it be good in the thirty days between delivery of drawing and publication; (b) is it an idea that the editor will wish to present, does it meet editorial policy at the moment; (c) is it clever, funny, dramatic.”

In subsequent letters Johnson said that the bulk of the ideas for the cartoons and captions were his own. He described himself as a Republican of the Teddy Roosevelt School. His strong opinions on President Franklin D. Roosevelt, New Deal policies, government spending and waste, and American intervention in World War II are clearly evident in his cartoons, and considering Johnson’s long tenure, were obviously appreciated by Post editors. 

In his letters and published works, Johnson downplayed his artistic talents, stating that if he had gone to art school he “would have become a painter of perhaps quite mediocre landscapes or something.” He asked his “amiable” readers to “not be too conscious of technical shortcomings” and to “judge the cartoonist’s picture solely as the vehicle of his idea.” Although humble, Johnson’s skill as a draftsman and caricaturist, his knowledge of politics and current affairs, and his ability to convey complex ideas through his art enabled him to become one of the premier cartoonists of his day.

Below is a sample of Herbert Johnson’s original cartoons from our collection. To see more, search here for keyword “Herbert Johnson.”

Top: “The Banyan Tree” History Nebraska 12523-133

“Her Big Butter and Egg Man,” from a slang term for a big spender. History Nebraska 12523-42


Until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, The Saturday Evening Post opposed U.S. entry into World War II and favored an isolationist foreign policy. History Nebraska 12523-162


“Time to Turn Back” History Nebraska 12523-142


Though there was no presidential term limit in 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt’s run for a third term was unprecedented. History Nebraska 12523-178

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