Federal Art Project Depression-Era Posters

I just came across a great Mental Floss article by Jill Harness about a series of Depression-era zoo posters that helped put unemployed Illinois and Pennsylvania artists to work under President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. These striking graphic posters were intended to promote local zoos during the Depression and they provide a great introduction to a fascinating bit of American art history and an initiative that produced a large body of biocreative works: the Federal Art Project.

Visit The Zoo. Federal Art Project, Pennsylvania, between 1936 and 1941. Creator: Not attributed. Part of the Work Projects Administration Collection housed in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.

The founder of the Federal Art Project – Pennsylvania artist George Biddle – believed that the Project had, “a more invigorating effect on American art than any other event in the country’s history.” Indeed, the Project that ran from 1935-1943 is believed to have spawned well over 200,000 works of art including public murals, posters, sculptures and paintings at a time when thousands of American artists were out of work.. The Library of Congress hosts the largest collection of these posters (over 900 of them), many of which you can view in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC)Interestingly, because these works were created by public funds and are now in the public domain there are currently no restrictions on publication of these posters. Thus, there are now several sources for purchasing reproductions, including the Library of Congress Shop and Vintagraph. Also of interest is that the descriptions of the posters in the LOC shop is a little more comprehensive than in the PPOC. 

The WPA posters covered a variety of themes from health and safety, promotion of travel, American culture and the arts and war-time messages. There are also several biocreative themes within the WPA posters including the above-mentioned zoo posters from the Illinois and Pennsylvania WPA/FAP, a set of prints from the New York City WPA/FPA that promoted domestic travel, the National Park Service and wildlife conservation. A beautiful but brief series from the Ohio WPA/FAP promoted natural resource conservation of trees, wildflowers and parks.

Pennsylvania + Illinois Works Project Administration / Federal Art Project

(1936-1937)

Visit the Aquarium in Fairmount Park. 1937. Woodcut Poster. Creator: Robert Munchley. Part of the Work Projects Administration Collection housed in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.

Visit the Brookfield Zoo FREE Thursday, Saturday, Sunday. 1936. Creator: Carken. Work Projects Administration Poster Collection (Library of Congress).

Visit The Zoo. 1937. Woodcut poster. Creator: Hugh Stevenson. Part of the Work Projects Administration Collection housed in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.

Visit Brookside Zoo Free. 1937. Creator: Carken. Part of the Work Projects Administration Collection housed in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.

New York City Works Project Administration / Federal Art Project

(1936-1939)

The National Parks Preserve Wildlife. 1939. Creator: J. Hirt. Part of the Work Projects Administration Collection housed in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.

Wild Life: The National Parks Preserve all Life. 1939. Creator: Frank S. Nicholson. Part of the Work Projects Administration Collection housed in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.

Don't Kill Our Wild Life. 1940. Creator: John Wagner. Part of the Work Projects Administration Collection housed in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.

Birds Of The World. 1939. Creator: Sidney Jacobson. Poster advertising WPA Federal Writers' Project illustrated guide to natural history of birds of the world. Part of the Work Projects Administration Collection housed in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.

Grand Canyon National Park: A Free Government Service. 1938. Creator: Unattributed. Part of the Work Projects Administration Collection housed in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.

Ohio Works Progress Administration / Federal Art Project

(1937-1938)

Spare Our Trees. 1938. Creator: Stanley Thomas Clough. Part of the Work Projects Administration Collection housed in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.

Let Them Grow. 1938. Creator: Stanley Thomas Clough. Part of the Work Projects Administration Collection housed in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.

One of the most fascinating, and surprising posters I came across in the collection was this one from NYC WPA/FAP promoting syphilis awareness. Before I read the text, I thought it might be promoting a visit to a natural history museum:

As Old As Creation: Syphilis Is Now Curable. 1937. Creator: Unattributed. Part of the Work Projects Administration Collection housed in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.

Is it time to revisit the FPA?

The Federal Arts Project produced some of the most iconic and recognizable artistic bodies of work in American history. It seems to me like a good program to revisit in our current economic environment, to support struggling artists, promote conservation of natural resources and travel to National and zoological parks. Re-instituting the FAP would also allow us to  re-examine our national and cultural identity in the 21st century. Until that happens, take some time to enjoy these national treasures from the Library of Congress.

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3 thoughts on “Federal Art Project Depression-Era Posters

    • Aren’t they!? I want the FPA to come back so we can make more of these! I could really learn a lot of good screen printing from these artists!

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