Priming the pump: a cartoon history

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As Mark Liberman noted, Donald Trump seemed to imply in his recent interview with The Economist that he coined the phrase "priming the pump," or at least the financial use of it: "I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good." Was this just some sort of peculiar joke, especially considering that Trump himself has used the phrase several times in the past? We may never know, but I thought it would be worth delving into the history of "priming the pump" in a way that even our reading-averse president might appreciate: through cartoons. The financial metaphor of "priming the pump" was frequently depicted by editorial cartoonists in the 1920s and '30s, so much so that it became something of a visual cliché.

While the Great Depression was responsible for most of the early pump-priming imagery, I actually found examples going back to 1921. As I posted on Twitter yesterday, an editorial cartoon by Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling appeared in the New York Tribune on Jan. 31, 1921 (republished the next day by the Washington Herald), under the headline, "There's Nothing Revolutionary About Priming a Pump to Get the Water Started." In it, "credit extension" is being used to prime the pump, bringing water from Europe through European trade channels to quench U.S. industries, portrayed as thirsty cattle.

From the same year, I found an advertisement in the Los Angeles Times (Oct. 6, 1921) for the National Bank of Commerce in Saint Louis, in which a cartoon representation of pump-priming is accompanied by text explaining how the bank believes in "priming the pump of American business."

But it wasn't until the 1930s that political cartoonists really started priming the "prime the pump" pump. Ding Darling returned to the theme in a cartoon for the New York Herald Tribune on Apr. 8, 1930, under the headline "Priming the Old Pump." Here, the pump is "U.S. business," and it is being primed by "millions for public construction." Herbert Hoover and Uncle Sam are working the pump, with Congress helping out. In a bit of wishful thinking, "employment" is gushing out of the pump to U.S. industries. (Darling was a Hoover Republican.)

When Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president, he became the new pump-primer for cartoonists. A cartoon dated to 1933 (titled "What We Need is a New Pump") shows F.D.R. working the "New Deal pump," but the pump is ineffective — despite the poor taxpayer supplying billions of dollars — due to leaky pipes.

An Oct. 10, 1934 cartoon in the New York Herald Tribune by Edward Scott "Ted" Brown was headlined, "Some Pumps Never Need Priming." Here the "bureaucracy pumping crew" is pumping cash (through pipes labeled "extravagance" and "gov't spending") with the cash gushing out of the pumps in the form of "gov't waste."

Next comes a cartoon from Sept. 27, 1936, republished by the New York Herald Tribune from the Kansas City Star. This one is titled "One Pump That Didn't Prime," and it depicts F.D.R.'s relief adminstrator Harry Hopkins, helped by Democratic National Committee chairman James Farley, frantically trying to prime the pump to get federal funds from Washington to Maine. Farley holds buckets labeled "anticipated votes," but Maine would end up supporting F.D.R.'s opponent Alf Landon in the 1936 election. (Only Vermont joined Maine in voting for Landon, so the old political saying "As Maine goes, so goes the nation" was changed to "As Maine goes, so goes Vermont.")

The next year, Harry E. Homan, a political cartoonist for United Features Syndicate, published a cartoon headlined, "More Priming for the Pump!" (I've reproduced the cartoon as it appeared in the Trenton Evening Times, Oct. 15, 1937.) F.D.R. is back at the "business" pump, with Congress helping out, bringing water in a kettle labeled "special session." (F.D.R. failed to pass labor legislation in a special Congressional session that he called in Nov. 1937.)

Finally, Ding Darling once again returned to the "prime the pump" theme in an editorial cartoon appearing in the New York Herald Tribune on Apr. 21, 1938. Titled "Going to Prime the Pump Again," the cartoon shows a dumpy figure labeled "most wasteful bureaucracy in the world," carrying leaky buckets representing $4 billion in spending, headed toward the run-down "industrial pump." Darling, always a critic of the New Deal, reflected public weariness with the Democrats' promises that the Great Depression would soon be over. (New Deal Democrats fared poorly in the 1938 midterm elections.) The Depression wouldn't truly end until World War II brought full employment, and no more pump-priming was needed.

[Update: Peter Reitan (aka Peter Jensen Brown) traces the origins of the "prime the pump" financial metaphor back to an item that circulated in newspapers in 1899. Read all about it on the Early Sports and Pop Culture History Blog.]


  1. Yuval said,

    May 12, 2017 @ 1:20 pm

    But why is Newt Gingrich doing the priming in that third cartoon?

  2. FM said,

    May 12, 2017 @ 2:18 pm

    I wonder if Trump has ever primed an actual pump (or has non-metaphorical pump priming in his active vocabulary, which I didn't.)

  3. David L said,

    May 12, 2017 @ 3:26 pm

    Somewhat OT, but how long did it take, after independence and the writing of the constitution, for the idea of the federal govt as a ravenous parasitic beast to take hold of the popular imagination?

    [(myl) ]

  4. ryan said,

    May 13, 2017 @ 12:28 am

    In a slightly different context, there's Desert Pete:

    This was a song at my Christian summer camp in the 70's, but apparently it was a Kingston Trio song.

    I can't imagine Trump or virtually anyone alive has primed a pump, since pumps aren't made with leather anymore, and the leather of any lingering ancient pump has long since rotted away.

  5. Prim said,

    May 13, 2017 @ 4:57 am

    Ryan, priming is not related to a specific pump design or material. In installations where the pump is not submerged the fluid in the pump case and connecting pipes tends to drain back into the reservoir when the pump is not operating. Most pumps for liquids cannot develop suction when filled with a compressible fluid such as air. Restarting the pump thus requires displacing the air that got into the system. Purging is a related (but not entirely equivalent) concept.

  6. Rodger C said,

    May 13, 2017 @ 11:06 am

    ryan: I just looked it up and confirmed my impression that this song must be by the great Billy Edd Wheeler. Just sayin. (A friend of a friend.)

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 13, 2017 @ 12:32 pm

    Thanks to the internet you can still easily purchase hand-operated pumps with leather internal components, plus leather replacement parts if needed. (It notes there are plumbing fixes available to obviate the need for hand-priming but that those are only advisable in the sort of climates where it never gets cold enough in winter to have to worry about pipes freezing then bursting, at least if you are not going to shut down the pump during colder weather after draining the pipes, in which case you might have to prime it once when putting it back in operation come the spring.) FWIW, in the other thread at least two commenters (one of whom was me) who are both alive and younger than Trump reported having personally primed pumps of that style.

  8. Ethan said,

    May 13, 2017 @ 6:14 pm

    @Ryan @J.W.Brewer: I'm younger than Trump and didn't even realize that hand pumps had become as rare as your comment implies. In my youth we had to haul water from the lake to prime the kitchen pump in our summer house. Hand pumps are still found in public campgrounds and recreation areas in state and local parks (the national parks maybe not so much anymore). Here's a pic from the web . Now most of them are "self-priming" in the sense that they contain a built-in reservoir to prime the next use, but even so if the reservoir has gone dry you have to prime them manually.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 12:42 am

    Ben Zimmer: You have "Darley" twice for "Darling" at the end.

  10. Graeme said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 1:05 am

    Where Yuval saw Newt Gingrich I saw Ted Kennedy. Lakoff could explain.

  11. Colin Fine said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 3:38 am

    It never occurred to me that this related to water pumps, since they are outside my direct experience. But I am familiar with the concept for fuel pumps in engines and heating systems: if the fuel runs out, then when the supply is replenished you may have to prime the pump.

  12. Matt McIrvin said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 10:16 am

    Interesting that in the only one of these cartoons that uses the metaphor non-ironically, it's praising Hoover for being a good Keynesian pump-primer.

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