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The WPA Art Poster Program, 1936-1943

Updated on December 31, 2013
Father & Son Banquet, 1939.   Artist: Albert M. Bender.
Father & Son Banquet, 1939. Artist: Albert M. Bender. | Source


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.

Travel and Tourism

The National Parks Preserve Wild Life, 1939.  Artist: J. Hirt.
The National Parks Preserve Wild Life, 1939. Artist: J. Hirt. | Source
See America: Welcome to Montana, 1938. Artist: Richard Halls.
See America: Welcome to Montana, 1938. Artist: Richard Halls. | Source

Health

John is Not Really Dull, 1937.  Artist Unknown, Sponsored by Town of Hempstead, W.H. Runcie, M.D., Health Officer.
John is Not Really Dull, 1937. Artist Unknown, Sponsored by Town of Hempstead, W.H. Runcie, M.D., Health Officer. | Source
Crusade Against Tuberculosis, 1940.  Artist Unknown, Cook County Public Health Unit.
Crusade Against Tuberculosis, 1940. Artist Unknown, Cook County Public Health Unit. | Source

Culture

W.P.A. Federal Theatre Negro Unit presents Macbeth, 1938. Artist: Anthony Velonis.
W.P.A. Federal Theatre Negro Unit presents Macbeth, 1938. Artist: Anthony Velonis. | Source
Brookfield Zoo--By the "L", 1938.  Artist: Frank W. Long.
Brookfield Zoo--By the "L", 1938. Artist: Frank W. Long. | Source

War

Stamp 'Em Out, 1942.  Artist: Thomas A. Byrne.
Stamp 'Em Out, 1942. Artist: Thomas A. Byrne. | Source
Let Me Do The Talking, 1942.  Artist: Homer Ansley.
Let Me Do The Talking, 1942. Artist: Homer Ansley. | Source

African American

Cavalcade of the American Negro, 1940.    Artist: Cleo Sara.
Cavalcade of the American Negro, 1940. Artist: Cleo Sara. | Source
Books Are Weapons, 1942.  Artist:  Unknown, Schomburg Collection of the New York Public Library
Books Are Weapons, 1942. Artist: Unknown, Schomburg Collection of the New York Public Library | Source

Events

Second Annual Exhibition, Sioux City Camera Club, 1939.  Artist: Unknown.
Second Annual Exhibition, Sioux City Camera Club, 1939. Artist: Unknown. | Source
44th Annual Exhibition, The Art Institute of Chicago, 1940.  Artist: John Buczak.
44th Annual Exhibition, The Art Institute of Chicago, 1940. Artist: John Buczak. | Source

General

This is the Market,  1936 or 1937.  Artist: Unknown.
This is the Market, 1936 or 1937. Artist: Unknown. | Source

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