his cartoon ridicules Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan’s advocacy of the free coinage of silver and his youth (36 in 1896).
In 1862, the federal government began printing and issuing paper currency, commonly called “greenbacks,” in order to help finance the extraordinary cost of the Civil War. The greenbacks were not backed by gold or silver (“specie”), but were “fiat” money—i.e., legal tender based on government decree. Gold and silver coins were still accepted, but they were largely driven from circulation by the inflationary greenbacks. With a severe shortage of coins, people used postage stamps and government-printed fractional currency (1862-1876) as change for the greenback dollars.
By the early 1870s silver had almost disappeared from circulation, so in 1873 Congress demonetized the precious metal—i.e., the federal government no longer accepted silver as legal tender for public and private debts. Opponents of the legislation were outraged, calling it the “Crime of ‘73” and claiming (incorrectly) that it caused a subsequent economic depression (1873-1878).
In this cartoon, a pre-teen Bryan is using postage stamps (which he holds) and fractional currency (on the counter) to buy groceries. The main message is that money not backed by gold is inflationary, and the claim that it was the “good old days” when the United States did not have the gold standard (1862-1878) is a distortion of history. The “Boy’s Own” book in Bryan’s pocket refers to a popular series of novels for boys and draws attention to the candidate’s youth.