Life Imitates Art

Collection of "New Deal" posters documents American history.


By Scott Kirkwood


A stock crash, soaring unemployment rates, a growing awareness of environmental issues, and a focus on the need for energy independence. Sound familiar? Seventy-five years after Franklin Roosevelt was elected president on the “New Deal” platform, politics and economics are conspiring to present another new president with some of the same challenges that faced our nation so many years ago.

Back in the 1930s, a big part of FDR’s ambitious plan focused on parks and conservation. Members of the newly formed Civilian Conservation Corp were put to work building bridges and roads, planting trees, and blazing trails in parks like Grand Canyon National Park (AZ), Scottsbluff National Monument (NE), and Shenandoah National Park (VA). That work was bolstered by a broad-ranging propaganda effort that encouraged Americans to discover the wonders their country had to offer, including the national parks and other natural areas. Widely-distributed posters also brought attention to public health, workplace safety, exploring the arts, and, eventually, support for home front efforts related to World War II.

Now, all of those themes are captured in a new book entitled Posters for the People: Art of the WPA, edited by Ennis Carter, a graphic designer who stumbled on the art form and soon leaned that only a fraction of these historic images had been collected for posterity. Although the Works Projects Administration’s Poster Division produced more than 35,000 designs and printed more than 2 million posters, the Library of Congress has only 900 images in its collection. Carter and other researchers were able to track down another 1,800 images and her organization, Design for Social Impact, is now engaging the public to collect even more online (see www.postersforthepeople.com to join the effort).

Given the small budget set aside for the work, WPA designers were forced to use few colors and rely on simple, bold lines that could be reproduced with inexpensive screen-printing methods. As the New Deal successfully lifted the nation out of its economic woes and the Great Depression became a distant memory, federal work programs drew criticism, and funding trickled to a stop; art projects were among the first to go. The WPA ended its run in 1943, but the artists’ contribution to graphic design had a lasting impact.

“As artifacts, these images provide a snapshot of a moment in our nation’s social, cultural, and art history,” Carter says. “Their creation played a key role in advancing American design and printing techniques while promoting the hopes and aspirations of our nation’s government. Years later, they still serve as timeless reminders of Americans’ collective past and a commitment to a bright future.”

To see hundreds of posters produced by the Works Projects Administration, visit http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/wpaposters/wpahome.html. To purchase posters and postcards with WPA imagery and modern interpretations of the classic style, visit www.postersforthepeople.com or www.rangerdoug.com.

This article appears in the Winter 2009 issue.

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