Octopi Wall Street!


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.

caption TK: credit TKThe 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 Monopoly Octopus: Wikimedia CommonsThe 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.

caption TK: credit TKStandard Oil vs. America Library of Congress

 

Standard Oil again, this time drawn as “A Horrible Monster, whose tentacles spread poverty, disease and death.”

caption TK: credit TKA 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: Library of CongressThe 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 LeagueThe 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.”

caption TK: credit TKThe 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.

caption TK: credit TKFight the Vampire Squid Molly Crabapple

 

For many more examples of classic octopus propaganda, check out Vulgar Army‘s well-stocked collection.

FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2019 demands.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.