Posters: WPA Posters presents 907 posters used to advertise programs and projects that were created as part of the Works Projects Administration. Included are posters documenting cultural programs, travel and tourism in the United States, health and safety issues, and community activities.
These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.
- Collection Highlights
- Interview with WPA Silkscreen Artist Tony Velonis
- Federal Art Project Calendar
These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.
- The Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945
Related Collections and Exhibits
- American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940
- FSA/OWI Photographs, 1938-1944
- Voices from the Dust Bowl, 1940-1941
Recommended additional sources of information.
For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.
By the People, For the People: Posters from the WPA, 1936-1943, offers a unique opportunity to examine the social history of the United States through poster art. Works in this collection represent many programs from President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA) that address the arts, education, low-income housing, and public health. Additional works in this collection reflect conditions in the United States during World War II.
1. Federal Project Number One
The growing popularity of radio and motion pictures reduced the number of job opportunities available to professional musicians and theater workers during the 1920s. A decade later, the Great Depression eliminated many of the remaining jobs.
In 1935, the WPA established the Federal Project Number One, a collection of government-funded programs for professionals in the fields of drama, music, writing, and art. This project employed thousands of people to provide educational and recreational opportunities in communities across the United States.
The visual-arts branch of the program, the Federal Art Project (FAP), designed posters for many Federal Project Number One efforts. Searches on the terms, theatre project, music project, and writers' project yield hundreds of posters from this collection. The Special Presentation, "Amassing American 'Stuff': The Library of Congress and the Federal Art Projects of the 1930s" from the American Memory collection, The New Deal Stage: Selections from the Federal Theatre Project: 1935-1939, provides additional information about the WPA holdings available from the Library of Congress.
a. Federal Theatre Project
Under the direction of Hallie Flanagan, the Federal Theatre Project offered drama classes and presented performances ranging from vaudeville and a puppet circus to dance festivals and dramas such as an African-American production of Shakespeare's "Macbeth," the Living Newspaper's "Injunction Granted," and the courtroom piece, "It Might Happen to You." Additional information about the Federal Theatre Project is available in the American Memory collection, The New Deal Stage: Selections from the Federal Theatre Project: 1935-1939.
b. Federal Music Project
Project Director Nikolai Sokoloff led a campaign to provide free concerts, music education, and newly-commissioned music to the public. One of the major projects, the Index of American Composers, comprised a list of composers from across the nation. The list included biographical information and cataloged thousands of works to be performed by the WPA musicians. Performances within the Federal Music Project included symphony concerts, Verdi's opera, "Il Trovatore," and "Songs and Piano Music Everybody Should Know." An example of the Federal Music Project's research efforts is available in the American Memory collection, The WPA California Folk Music Project.
c. Federal Writers' Project
This program employed thousands of writers and served as a training ground for authors such as Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Wright. Early projects included guides such as "Who's Who in the Zoo" and "Skiing in the East" and history books such as "Cavalcade of the American Negro: The Story of the Negro's Progress During 75 Years."
Other efforts of the Federal Writers' Project are documented in American Memory collections such as American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 and Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938.
- Why do you think that the Federal Project Number One sponsored educational and recreational programs?
- Do you think that there were other benefits to the project besides providing employment opportunities?
- How did graphic artists represent the different branches of the Federal Project Number One and their variety of programs?
- What types of images were used to advertise a program?
- Do you think that these posters were successful advertisements? Why or why not?
- Do you think that there were other benefits to the posters besides providing employment and advertising?
- Why do you think that there were specific projects created by and for African Americans?
2. Federal Art Project
This branch of the Federal Project Number One supported many artistic opportunities outside of advertising other WPA programs. Many visual artists were commissioned to create murals, sculptures, paintings, and posters. The Special Presentation, "Posters for the People," from the American Memory collection, The New Deal Stage: Selections from the Federal Theatre Project: 1935-1939, explains that the FAP provided visual artists in the United States with a unique opportunity:
Not only did it allow artists to practice their craft, collaborate and innovate, but it served as a collective apprenticeship for artists who brought America to the forefront of international art . . . . [such as] Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Louise Nevelson - artists who not only put U.S. art on the map but shifted the center of that map from Paris to New York.
Hundreds of community centers opened across the nation offering classroom and exhibition space as FAP employees taught art education and art appreciation courses. A search on art class produces sample posters that advertise free classes for adults and children in disciplines such as painting, sculpture, drawing, and pottery.
Meanwhile, a search on exhibition produces advertisements for events sponsoring and promoting artists ranging from local artists, including local children, members of the FAP, as well as internationally-acclaimed artists such as Pablo Picasso.
FAP workers also researched the nation's art history. A search on the phrase, Index of American Design, produces posters for exhibits of American folk art. Similar to the Federal Music Project's Index of American Composers, this project provided a photographic record of the country's artistic accomplishments by documenting thousands of paintings, sculptures, handicrafts, and folk art between 1935 and 1942.
- Why do you think that the FAP exhibited such a wide range of art, including professional and folk art as well as work by local children?
- Why do you think that education was an important aspect of the arts programs in Federal Project Number One?
- What do you think is the relationship between art education and art patronage?
- What do you think were the benefits of creating an Index of American Design?
The Federal Project Number One wasn't the only government-sponsored program offering community-education courses during the 1930s. The WPA's Adult Education Project provided classes on a variety of subjects in conjunction with local Boards of Education. A search on the phrase, free classes, yields posters that advertise adult education classes such as reading, writing, arithmetic, trade and technical skills, and rudimentary English. Occupational classes were also available for teenage boys and girls but the advertised "pay, employment, security, and promotion" often was different for males and females.
- What types of adult skills training were available through the WPA?
- Why do you think that adult education was important to combat the Great Depression?
- What is the difference between job opportunities advertised for boys and girls? Why do you think that these distinctions were made? Do you think that these distinctions were fair?
4. Urban Housing
The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 established the Public Works Administration (PWA) and allocated $3.3 billion to construction projects across the United States. Four years later, the National Housing Act required that whenever new low-income housing was constructed, nearby substandard housing was to be demolished. This legislation was intended to improve the quality of available low-income housing without influencing the real estate market.
A search on the term, planned housing, yields posters presenting new housing developments as a means to reduce social problems such as fires, juvenile delinquency, infant mortality, crime, and disease. Pieces such as "Eliminate Crime in the Slums Through Housing" and " Better Housing: The Solution to Infant Mortality in the Slums" represent the effort to promote these projects.
Many of the housing developments were based on European designs that optimized sunlight and ventilation and featured landscaped parks. A search on the term, rent, yields renditions by four artists of apartment complexes from the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority.
- What types of images and colors are used to depict the slums?
- How do these images representing existing housing projects compared to the images of new low-income housing?
- How did posters promoting the notion of planned housing attempt to influence the public? What motivations did the posters provide the public for supporting planned housing?
- How do these posters compare to posters that advertised specific developments such as the program from the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority?
- Do you think that new housing could combat some of the social ills of the city, as advertising suggested?
- What other types of programs do you think might have improved the living conditions in these parts of a city?
- How do these efforts compare to the building of high-rise housing projects during the second half of the twentieth century?
5. World War II
The nation mobilized for war in the wake of Japan's December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. The newly-established War Production Board converted industries from a commercial to a war effort and conserved scarce materials such as steel. Searches on the terms salvage and water produce posters portraying conservation as an integral part of the national defense.
In addition to limiting consumption, citizens were asked to contribute money and goods. War loans and the sale of Liberty Bonds covered half of the cost of the war. A search on bonds yields posters encouraging the purchase of stamps and bonds with slogans such as "He gives 100%, you can lend 10%."
Other posters called for specific donations of time and equipment. Searches on terms such as volunteer and enlist yield advertisements calling for people to join the civilian defense and for skilled laborers to build boats for the Navy. A search on binocular also produces U.S. Navy requests for equipment with declarations such as, "No enemy sub will dare lift its eye if you lend your Zeiss or Bausch & Lomb binoculars to the Navy."
Meanwhile, a search on defense features posters that provide information about blackouts and air raids (including posters reading, "Keep cool, don't scream, don't run, prevent disorder, obey all instructions") and emphasize that careless conversation about military information can be deadly with calls to "Serve in Silence."
- What types of images and phrases did these posters employ to emphasize community involvement?
- Do you think that these efforts were effective ways to call for public conservation and donations? Why or why not?
- How do you think that the public responded to these requests?
- Do you think that the public was required to make personal sacrifices? If yes, how so?
- Why do you think that some posters emphasized the limited discussion of military topics? Do you think that this is censorship? Why or why not?
- What types of public service information did posters provide regarding the war?
6. Public Health
The WPA also had federal health agencies that provided services to address disease epidemics and to raise public awareness. A search on health produces posters that emphasize a number of proactive approaches to health care.
Some pieces emphasize preventive efforts such as tests and examinations for manageable diseases such as gonorrhea, smallpox, syphilis, and tuberculosis. For example, one poster promoting treatment for syphilis declares, "Shame may be fatal: If you fear you have contracted a disease don't let false shame destroy health & happiness."
A search on cancer produces posters that address a disease for which there were no comparable, successful treatments. Pieces such as "Obey Cancer's Danger Signals" and "The Only Safe Weapons Against Cancer" emphasize the importance of early detection and treatment while acknowledging that there isn't a single cure for the disease. "Beware the Cancer Quack" attempts to protect patients from additional suffering at the hands of physicians who advertise cancer treatments, promise a cure, or demand payment in advance.
Other posters emphasized the importance of preventive efforts such as "community sanitation planning" and proper nutrition. For example, milk is advertised "for health, good teeth, vitality, endurance, strong bones" and as a solution for both "winter warmth" and "summer thirst."
- How did these posters attempt to deal with both curable and incurable conditions? What actions were recommended in each case? Why do you think that the federal government was interested in promoting such actions?
- How do sanitation and nutrition relate to these actions?
- Who do you think benefits from these actions and their promotion? Why?
By the People, For the People: Posters from the WPA, 1936-1943, provides many opportunities to develop historical thinking skills. The posters in this collection can be used to create an illustrative timeline of federal programs. The Special Presentations in this collection allow for comprehension of the Federal Art Program's contribution to modern art in the United States. Some posters also provide an opportunity to assess race relations in the early-twentieth century and to discuss whether perpetuating of racial stereotypes contributed to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Other works provide a catalyst for researching the history of public works across the United States and in particular communities.
Chronological Thinking Skills
This collection represents two of the most important historical events of the early-twentieth century in the United States--the Great Depression and World War II. Search on terms such as Works Progress Administration and war to create an illustrative timeline of the federal programs that were designed to combat the nation's domestic and international enemies.
- What types of programs were introduced to address economic concerns of the 1930s?
- How did graphic artists portray these efforts?
- What types of public actions were promoted during World War II?
- How did the efforts of the War Department compare to WPA programs?
- Based on these posters, how would you describe the atmosphere and prevalent attitudes in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s?
Historical Comprehension: Anthony Velonis and Serigraphy
Posters were lettered and pained by hand prior to the 1930s. Anthony Velonis, an artist with the Federal Art Project, learned the silkscreen process while working in his brother's sign shop, and he transformed production methods around 1936. The Special Presentation, "Posters for the People," from the American Memory collection, The New Deal Stage: Selections from the Federal Theatre Project: 1935-1939, explains that Velonis "saw that he could adapt the industrial silk-screen process - already used for printing commercial displays and banners - for high-volume, multicolor poster production."
This new production technique, along with the ambitious art direction promoted within the FAP, allowed for greater artistic expression and experimentation in poster design. The work of individual artists of the era is available by browsing the collection's Creator Index. For example, Anthony Velonis produced nine posters, including advertisements for the Federal Theatre Project's production of "Macbeth" and a call for "better public housing to reduce infant mortality."
Velonis sought to distinguish between the commercial purposes of the silkscreen poster and artistic endeavors by coining the term, serigraphy, to describe the process of fine-art printmaking. Art critic Carl Zigrosser popularized the term without crediting Velonis and serigraphy later became a popular technique among artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol.
This collection's Special Presentation, "Posters from the WPA: Tony Velonis" features a brief video recording of a 1994 interview with Velonis discussing why he didn't want credit for coining the term, serigraphy, and explaining his personal experience in the FAP: "I couldn't imagine a better art university than the people that came together at that time."
- How did the development of serigraphy influence the creation of posters?
- What types of fonts and images did artists employ to convey their messages?
- How do the poster styles for public services such as housing and health compare to advertisements for performances of the Federal Theatre Project?
- How does the work in this collection compare to later serigraphs by artists such as Rauschenberg and Warhol?
Historical Analysis and Interpretation
This collection provides an opportunity to examine racial segregation in the United States during the early-twentieth century. Separate recreational opportunities for African Americans are represented in posters advertising the "Learn to Swim Campaign," performance groups such as the Colored Concert Band, and Negro Theatre Productions including "The Case of Philip Lawrence" and "Noah".
African Americans were also represented in posters for "Cavalcade of the American Negro," a history of black contributions to the United States from 1865 to 1940, and in a library poster that encourages readers to explore the topics of "The Negro in National Defense," "Africa and the War," [and] "Negro History and Culture."
- How does the "Learn to Swim Campaign" poster reflect the racial segregation of the community? Why might the illustrator have depicted this segregation?
- What did the posters promoting books on African Americans imply about their role in society?
- What do you think that these posters imply about the role of African Americans in the mobilization effort for World War II?
Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making: Depictions of the Japanese in WPA Posters and Japanese-American Internment Camps During World War II
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 galvanized the United States to enter World War II. A search on Japanese war produces posters promoting the effort against the Japanese. "Careless matches aid the Axis" depicts a glowering Japanese soldier behind a tree while the war bond poster, "Stamp 'Em Out", features Emperor Hirohito alongside Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler. Other posters in the collection, however, represented the Japanese as animals such as the snake in "Salvage Scrap to Blast the Jap," a rat in "Alaska - Death-Trap for the Jap," and a Japanese submarine as a shark in "Smoking Stacks Attract Attacks."
As artists fought a propaganda war against the Japanese, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 forced most Japanese Americans living on the West Coast to sell many of their possessions and to move to internment camps under the auspices of national security. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such confinement was constitutional but many government officials believed that such camps were unnecessary and fueled doubt about the national loyalty of all Japanese immigrants in the United States. In 1988, the Civil Liberties Act offered a presidential apology and $20,000 in compensation to each survivor of the internment camps. Photographs chronicling the experience of detainees are available in the American Memory collection, America from the Great Depression through World War II.
- How did the war posters exaggerate physical characteristics of the Japanese?
- How do you think that these posters might have influenced the public's feelings about the Japanese?
- How might such feelings have affected attitudes toward Japanese Americans?
- Why do you think that Japanese American citizens were placed in relocation camps but Italian-American citizens and German-Americans citizens, originally from the other nations at war with the U.S., were not detained?
Historical Research Capabilities
A search on the phrase, history of civic services, produces a series of informative posters that chronicle the origins of New York City's public services such as the police department, fire department, and water supply. For example, "Police No. 1: The Rattle Watch" describes the seventeenth-century patrols going through the town: "On October 4, 1658 a paid Rattle Watch of eight men to do the duty from 9 o'clock at night until morning drum beat was established, the duty being imposed upon each of the citizens by turns, and each householder was taxed 15 stivers for its support." The series on the water supply describes events from the first public well in 1658, the tea water pump garden in 1750, and the modern era, in which 930 million gallons are consumed daily.
These posters can be a catalyst to investigate the origins of public services in the United States. Research projects can culminate in the creation of posters describing local public services or commemorating an event in a community's history
The materials featured in By the People, For the People: Posters from the WPA, 1936-1943, provide an opportunity to develop critical thinking and creative writing skills. Advertisements, public service announcements, and posters and calendars that promote literacy can be used to examine artists' intents and techniques. These materials can then be used as the basis for original works. The collection's Creator Index provides the opportunity to assess the collected work of a specific graphic artist. These activities, along with an assessment of the World War II-era posters in this collection, can also work as a catalyst for a number of creative writing projects.
Public Service Announcements
Many of the posters in this collection raise awareness of issues relating to health and public safety. Browse the Subject Index for posters discussing the hazards of drunk driving and jaywalking as well as works promoting literacy campaigns and improved public-housing conditions.
- What types of images and colors are employed to attract attention?
- How does the phrasing and style of the text convey the poster's message?
- How does the composition of the poster--particularly the relationship of images within the piece--convey the intended message?
- How do the posters that warn against dangerous conditions compare to pieces that promote positive efforts such as literacy? How do these posters compare to other pieces in this collection?
- Choose a public service message and create a poster that conveys this information.
The collection's Creator Index provides an opportunity to examine the collected work of a specific graphic artist. For example, Blanche Anish's posters include pieces on plays, occupations related to mathematics and industrial arts, and an airplane mechanics course.
- How do one artist's works compare to another's in terms of theme and composition?
- Is a specific style visible across an artist's work?
- What is your opinion of a particular artist's work? Do you think that the work is successful in conveying its message?
- Do you think that an artist is limited by subject matter?
- Do you think that the images and composition are appealing? Why or why not?
- What aspect of these posters do you think exemplifies the artist's technique?
- Imagine that there is an exhibition of WPA graphic artists. Write a description of the artist's work for an exhibition guide.
- Write a critical review of the artist's work.
A search on read produces posters that promote literacy. Posters featuring nursery rhyme characters, Little Miss Muffet and Wee Willie Winkie, and touting books as "Passports to Adventure" emphasize the fun of reading. A very different poster presents books as social weapons, and conveys the importance of reading.
The Special Presentation, "Federal Art Project Calendar," presents a calendar in which each month is represented by an illustration of a different seasonal activity. This project can serve as a model to create a calendar that promotes literacy throughout the year with a different type of book or theme representing each month.
- How are books depicted in the posters that promote reading? How do these works compare to contemporary literacy campaigns?
- Create a poster or calendar that promotes the value of reading. What aspects of reading will you emphasize? How will you appeal to your viewer and encourage reading?
- In your calendar, will you celebrate one genre or aspect of reading throughout the year, or will you relate a book to each month or season? Write a paragraph describing the idea for each month of the year.
- What visual techniques will you use to convey your message?
- Will you include text on the poster or calendar?
- What do you think that associating a book with a specific month implies about the book and about the appeal of reading?
- What do you think is the intention of establishing a week to promote a public library, art, or letter writing?
- What types of activities do you think were associated with each week?
- If it continued to be observed, how do you think that events such as Farm and Home Week and National Letter Writing Week would have changed due to technology?
- What types of events are currently commemorated during special weeks or months? Do you observe these weeks? Why or why not?
Creative Writing: Life During Wartime
Search on war for posters that reflect life during War World II in the United States and abroad. Take on the persona of someone who lived during that era, such as a blue-collar worker in the steel industry, an African-American soldier, or a Japanese American living on the West Coast, perhaps a child. Using the posters as a source of background information and authentic detail, write a short story or a character sketch with the following questions in mind.
- How do you feel about the conflict?
- Do you have any friends or relatives directly involved in the war effort? If so, what do they do and how do you feel about their involvement?
- What do you consider to be threatening your safety?
- How was your daily routine affected by the war?
- Did you take any extra steps to support the war effort?
- How would you describe the general attitude in the United States? Do you perceive a sense of fear, hope, determination, or something else?
- What types of research could you do to support your story?