The Great Depression in Cartoons, Part 11: F.D.R.

Posted on Saturday, March 21, 2009, at 10:33 am, by Cadwalader Crabtree.

After ignoring the newly inaugurated Franklin Roosevelt almost entirely in 1933, Life suddenly embraced the Democratic president in 1934 with several openly admiring cartoons. But as its editorial line shifted in a conservative direction in 1935, the magazine mostly ignored him again, only to launch into a run of implacably hostile cartoons in 1936. At the same time, 1934 and 1935 marked new lows in the output of cartoons related, even indirectly, to the Depression, while 1936 saw a slight uptick, as the magazine lit into Roosevelt and the New Deal.

The first cartoon, by the same unidentified artist [update: Clive Weed] who drew two of the pro-National Recovery Administration cartoons in our last installment, could scarcely be more pro-Roosevelt. It appeared in January 1934.

FDR and Big Business. Cartoon from Life, January 1934.

At first glance, this cartoon by Gregor Duncan, from April 1934, might appear critical of the president, as he casually strews billions of dollars around, but such an interpretation ignores the necessary role sowing plays in making the harvest possible. Similarly, the belching smokestacks in the background, which might appear ominous to a twentieth-first-century eye, represent instead a badly needed renewal of economic activity. (The artistic reference is to the iconic painting The Sower by the nineteenth-century French artist Jean-François Millet.)

The Sower (after Millet). Cartoon by Gregor Duncan from Life, April 1934.

This further cartoon by Duncan, from May 1934, confirms that the cartoonist was in Roosevelt’s corner (although, as we shall see, he was not to remain there). Duncan had been hired as Life’s editorial cartoonist in 1933.

To cast out them that sold and bought. St. Mark 11:15. Cartoon by Gregor Duncan from Life, May 1934.

This cartoon by the great George Price alludes to Roosevelt’s “fireside chat” radio broadcasts. It appeared in August 1934.

'Of course these things can't happen over-night, but I do believe Roosevelt is winning Wilmer over to the New Deal.' Cartoon by George Price from Life, August 1934.

The next cartoon, by John Cook, dates from October of the following year and offers a fine commentary on the partisan press, even as Life itself was switching from one side of the partisan divide to the other.

A typical Roosevelt day according to the {Democratic Republican} press. Cartoon by John Cook from Life, October 1935.

In “The Washington Monument,” from January 1936, Gregor Duncan mocks the Roosevelt’s expansion of the federal bureaucracy. Shown with Roosevelt is Jim Farley, who was simultaneously his postmaster general and the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. As this cartoon suggests, Farley used his influence to dispense political patronage.

'The Washington Monument.' Cartoon by Gregor Duncan from Life, January 1936.

“Democratic Odyssey,” from April 1936, illustrates Duncan’s thorough-going disillusionment with the Roosevelt administration. The NIRA was the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, a major component of the New Deal that the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional in May 1935. The Townsend Plan was a proposed public pension scheme that attracted much attention prior to passage of the Social Security Act in August 1935. (As always, you may click on the cartoon for a larger version.)

'Democratic Odyssey.' Cartoon by Gregor Duncan from Life, April 1936.

The next cartoon, by Ben Martin, is also from April 1936. It represents another take on Roosevelt’s “fireside chats.” The joke here, of course, is that the well-heeled men depicted were Roosevelt’s bitter enemies.

'My frien-n-n-nds!' Cartoon by Ben Martin from Life, April 1936.

In May 1936, Duncan began a series of full-color anti-Roosevelt cartoons based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books. Accompanying each cartoon was a verse by Arthur L. Lippmann. The series continued until Life’s final issue in November. Reproduced below are three representative examples (to see the verses, as well, click for the larger version). The first, “A Mad Tea Party” from May, depicts “Alice Public,” together with Farley as the March Hare, Congress as the sleepy Dormouse, and Roosevelt as the Mad Hatter. The teacups on the table are labeled with the acronyms of various New Deal programs: the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), WPA (Works Progress Administration), TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority), and ABC (a satirical reference to the New Deal propensity to set up “alphabet agencies”).

A Mad Tea Party. Cartoon by Gregor Duncan from Life, May 1936.

The second cartoon in the series, from June, reproaches Roosevelt for not being faithful to his campaign promises of 1932.

The Girl He Left Behind Him. Cartoon by Gregor Duncan from Life, June 1936.

Finally, Duncan’s cartoon from September shows Roosevelt as the Cook, Farley as the Duchess, and Republican presidential candidate Alf Landon as the Cheshire Cat. The squalling infant is labeled “Administration Mistakes.”

'I'm glad he's not MY child,' said Alice, weighing every word, 'A child like that should not be seen and also not be heard.' Cartoon by Gregor Duncan from Life, September 1936.

Next time, our exciting series concludes with more of Life’s critique of the New Deal in 1935-36.

Update (October 7, 2010): For more on Duncan, check out Gregor Duncan – An Illustrated Life, a site maintained by Rob Stolzer. My statement that Duncan turned against Roosevelt is in fact incorrect. He remained a man of the left, but his employers at Life required anti-Roosevelt cartoons of him. In the depth of the Depression, he could not afford to defy them.

Comments (closed):

sulley3 wrote on April 21, 2009, at 12:51 am:

These are great cartoons

Katherine wrote on March 28, 2011, at 8:06 pm:

Thanks, found this very useful for my project :)