The Great Depression in Cartoons, Part 2:
Prosperity is just around the corner

Posted on Sunday, January 18, 2009, at 4:16 pm, by Cadwalader Crabtree.

President Herbert Hoover was a great believer in individualism and self-reliance, and his approach to the economic downturn, especially at the beginning, was therefore light on government intervention and heavy on encouraging voluntary individual action. His administration, joined by many prominent business leaders and opinion-makers, tried bravely to talk up the economy. The cartoons in Life adopted an ironic tone toward such efforts, which were clearly inadequate to the task at hand.

C. W. Anderson’s “I see by the papers,” published on January 3, 1930, is a good early example.

'I see by the papers that everything is all right.' Cartoon by C. W. Anderson from Life, January 3, 1930.

The same artist’s “Step up and buy,” which appeared on July 11, 1930, lampoons the notion of ordinary citizens successfully taking personal responsibility for the American economy.

'Step up and buy, folks. Help keep the wheels of industry turning.' Cartoon by C. W. Anderson from Life, July 11, 1930.

In this cartoon from August 22, 1930, William Kemp Starrett has other targets as well, but the administration’s empty efforts to stimulate consumption are definitely coming in for a poke.

'With this depression on, Maria, I s'pose we ought to go out tonight and consume something.' Cartoon by William Kemp Starrett from Life, August 22, 1930.

This cartoon from October 17, 1930, takes another shot at the rhetorical approach to fixing the economy. The rural setting is noteworthy, for while the agricultural sector had already fallen on hard times well before the Wall Street crash, the cartoonists of New York-based Life generally kept their focus on urban America.

'If you was to buy that hay from me Jed, it would help bring back prosperity.' Cartoon from Life, October 17, 1930.

On January 9, 1931, G. B. Inwood contributed perhaps the sharpest jab on this particular theme . . .

'Sorry to have to reduce you to fifteen dollars a week but you can do your share in bringing back prosperity by buying, buying, buying.' Cartoon by G. B. Inwood in Life, January 9, 1931.

. . . while the artist of this cartoon took a more lighthearted (if predictably sexist) view.

'But, Jim, everybody said to buy now!' Cartoon from Life, January 9, 1931.

John Cassel’s “The Way to Prosperity,” from October 30, 1931, tartly comments on the hollowly optimistic and sometimes contradictory advice issuing from on high.

'The way to prosperity.' Cartoon by John Cassel from Life, October 30, 1931.

All of the cartoons, however, are rather oblique in their criticism of government policy, for Life tended to steer clear of partisan politics. “Speaking of unemployment,” Kemp Starrett’s denunciation of congressional inaction (published on September 12, 1930) seems to have been about as overtly political as the magazine was prepared to get at this time.

'Speaking of unemployment.' Cartoon by William Kemp Starrett from Life, September 12, 1930.

Kemp Starrett’s cartoon from October 17, 1930, concerning Hoover’s annual Thanksgiving Proclamation, is hardly unsympathetic to the president’s predicament. George Akerson was Hoover’s press secretary.

'Any suggestions, Akerson? Cartoon by William Kemp Starrett from Life, October 17, 1930.

A year later, on November 13, 1931, Gardner Rea was willing to be a little more pointed on the same subject.

'Herbert, dear, do you think that your Thanksgiving Proclamation can be enforced?' Cartoon by Gardner Rea from Life, November 13, 1931.

In our next installment, Life confronts unemployment and misery!

Comments (closed)

Lil Escalera wrote on January 25, 2012, at 3:08 pm:

This is an incredible blog and website thank you! I have a question on John Cassel's "The Way to Prosperity," from October 30, 1931. Where was it published. I would love to use this political cartoon for a paper I am writing.
Thank you very much for your time and help,
Lil Escalera

Editorial note: All the cartoons in this series came from Life magazine.