The Great Depression will forever be remembered as a time in America of great trials and tribulations, especially hunger and homelessness. John Knott effectively localized these concepts to the Dallas metropolitan area through his cartoon titled “Somebody at the Door,” which ran on December 16, 1931 in the Dallas Morning News. In the cartoon, Knott depicted a family standing outside a door that has a wreath with “Merry Christmas” written on it. There is a note in the bottom right-hand corner that says “Citizens Emergency Relief Fund,” and claims that every dollar donated to the said cause it attributed to feeding the “hungry of Dallas.” Significantly, a mother and her three children are standing outside, and there is an absence of a father figure. The youngest child is knocking on the door, and the middle child is expressing hunger to his mother, the figure that for so long was the provider of food in the family. In this way, the viewer understands the absolute desperation the homeless population of the Great Depression faced; all previous typicalities of life turned into unattainable luxuries, and the guaranteed home-cooked meal that was so long provided daily turned into a search for a charitable soul that would spare scraps of food.
By the end of 1930, the population of jobless people in Dallas was around seven percent. This statistic was uncharacteristic of Dallas, a city that had recently experienced an economic boom due to industries such as banking and railroads and was on the road to a population that exhibited extreme wealth(Hill 204). The city had a sixty-four percent growth rate between 1920 and 1930, and the elites of Dallas viewed their city as a progressive city with conservative politics (WPA 96). However, the atmosphere quickly changed in the 30s. Initially, the Stock Market Crash of 1929 was slow to affect Dallas due to its recent status as a business mecca (WPA 96). However, the turn of the decade brought intense unemployment, homelessness, and even labor strikes. In 1931, the emergency relief committee requested the city government allocate $100,000 to help abate the atrocities of poverty and hunger that encompassed the city, and were bound to intensify as time continued(WPA 96). It is unfortunate to note that the majority of the little charity that was given by the people and government of Dallas was racially driven; the rise of the KKK in Dallas in the 1920s fueled racial tensions in the city that resulted in refusal of charity to blacks by many privately funded organizations—even religious charities such as the Salvation Army (Kusmer 196). This was one of the many examples of the absolute corruption present in Dallas at the time, which was further explained in both a news and editorial article that ran on December 16, 1931 in the Dallas Morning News.
The news story, titled “$1,000 sent to stave off starving,” discussed the first $1,000 donated to the emergency relief fund. Nathan Adams, president of the First National Bank in Dallas, was grateful for the generosity of the large anonymous donation, but did not fail to point out that there were many other able donors in the Dallas area. “Dallas is an affluent city, the resources of which have not been impaired by economic activity,” Adams said in an interview with the Morning News. He further pointed out that, while one individual paid his part, it was only one percent of the total amount of money needed to ensure the hungry ate that winter (“$1,000 Sent to Stave off Starving [Page 1]).
The editorial, “Hungry Christmas?” capitalized on that same sentiment, and appealed to the ethos of the reader by explaining that that children will be “crying, not because Santa didn’t come, but because breakfast didn’t.” By employing this emotionally-driven rhetoric, the author reached out to the entire public of Dallas with the hopes the image of a child starving would encourage donations. By associating the lack of Santa and the lack of hunger, there is an underlying hope that people will think about the hypocritical greed they so often exhibit during the season of giving, and how there are essentially more pressing issues that need monetary attention than lavish gifts (“Hungry Christmas?” [Page 2]).
The city of Dallas’ government was slow to implement policies regarding the homeless and poor on the level of the local government, yet the city still received federal funding (Rose 43). This came at a time when private charities were on the decline, as the wealthy who funded them started to decrease contributions due to the impending economic state of the country (Rose 43). As monetary backing decreased for these privatized charities, the demand for their resources increased(WPA 284). This is one of the main issues Knott illustrated in his cartoon; the lack of funding for the charities, coupled with Dallas’ slow movement of policies designed to benefit the poor and hungry, lead to a population of dismissed homeless people.
The mother in the cartoon is most likely a single mother who lost her husband to either death or divorce. Unfortunately, the first workers to loose their jobs in the 1920s were women, and government efforts to create jobs were often directed towards men, proving problematic to single women throughout the state (WPA 96-97). It is estimated that 70 percent of women who were the head of “transient” families, or families who spent much of their time illegally riding trains across the country in search of work and aid, were either widowed or separated (Kusmer 208). While Knott does not specify if the particular family depicted is transient, it is quite possible this was their fate, as Dallas was on the verge of becoming a major railroad hub before the Great Depression hit (Weinstein 115). Knott appeals to the pathos of the viewer by including young children, one of which is complaining to his mother—the figure he has relied on his whole life to cook and provide him with meals—about being hungry. These children were taught the evils of chance and possibility at a young age. Many children are naive to the concept of prolonged hunger or discomfort; for these children, hunger surpassed discomfort, and was taken to the level of a fight for survival in a world they only so recently entered.
The Great Depression favored the rich; it did not spare the lives of the poor, and completely disregarded the complexities of all human life, regardless of socioeconomic status. Many people learned to function on little to no food, as well as live off the land and accept death for what it is. This great tragedy is horrifying, yet its memorialization is essential to the American people. There is no better way to tell history than through the creative outlets of the people of the time, which is why Knott’s cartoon has proved important and survived the transience of time.
“$1000 sent to stave off starving.” Dallas Morning News [Dallas] 16 Dec. 1931, sec. II: 1. Print.
Hill, Patricia Evridge. “Dallas, Texas.” Encyclopedia of American Urban History. Ed. David Goldfield. Vol. 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Reference, 2007. 204-206. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 23 Oct. 2015.
“Hungry Christmas?” Dallas Morning News [Dallas] 16 Dec. 1931, sec. II: 2. Print.
Knott, John Francis. “Somebody at the Door.” Cartoon. Dallas Morning News [Dallas] 16 Dec. 1931, sec. II: 2. Print.
Kusmer, Kenneth L. Down & Out, On The Road : The Homeless In American History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 26 Oct. 2015.
Rose, Harriett DeAnn. “Dallas, Poverty, and Race: Community Action Programs in the War on Poverty.” University of North Texas, 2008. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.
Weinstein, Bernard L., and Terry L. Clower. “Dallas.” Encyclopedia of Homelessness. Ed. David Levinson. Vol. 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Reference, 2004. 103-105. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.
Writers’ Program of the Work Projects Administration in the City of Dallas, et al.. The WPA Dallas Guide And History. [Dallas, Tex.]: Dallas Public Library, Texas Center for the Book , 1992. Print. 25 October 2015.