POSTERS FOR THE PEOPLE
by Social Impact Studios
During the 1930s, the United States was in crisis and nearly one-third of the country’s workforce was unemployed. In an effort to rebuild the nation, boost the economy, and enhance community life, newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched a series of programs in 1933 called the New Deal. The largest agency of this reform program, the Works Progress Administration (later named the Works Projects Administration), existed from 1935 to 1943 and employed millions of jobless workers in an ambitious campaign to strengthen the nation’s infrastructure through a network of highways, bridges, and large-scale civic projects such as dams, parks, and utilities.
Many of the WPA’s undertakings still form the framework of the United States. In addition, depression-era Americans were able to connect with a broad range of fine and performing arts aimed at enhancing their quality of life. Through the administration of Federal Project Number One, the WPA presented cultural events including concerts, art exhibitions, and plays, all contained under the umbrella of the Federal Art Project (FAP). The FAP hired visual artists, theater professionals, and writers to create, produce, perform, and promote entertaining experiences and to document the rich traditions and history of America’s folk arts.
Under the FAP, the WPA Poster Division was charged with producing posters to raise awareness and promote a wide range of programs, activities, and behaviors that the Roosevelt administration believed would improve people’s lives: community involvement, accessible education, good health and hygiene, a strong work ethic, cultural outings, sports, domestic travel, and conservation of natural resources, among many others. From roughly 500 artists hired throughout the life of the project, more than 35,000 designs were created and two million posters were produced and distributed.
As artifacts, the posters serve as an important snapshot of a moment in our nation’s social, cultural, and art history. Their creation played a key role not only in promoting the hopes and aspirations of a government but also in advancing American poster design and printing techniques.
Technically, the posters represent innovative developments in American graphic design and poster printmaking. Production shifted from hand-painted images on easels to woodblock and lithography and, in 1936, to the revolutionary use of silkscreen, previously only a commercial medium.
Critique of federally funded work programs—especially the art projects—eventually led to cuts throughout the system and signaled the end of the WPA in 1943. Because no central federal repository was established to archive the works, many state agencies simply discarded their records. The posters were particularly vulnerable because they were seen as ephemera, not as American art worthy of being catalogued and preserved for future generations.
The record of the WPA posters is a meaningful one. It is a fascinating journey, from the complex goals and objectives of the New Deal programs of the Great Depression to a collection of posters that continues to engage, entertain, and inspire, even today. We believe the story of these captivating posters deserves to be protected and celebrated and that the remaining examples should once again be brought to light.
Even today, the posters of the WPA still achieve their original goals. They call attention to important social issues and values through beautiful and meaningful design. Together, they serve as timeless reminders of Americans’ collective past and a commitment to a bright future. Thankfully, they continue to inspire people to believe in America as a hopeful and positive nation for all.
FROM “WPA WHAT?” TO “POSTERS FOR THE PEOPLE”
By Christopher DeNoon
Author of Posters of the WPA
The kind invitation that Ennis Carter extended to me provided an opportunity to reflect on how much the status and visibility of these posters has changed since my research on the subject began in 1978.
I had seen several posters in an American Heritage book about 1930s history and wanted to know more. Tentative investigation to gather information came up empty. As with other work produced by artists employed by the Federal Art Project, the posters had long been forgotten by the public and ignored by art historians. My inquiries to poster dealers ended similarly. They were unfamiliar with WPA posters, which were not catalogued in volumes of poster history or available in the marketplace. Their awkward responses served to reinvigorate my quest to resurrect and re-present the posters, and I set to work.
In the four-plus years of diligent searches through bins and flat files in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., and in correspondence with poster and ephemera dealers nationwide, I turned up fewer than a dozen WPA posters available for purchase. Eventually, my search led to the two largest archives of the posters: the Library of Congress and the Federal Theatre Project Collection at George Mason University.
The enthusiasm, professional skills, and kindness of many at those institutions made possible Posters of the WPA—the first history and reference book devoted exclusively to the subject.
Since publication of my book in 1987, the status of the posters has changed
substantially. No longer an arcane footnote in the history of graphic arts and poster design, today they are a more valued and appreciated body of work. In 2000 the Library of Congress scanned and digitized their holdings, creating a searchable online database of more than 900 posters, and images are now available for viewing and use. I’ve seen
the posters on T-shirts and coffee mugs and in corn flake commercials and Hollywood films including David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner.
Importantly, the WPA poster artists are now widely recognized for their contribution to the history of graphic art. I have long held the hope that WPA art and its artists would enter the lexicon and consciousness of those who research, write about, and are concerned with the history of American art. That hope has been realized. As institutional collections reappraise and discover their Federal Art Project holdings, long-archived items are emerging from storage to be displayed in gallery settings.
Despite this heightened profile, however, there are still more to be discovered. With more than 35,000 posters designed and two million printed, the large federal collection at the Library of Congress is only a small sampling.
The same excitement that I felt during my initial search to uncover and bring to light long unseen WPA posters revisits me as I learn about each new one discovered through Ennis Carter’s work with the WPA Living Archive. The nearly 500 images in Posters for the People are the most extensive collection ever published. The posters no longer need defending or an explication of their worth—-simply seeing them is convincing.
Ennis and I share a great passion for the WPA poster. The intensive search for unknown examples will benefit all who care about America’s cultural and artistic heritage.