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Fred Ellis Papers

An inventory of his collection at Syracuse University

Finding aid created by: MRR
Date: 16 Nov 2006

Biographical History

Fred Ellis (1885-1965) was an American political/editorial cartoonist. Born in Chicago, he attended Chicago Normal School and Colonel Francis Parker's Progressive School. In his teens he worked in Frank Lloyd Wright's office and later in an engraving shop. His only formal art training was one three-month course in 1905 and a correspondence course in cartooning, but by 1919 his art had appeared in numerous publications.

Ellis was part of the American radical movement of the 1930s-1950s; he trained with Robert Minor and shared Minor's interest in the plight of the working man. In 1922 Ellis joined the Communist Party and a referral from Minor got him a job as cartoonist for the Daily Worker in New York. He left in 1930 to work in Berlin and Moscow, drawing cartoons for Pravda, Izvestia, the Moscow Daily News, and other newspapers, and illustrating books for Soviet publishing houses. He returned to New York in 1936 and again became a regular contributor the Daily Worker as well as appearing in magazines such as Ken, Fortune, New Masses, and various trade union periodicals. He taught for several years at the American Artists School, a progressive independent art school directed by Harry Gottlieb. His associates there included prominent American radical artists such as William Gropper, Art Young, John Groth, Margaret Bourke-White, Rockwell Kent, Carl Zigrosser, and Louis Slobodkin

Ellis' cartoons spoke to many important issues of the day, both international (World War II, appeasement, the atomic bomb, the Korean War, Nazi war crimes, Communism) and those close to the heart of the American working-class family (unions, low wages, worker safety, Social Security, political corruption, racism). His work has been exhibited in museums and art galleries in America and Russia, and in 1953 he was represented in the great exhibition in Copenhagen of "Artists of the World in the Service of Progress."

Ellis retired in 1955. When he died in 1965, long-time friend Harry Freeman wrote: "Ellis was as American as the sprawling city of Chicago in which he was born. But his powerful drawings touched the hearts of peoples in all continents. In them there is a deep understanding of the human condition, compassion for the sufferings of man, hatred for cruelty and injustice, and abiding faith that a better world can be made."

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The Fred Ellis Papers comprises original artwork and papers of the American editorial cartoonist. Correspondence contains letters from museums, editors, publishers, and fellow artists; correspondents of note include Rockwell Kent and Art Young. Artwork, the bulk of the collection, comprises more than 250 original cartoons, a sketchbook and more then 200 miscellaneous original sketches, and a few photocopies. Printed material contains articles, clippings, exhibit catalogs, and a few printed drawings. Memorabilia contains two photographs of Ellis and a sketch which appears to be a self-portrait.

By far the most significant part of the collection, the original cartoons range from the 1920s to the 1950s and reflect Ellis' strong sense of social justice. Ellis' interest in the problems of the working man can be clearly seen in the repeated juxtaposition of the capitalist or big businessman (as a large fat man in a suit and waistcoat, with top hat, cane, and/or cigar and an unpleasant or gloating expression) and the laborer (husky, wearing overalls or work pants and boots, often with cap or miner's helmet, and an open honest expression). Many of these cartoons deal with classic labor issues such as high prices/low wages, unionization, federal legislation such as the Taft-Hartley Act, worker safety, etc. Regularly lampooned is the collusion between big business and government, in the form of political corruption, graft, bribery, racketeering and (most especially) profiteering. The earliest cartoon in the collection, from ca. 1923 (most cartoons could be only approximately dated), references the Teapot Dome scandal.

Racism is a common target of Ellis' scathing pen, with its associated motifs of the hooded Klansman, the lynching tree, and Jim Crow. The cases of Willie McGee, a black man sentenced to death for raping a white woman (the evidence was dubious at best and no white man had ever been sentenced to death for rape) and of the Martinsville Seven (seven black men sentenced to death for raping a white woman) figure prominently in a number of cartoons. Also present, though less obviously, are condemnations of Nazi anti-Semitism.

The cartoons also demonstrate Ellis' abiding desire for peace in the world. The World War II cartoons are fairly traditional in their characterization of the Axis powers and of American strength and determination, but they are interspersed with pieces implying that big business had a vested interest in starting and continuing war, both for the money it brough to military industries and as an excuse to keep prices high. Later cartoons express the "Ban the Bomb" sentiments of the 1950s and are clearly anti-war.

Arrangement of the Collection

The cartoons are arranged by number. Since none of the cartoons are dated and only a very few have captions, numbers were assigned during processing and are not the cartoonist's own order, nor do they reflect a thematic or chronological organization. . A numeric index of the cartoons, with description and dimensions, is available as an Excel spreadsheet.


Access Restrictions:

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Use Restrictions:

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

Related Material

Special Collections Research Center has the papers of a number of cartoonists as well as those of several notable American radicals. Please refer to the SCRC Subject Index for a complete listing.

Subject Headings


Ellis, Fred, 1885-1965.
Kent, Rockwell, 1882-1971.
McGee, Willie.
Young, Art, 1866-1943.

Corporate Bodies

Daily Worker.
New Masses.


American wit and humor, pictorial.
Business and politics.
Capitalists and financiers -- Caricatures and cartoons.
Civil rights -- Caricatures and cartoons.
Editorial cartoons.
Labor laws and legislation -- United States -- Caricatures and cartoons.
Labor unions -- Caricatures and cartoons.
Pacifism -- Caricatures and cartoons.
Profiteering -- Caricatures and cartoons.
Radicalism in art.
Working class -- Caricatures and cartoons.
World War, 1939-1945 -- Caricatures and cartoons.


United States -- Economic policy -- 20th century -- Caricatures and cartoons.
United States -- History -- 20th century -- Caricatures and cartoons.
United States -- Politics and government -- 1901-1953 -- Caricatures and cartoons.
United States -- Race relations -- Caricatures and cartoons.

Genres and Forms

Cartoons (humorous images)


Editorial cartoonists.

Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

Fred Ellis Papers,
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Acquisition Information

Gift of Mrs. Fred Ellis.

Four sheets of sketches, gift of Susan Marberry, 2017.

Table of Contents



Printed material