Saturday, May 21, 2011

John Is Not Really Dull: WPA Posters from the 1930s

Sometimes the Internet allows one to get a little carried away. Take this evening for example. I discovered website of the Library of Congress. Who knew they had a rather sizable collection of digitized images of our shared American history. I've spent the wee-hours of the morning looking at their images of old WPA posters. 

For those of you who don't know, the WPA was (prior to 1939) the Words Progress Administration and (after to 1939) later called the Work Projects Administration. It was one of the most ambitions parts of the New Deal--designed to employ millions of out-of-work Americans during the depression. Among other things, the WPA built public buildings and roadways, lead various art and educational projects, and helped feed, shelter, and clothe children.

Look carefully around your town. There are likely still structures near you that were built by the WPA. The program spent over a billion dollars a year on these projects--providing jobs for unemployment men and women. In the process, the face of the country was changed.

My favorite remnants of these projects are the posters. The images provide such a great glimpse what was important and talked about in this era. Here we have a poster encouraging parents to get eye examinations for their children. The poster was sponsored by the town of Hempstead in 1937. For more information about it, check out the reference at the Library of Congress.

John here might really be struggling in school because he can't see--not because he is dull. It's interesting to think for a moment about what message the past is giving to us in this graphic image. How many people were labeled as "dull" because they needed corrective lenses? How many people failed to live up to their full potential?

How did we care for children, anyway? If this public awareness poster produced by a WPA artist is any suggestion, we needed a little attention to child care. As the poster points out, babies can't go on strike. What does this image tell you about how babies were thought about. This somewhat alien looking creature with a very unhappy expression is called an "it" on the poster. It depends on your care. When this poster was created in 1939 were babies its? Were they seen as creatures that needed to be tamed (or ignored) and left to grow on their own? Check out the reference if you want more information about this particular image.

Moving from dull children and alien looking babies, some of the messages delivered to American's sound rather modern and familiar. This poster, published in 1938, appeared somewhere in Ohio. I know Yellow Stone was created in 1872. I never really thing of a conservation movement as having happened until the 60s. I'm wrong about that. Here we have an image asking Ohio residents to save trees--and in particular the Buckeye tree with is the state tree. There reference for this image is here.

I'll leave you all with a few more images to think about. What do they tell you about this era of history. How is the government communicating with us now? Is it? Should it?







  1. I love these posters, too. In fact, I am preparing to buy a reprint of one because my name is John, too, and I want people to know why I am dull. Ha. Have you seen all of the plaster miniatures of historic buildings created for use in schools? I had one of them but gave it to the State Museum of Pennsylvania.

    1. Well now that's funny. I hope your informational poster helps people!

      What are these plaster miniatures? Of WPA construction projects?