The History of Cartoons

The term “cartoon” refers to an illustration or a series/sequence of drawings that depict satire, caricature, or humor. It features images drawn in a non-realistic or semi-realistic style. Cartoons appear in many publications, such as comic books, magazines, and newspapers. A cartoon can also be animated.

What does the word “cartoon” come from?

The word “cartoon” is derived from either the Italian word cartone or the Dutch word karton, which are both words describing a strong, thick or heavy paper, or pasteboard. These illustrations were originally done on a sturdy piece of paper as a preparatory study or modello for a finished work, such as a painting, tapestry or stained glass. Artists way back then used cartoons to form frescoes, to precisely link the components of the composition when painted on damp plaster over several days, which is referred to as giornate.

The history of cartoons, from the ancient era to the 19th century

The history of cartoons, from the ancient era to the 19th century

Making illustrations harks way back as far as the Paleolithic Age, as evidenced by the ancient cave paintings. While the exact purpose of these paintings cannot be determined, humans retained this technique and used it to express their feelings, emotions, or ideas. Over time, it brought people to make drawings and illustrations, which evolved as cartoons and animation. They remain one of the strongest and most effective forms of expression.

During the 17th century, the origins of the modern cartoon began as caricatures. Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Lorenzo Benini used caricatures to provide definite shape and form to the features of their subject. However, it was William Hogarth who developed the pictorial satire, which became the precursor to the development of political and editorial cartoons.

It was also during the same era where cartoonists introduced a playful and whimsical style that depicted caricatures. They drew cartoon characters and associated them with humor to present social events and the latest fashions. During the French Revolution (1789-1799), cartoonists used their productions as a form of satirical propaganda.

Cartoons were also used as a powerful means of depicting the events that occurred during the American Civil War. Abraham Lincoln was a prominent figure in those cartoons. By the mid-19th century,  a German-American cartoonist named Thomas Nast applied the realistic-looking German drawing and sketching technique to his political cartoons in America, which redefined American cartooning. His 160 cartoons relentlessly campaigned against the “Tweed machine” in New York City. These cartoons were instrumental in the downfall of the corrupt political organization Tammany Hall and the eventual arrest of its leader, “Boss Tweed” (William Magear Tweed in real life).

Nast (who died in 1902) also extensively used the images of Uncle Sam and Democratic Donkey, and in effect, popularized them.

Comic books and cartoons in the 20th century and beyond

Comic books, as a print medium, have existed in America since the 1840s, with the publication of The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck in 1842 in hardcover. This is considered the precursor to the modern comic books.

The comic Funnies on Parade became the first book that set the standard for the size, format and duration of the modern comic books. It was followed by Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics, a 36-page comic published by Dell. It became the real first newsstand comic book.

The continuous artistic development and public patronage towards comic books led to the Golden Age of Comic Books of the 1930s, which is considered the genesis of the comic books that we know today. The successful streak of comic books continued into the Silver Age of Comic Books during the 1950s, which was also a period of artistic advancement.

The success of comic books, however, did not come without questions or criticisms. Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published a book titled “Seduction of the Innocent” in 1954, in which he threw heavy criticisms towards comic books. His book prompted the American Senate to investigate Wertham’s book, to determine whether comic books contributed to the increasing incidences of juvenile delinquency in America.

In response to the growing scrutiny from the government and the media, the American comics industry established the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA), which instilled the Comics Code Authority and the Comics Code for censorship purposes. However, by the 1970s, all comic books had been published without having to undergo the inspection of CMAA. Finally, the Comics Code was officially made defunct in 2011.

In 1922, a newspaper editorial cartoonist Rollin Kirby won the First Pulitzer Prize for his cartoon “On the Road to Moscow” (1921). He went on to win a couple more Pulitzer Prizes for his works “News from the Outside World” (1924) and “Tammany” (1928). In 1927, Dr. Seuss began selling cartoons to magazines and other various publications.

A short history of animation

“Humorous Phases of Funny Faces,” the first animated cartoon

Animation refers to the technique of manipulating still pictures so that they appear as “animated” or moving images. Animation even predated the advent of cinema. During the Industrial Revolution in Europe in the 17th to 19th centuries, machines were developed to make still images move. One of those machines was the thaumatrope, an optical toy.

A 1900 silent film, entitled The Enchanted Drawing, contained the first animated sequences on a standard picture film. Six years later, the short silent film Humorous Phases of Funny Faces was released, and is now widely regarded as the first animated cartoon.

In 1923 Walt Disney started to make short animated series that were mostly based on fairy tales and children’s stories. In 1934, he released The Wise Little Hen, a film which was based on the fairy tale The Little Red Hen. It also saw the debut appearance of Donald Duck.

The 1930s to 1950s saw the rise of popularity of animated films, which led this period to be called as the Golden Age of American Animation. It gave rise to the now-legendary cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse, Popeye, Betty Boop, and many others.

TV Cartoons

Fast forward to the 1960s to the 1980s, where animation received an even greater success and a wider audience due to the rise of television. Animation took a big leap further when computer-generated imagery (CGI) was introduced and revolutionized the animation industry. It gave animated movies and television shows more three-dimensional and life-like. Nowadays, we enjoy watching 3D-animated films and television shows, although there still exist some productions made with traditional animation techniques.

Television was a game changer for cartoons, providing a new medium for bringing animated content directly into people’s homes. The transition from theaters to television screens increased the accessibility and audience reach of cartoons. The late 1950s and early 1960s saw a significant shift from theatrical shorts to serialized television shows.

With the emergence of TV cartoons, new formats were identified allowing for longer narratives and recurring characters, completely transforming how stories were told in the animated realm.

Popular Cartoon Shows and Characters

  1. Hanna-Barbera Productions: The studio’s creations like “The Flintstones” (premiered in 1960) and “The Jetsons” (1962) became iconic representations of prime-time animation for families.
  2. Warner Bros. Looney Tunes on TV: Classic characters like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig found new life on television, captivating audiences with their timeless humor and antics.
  3. Disney’s TV Ventures: Disney continued its legacy by introducing TV specials and series, including “The Mickey Mouse Club” and “DuckTales,” bringing beloved characters to the small screen.
  4. Anime’s Global Reach: The introduction of Japanese anime, such as “Astro Boy” and “Speed Racer,” expanded the diversity of cartoon offerings and influenced animation styles worldwide.

Influence of Cartoons on Children and Society

  1. Cultural Impact: TV cartoons became a crucial part of childhood experiences, shaping cultural references and shared memories for generations. They introduced moral lessons, humor, and storytelling elements to young audiences.
  2. Merchandising and Consumer Culture: Cartoon characters became lucrative symbols for merchandise, driving the creation of toys, clothing, and various consumer products. They played a significant role in shaping consumer culture and marketing strategies.
  3. Social Influence: Cartoons also played a role in reflecting and sometimes challenging societal norms. They addressed relevant social issues, encouraged diversity, and at times, sparked controversies over their portrayal of gender, race, and stereotypes.


Cartoons have had a significant influence, reflecting societal values, addressing relevant problems and sometimes challenging norms. Their influence extends beyond screens, affecting consumer culture, inspiring merchandise, and even artistic endeavors other than animation. The evolution of cartoons shows the incredible power of imagination, innovation, and storytelling. They have not only entertained but also enriched people’s lives, leaving a lasting impact on our cultural heritage.

You can read more of some individual histories of the classic animated TV shows and characters.