Posters of the WPA

Works Progress Administration (WPA) logoBack in the day (1935 to be precise), President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA), an enormous government program aimed at providing employment for millions of Americans affected by the Great Depression.

The legacy of the WPA is a host of public works (bridges, roads, etc.) and cultural projects. That’s all well and good obviously, but what I really care about are the cool posters designed to promote many of the WPA’s programs.

All of these images and hundreds more are available as part of the Library of Congress’s “Posters of the WPA” collection. I’ve simply picked what I feel are some of the most visually appealing and added my usual pithy commentary. As you’ll see, these great images are very much of their time and most display an Art Deco sensibility that I love (at least that’s what I think the style is).


This promo for adult education classes in Ohio is so delightfully absurd, it’s hard to believe it came from a government program. “Get A-Head!” (artist unknown), c. 1936-1941

For those not familiar with war propaganda of days gone by, this is typical of many images from World War II (and World War I for that matter). In order to convey just how evil the enemy was, racial stereotypes and slurs were often employed. I’m not sure what the implied threat is here, however, as “the Jap” seems to have conquered the relatively unimportant North Pole. — “Salvage Scrap to Blast the Jap” by Phil von Phul, c. 1940-41

I have no idea if the Sioux City Camera Club’s exhibition was any good, but their poster definitely is great. — Sioux City Camera Club exhibition (artist unknown), c. 1936-39.

Relatively speaking, automobiles were fairly new in the 1930s. Even so, I sincerely hope that drivers did not have to be specifically instructed to not kill animals with their cars. As sad as that may be, this is a very eye-catching, albeit ominous, poster. — “Don’t Kill Out Wild Life” by John Wagner, c. 1936-40

One thing I’m sure of is that it probably took all of three days after the first car rolled out before some jackass decided to get plastered and go for a ride. So it makes sense for this anti-drunk driving ad to warn against that. Or against putting whiskey in your gas tank. No, I’m pretty sure this is about drinking and driving. I do dig the vintage gas pump. — “Don’t Mix ‘Em” (artist unknown), c. 1936-37

I’ve heard them called outhouses, crappers, and dunnys, but I’ve never heard them called “sanitary units.” Nevertheless, my home does feel incomplete without one.“Your Home Is Not Complete Without a Sanitary Unit” (artist unknown), c. 1936-41

In the dark days before television and video games, children apparently read for pleasure. I know, sick. Still, the minimalist design and nice blue/black/orange color scheme does make the prospect more appealing. — “October’s ‘Bright Blue Weather’ — A Good Time to Read!”  by Albert M. Bender, c. 1936-40

Part of what makes a lot of the imagery of this period so striking is the abundance of clean lines and basic shapes. Looking at this poster I not only feel I should keep my teeth clean, but that it is my duty as a citizen to do so. After all, the Nazis are looming on the horizon and you can’t fight them if you’re gumming K-rations. — “Keep Your Teeth Clean” (artist unknown), c. 1936-38

Another design element found in images of this time period is the repetition of a single object. But the same clean design applies to this deceptively simple poster. That font is also something I’d love to see more of. — “Foreign Trade Zone” by Jack Rivolta, 1937

Or he may just be dull after all. On the upside, he is a snappy dresser. — “John Is Not Really Dull” (artist unknown), c. 1936-37.

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7 Comments

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  • Loved the Posters – I’ve been involved in getting the word out on the WPA Art for 4 years – I’ts a shame that some of the work is still being painted over – Courthouse Murals in Salem MA painted over 8 to 10 years ago – All of the Art depicts work of some sort pertinent to the local population and placed in local gov buildings, Schools, Libraries, Post Offices (many painted directly on the walls)

    All WPA Art, Literature, Music etc. is in the Public Domain – our Gov. paid the Artists, Writers etc – Any image can be copied and used commercially, however the Original images are owned by the Gov (GSA) and cannot be sold or re-used in other town, city or state gov buildings without written consent from the (GSA)

    In defense of them – they are trying to document what’s out there and are confiscating works that they see being sold on the Internet or through private galleries – they have been fairly rigorous in their pursuit – unfortunately, once they get them back, the works are archived rather than putting them back into the public places – many pieces have gone underground now that there is a “Eureka” awareness with to the ever growing black market for WPA stuff.

    I would like to see a grass roots campaign to get citizens involved in identifying their own town’s WPA Art, etc. and having fundraisers to restore them and place them back in their own local public sites –

    My husband is a well known artist, WK Gilbert, who restored some beautiful WPA Art and Sculpture for his high school Alma Mater in Marblehead MA – it was fortunate that the townspeople, school department, construction company, etc. were smart enough to take down the art and store them for two years on site until the new high school was completed – ironically, even though the town paid a large sum to an “Art Restoration and Storage Company” recommended by a Boston Museum”, the Murals (removed from the walls with most of the plaster still attached – (not a bad thing if properly packed)were damaged –

    They had been packed in non-archival heavy plastic and tissue paper and rolled on non-archival tubes – when unrolled, the plaster was still damp – which made the dry tissue on the image side stick to the canvas oils resulting in lifting of some of the paint on the canvas – both the plaster and tissue had to be painstakingly removed after a month long drying period to minimize further damage to the images – Fortunately, Gilbert was a master and all the pieces were brilliantly restored and are the highlight of the new school library and halls –

    I can email you some pictoral timeline of the project if you wish –

    What Can You Do –

    Find WPA stuff in your town – look in local government buildings -basements, attics etc – check walls (painted over images may be able to be salvaged –

    Check your local historical societies, museums, newspaper archives etc. for information on the WPA stuff(including, art, sculpture, literature, music etc.)

    Most of the WPA artists were local – find news articles etc about them or their families – (some may still be alive)

    Check the federal government (especially the General Services Administration) they may have info in their archives – (Gilbert found one of the Artist family members still living in a nearby town and had a news article about the artist)

    Once you find the art, get help in documenting it and especially photographing it – and see if it can be placed in another public building without costing a fortune before going to the GSA –

    Get mulitple proposals and bids from reliable sources and do your own research (the Internet is invaluable) – ask others who have had WPA Projects in their communities – Google WPA Art (that’s how I found this site)

    Question bids that are too high and too low – do not take hourly bids – and don’t let the so-called Art Experts say “this is the way it must be done” Use your community’s resources – there is a surprisingly plethora of knowledge and common sense in your own backyard –

    If at all possible, keep it local, work together to raise funds to clean, restore and re-install or re-locate the art – in some cases the Art will only need a good cleaning –

    If your community is lucky to find any WPA Art – do whatever you can to hold on to it so that an extradionary thumb print of Americana remains forever a part of the everyday life in your town.-

    Any questions or comments, please email me at jones@gilbertart.com

  • Loved the Posters – I’ve been involved in getting the word out on the WPA Art for 4 years – I’ts a shame that some of the work is still being painted over – Courthouse Murals in Salem MA painted over 8 to 10 years ago – All of the Art depicts work of some sort pertinent to the local population and placed in local gov buildings, Schools, Libraries, Post Offices (many painted directly on the walls)

    All WPA Art, Literature, Music etc. is in the Public Domain – our Gov. paid the Artists, Writers etc – Any image can be copied and used commercially, however the Original images are owned by the Gov (GSA) and cannot be sold or re-used in other town, city or state gov buildings without written consent from the (GSA)

    In defense of them – they are trying to document what’s out there and are confiscating works that they see being sold on the Internet or through private galleries – they have been fairly rigorous in their pursuit – unfortunately, once they get them back, the works are archived rather than putting them back into the public places – many pieces have gone underground now that there is a “Eureka” awareness with to the ever growing black market for WPA stuff.

    I would like to see a grass roots campaign to get citizens involved in identifying their own town’s WPA Art, etc. and having fundraisers to restore them and place them back in their own local public sites –

    My husband is a well known artist, WK Gilbert, who restored some beautiful WPA Art and Sculpture for his high school Alma Mater in Marblehead MA – it was fortunate that the townspeople, school department, construction company, etc. were smart enough to take down the art and store them for two years on site until the new high school was completed – ironically, even though the town paid a large sum to an “Art Restoration and Storage Company” recommended by a Boston Museum”, the Murals (removed from the walls with most of the plaster still attached – (not a bad thing if properly packed)were damaged –

    They had been packed in non-archival heavy plastic and tissue paper and rolled on non-archival tubes – when unrolled, the plaster was still damp – which made the dry tissue on the image side stick to the canvas oils resulting in lifting of some of the paint on the canvas – both the plaster and tissue had to be painstakingly removed after a month long drying period to minimize further damage to the images – Fortunately, Gilbert was a master and all the pieces were brilliantly restored and are the highlight of the new school library and halls –

    I can email you some pictoral timeline of the project if you wish –

    What Can You Do –

    Find WPA stuff in your town – look in local government buildings -basements, attics etc – check walls (painted over images may be able to be salvaged –

    Check your local historical societies, museums, newspaper archives etc. for information on the WPA stuff(including, art, sculpture, literature, music etc.)

    Most of the WPA artists were local – find news articles etc about them or their families – (some may still be alive)

    Check the federal government (especially the General Services Administration) they may have info in their archives – (Gilbert found one of the Artist family members still living in a nearby town and had a news article about the artist)

    Once you find the art, get help in documenting it and especially photographing it – and see if it can be placed in another public building without costing a fortune before going to the GSA –

    Get mulitple proposals and bids from reliable sources and do your own research (the Internet is invaluable) – ask others who have had WPA Projects in their communities – Google WPA Art (that’s how I found this site)

    Question bids that are too high and too low – do not take hourly bids – and don’t let the so-called Art Experts say “this is the way it must be done” Use your community’s resources – there is a surprisingly plethora of knowledge and common sense in your own backyard –

    If at all possible, keep it local, work together to raise funds to clean, restore and re-install or re-locate the art – in some cases the Art will only need a good cleaning –

    If your community is lucky to find any WPA Art – do whatever you can to hold on to it so that an extradionary thumb print of Americana remains forever a part of the everyday life in your town.-

    Any questions or comments, please email me at jones@gilbertart.com

  • Chris

    I thought the ship one qualified as well, but then again I got my art education by tracing the sketches of the turtle with the floppy hat and the pirate from the back of matchbooks.

  • I thought the ship one qualified as well, but then again I got my art education by tracing the sketches of the turtle with the floppy hat and the pirate from the back of matchbooks.

  • I blame my dullness on glasses, too.

    I love these old posters – although the camera show one is probable the only one that actually qualifies as art deco.

  • I blame my dullness on glasses, too.

    I love these old posters – although the camera show one is probable the only one that actually qualifies as art deco.

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