A few days ago, photographer and idea blogger David Friedman tweeted, "Octopi Wall Street. You can have that." Beyond the Occupy Wall Street-inspired wordplay, he was on to something. There's a long American tradition of mixing economic populism with cephalopods.
Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi famously described Goldman Sachs as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money." More recently, Mother Jones cartoonist Zina Saunders drew the Koch brothers as the twin heads of an oil- and money-spewing "Kochtopus." But the first comparisons of moneyed interests to voracious tentacled creatures date back to the Gilded Age. Here, a quick review of the metaphor's greatest hits.
In this 1882 illustration, a grinning 10-tentacled octopus (decapus?) headed by California railroad tycoons ensnares everything in its path, from farmers and miners to an entire sailing ship.
The Curse of California Wikimedia Commons
The arms of the Traction Monster, drawn by George Luks in 1899, include a variety of monopolistic entities, from the Steel Trust to John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil, a favorite target of antitrust foes.
The Traction Monster Wikimedia Commons
In this 1904 illustration by Udo Keppler, Standard Oil wraps its tentacles around the Capitol and average Americans, while eyeing the White House.
Standard Oil vs. America Library of Congress
Standard Oil again, this time drawn as "A Horrible Monster, whose tentacles spread poverty, disease and death."
A Horrible Monster International Team of Comics Historians
In this 1899 cartoon, the Devil Fish of California Politics (a San Francisco Democratic party boss) emerges from a Sea of Corruption, his "rapacious maw" agape.
The Devil Fish of California Politics Library of Congress
Octopus-mania also extended to other causes. Here, the Liquor Octopus taunts the entire world in a 1919 prohibitionist cartoon.
The Liquor Octopus Anti-Saloon League
Note the octopus lounging in the Fountain of Taxation, in which the Burden of Taxation trickles down to the Laboring Class. "Eventually the bottom basin gets it."
The Fountain of Taxation Library of Congress
Which brings us to this Occupy Wall Street stencil by artist Molly Crabapple, in which Taibbi's vampire squid tips its top hat to its Turn of the Century forebears.
Fight the Vampire Squid Molly Crabapple
For many more examples of classic octopus propaganda, check out Vulgar Army's well-stocked collection.