The WPA Art Poster Program, 1936-1943
One of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s largest New Deal projects was the Works Progress Administration, created in 1935. Federal Project Number One was the component of the WPA that covered arts projects. More than 5000 writers, musicians, actors, photographers, painters, sculptors and other artists were employed under this program.
The goal of the program wasn’t just to provide work for out of work artists and actors, but to provide low-cost and plentiful cultural and educational opportunities to enrich the lives of all Americans. Probably the most well known aspect of the program were the hundreds of murals created in public buildings across the country in schools, post offices, and courthouses. Many of these murals have since been destroyed or lost; record-keeping on the projects was not particularly thorough. Preservationists are currently working hard to restore and save many of the remaining examples. There were also several dozen theater works (some of them promoted by the WPA posters) produced in many locations across the country that have been lost to history.
More than 2000 original silkscreen, lithograph, and woodcut posters were produced in the government-supported program between 1936 and 1943 in 17 states and the District of Columbia. The posters covered five main themes: health and safety, cultural, travel and tourism, education, and community programs. The 907 WPA-era posters that survive are part of the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Division, the largest WPA holding in the United States. By definition, these posters were temporary, and not necessarily intended to last much longer than the event or program they were promoting. Most are printed on poster board or paper. So it’s astonishing that the Library of Congress actually managed to save and preserve more than 900 of the 2000+ posters created across the country under this program.
Here is a gallery of some of the more striking WPA posters in the Library of Congress’ collection, with brief descriptions, details about the artist, and slight color and image enhancements.