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From Camera Clubs to Syphilis: The WPA’s Practical, Modernist Posters

Work Projects Administration Poster Collection (Library of Congress)
WPA poster for the Second Annual Exhibition of the Sioux City Camera Club (1939), Iowa Federal Art Project, silkscreen (all images via Work Projects Administration Poster Collection of the Library of Congress)

From 1936 to 1943, around 2,000 posters were created as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). An executive order signed on May 6, 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt set up a federal assistance program so millions of the unemployed could get to work, including artists. The Library of Congress (LOC) holds over 900 WPA posters created to advertise the national parks, promote local cultural programs, and prevent drunk driving and syphilis. Their Work Projects Administration (WPA) Poster Collection  (the WPA was renamed in 1939, although its acronym stayed the same) is the largest collection of such posters, and earlier this month they added new copyright-free examples to their Flickr page.

Work Projects Administration Poster Collection (Library of Congress)
“As old as creation: Syphilis is now curable” (1937), silkscreen, for the New York WPA Federal Art Project (click to enlarge)

Much of the legacy of the WPA remains, in the highways we drive over or the murals hanging over us while we wait in line at the post office, but a lot of the art went missing, something the WPA Art Recovery Project has been trying to fix since it launched in 2001. The posters in particular were mass-produced for 17 states, mainly in California, New York, Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and often disposed of after use. Artists were asked not to sign their names. Nevertheless the posters endure, as do their creators. The Posters for the People project, which published many of them in a 2008 book, identifies artists like Vera Bock, who was born in Russia and inspired by woodblock prints in her designs, the Bauhaus-trained Richard Floethe from Germany, and Tony Velonis of New York, who was influenced by Cubism and experimentation with printmaking techniques (the LOC has an interview with Velonis on its site).

All those distinctive styles of modernism found an unexpected outlet through the WPA, with advice on hygiene, ads for zoos and local marching band parades, or ominous, collage-style warnings like Robert Lachenmann’s “Don’t mix ’em” lithograph, in which a skull hovers behind a bottle of whiskey and a gas pump. The posters for the Federal Theater program, United States Travel Bureau, and other State Departments hold up surprisingly well with their direct messages and simple designs. At a time when unemployment was at almost 20%, these posters encouraged people to get out and explore their country and participate in local life in defiance of the hardships of the Great Depression.

Work Projects Administration Poster Collection (Library of Congress)
“John is not really dull – he may only need his eyes examined” (1937), silkscreen, for the New York WPA Federal Art Project
Work Projects Administration Poster Collection (Library of Congress)
Alexander Dux, “See America” (1939), silkscreen, for the United States Travel Bureau
Work Projects Administration Poster Collection (Library of Congress)
Robert Lachenmann, “Don’t mix ’em” (1937), lithograph, for the Pennsylvania WPA Federal Art Project
Work Projects Administration Poster Collection (Library of Congress)
John Wagner, “Don’t kill our wild life” (1940), silkscreen, for the Department of the Interior, National Park Service
Work Projects Administration Poster Collection (Library of Congress)
Stanley Thomas Clough, “Live here at low rent – Lakeview Terrace” (1940), silkscreen, for the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority as part of the Ohio Federal Art Project
Work Projects Administration Poster Collection (Library of Congress)
Nathan Sherman, “Work with Care” (1936), silkscreen, for the Pennsylvania Federal Art Project
Work Projects Administration Poster Collection (Library of Congress)
“Keep your fire escapes clear” (1937), silkscreen, for the Tenement House Department of the City of New York
Work Projects Administration Poster Collection (Library of Congress)
“In March read the books you’ve always meant to read” (1941), silkscreen, for the Illinois Library Project
Work Projects Administration Poster Collection (Library of Congress)
“The Drama of the Heavens: Adler Planetarium” (1939), silkscreen, for the Chicago WPA Federal Art Project
Work Projects Administration Poster Collection (Library of Congress)
“Indian Art of the United States at the Museum of Modern Art” (1936-41), silkscreen, for an exhibition prepared by the Indian Arts and Crafts Board U.S. Dept. of The Interior
Work Projects Administration Poster Collection (Library of Congress)
“Lassen Volcanic National Park, Ranger Naturalist Service” (1938), silkscreen, for the Department of the Interior, National Park Service

View the Library of Congress Work Projects Administration Poster Collection online. Selections are available on the Library of Congress Flickr.

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