Puck on Lafayette

Puck on Houston


May 2006: Puck and Puck

Puck was America's first successful humor magazine. Its founder, Joseph Keppler (1838-1894), named it after the mischievous character in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, whose famous line he adopted as his magazine's motto: "What fools these mortals be!" Issued weekly in German from 1876 to 1896 and in English from 1877 to 1918, Puck was a substantial 10 x 13.5 inches with several pages of color illustrations. Keppler, a German immigrant, was a master lithographer whose cartoons rivaled those of Thomas Nast. Unlike Nast, he attacked both political parties with gusto, as well as Catholics, Mormons, Chinese, Irish, suffragettes, trade unions, Thomas Edison and Joseph Pulitzer.

Each Puck sports a top hat and tails. In the proper left hand is a mirror, in the right an oversize writing instrument. Over the left shoulder, on a sash, is slung a book or satchel bearing the magazine's motto.  The sculptures are slightly different - note the angle and detail of the pen, and the knee dimples.

Zinc Sculptures

Beneath their bright gilt the Pucks are zinc, a popular late 19th-century sculpture material time or money was short. Zinc sculptures could be quickly assembled from small pieces. The joins were hidden by a coat of paint that simulated more expensive marble or bronze.

Temperance at Tompkins Square Park is an inexpensive zinc copy of a work by Danish sculptor Albert Bertel Thorvaldsen. (The building atop which it sat held a fountain; temperance advocates hoped that public availability of water would encourage New Yorkers to stop  guzzling alcoholic beverages.)

In the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn stands a zinc sculpture of a 12-year-old drummer boy who was killed by friendly fire) in June 1861 - one of the first Brooklyn casualties of the Civil War.

Greenwood Drummer Boy

Romanesque Revival

Puck magazine was headquartered from 1885 in this red brick building whose round arches mark it as Romanesque Revival. Structurally, the building is related to the Chicago-Style buildings developed by (among others) Burnham & Root and Sullivan & Adler. The steel frame allowed much larger bands of windows along the ground floor than were possible on the masonry buildings constructed in New York City well into the 1880s.

Further Reading

  • See "Joseph Keppler" in American National Biography.
  • A number of Puck cartoons are available here.
  • Although the name of Puck's sculptor is sometimes given as Caspar Buberl, the signature "Baerer" is clearly visible on the rock beside Puck's right foot. For a list of conflicting citations, see item IAS 88300006 in the Smithsonian's Inventory of American Sculpture 
  • On zinc sculptures, see the informative page on the Smithsonian's website.
  • On Clarence D. MacKenzie, the drummer boy, see here, with an illustration.