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Collection Posters: WPA Posters

About this Collection

This collection consists of 907 posters produced from 1936 to 1943 by various branches of the WPA. Of the 2,000 WPA posters known to exist, the Library of Congress's collection of more than 900 is the largest. The posters were designed to publicize exhibits, community activities, theatrical productions, and health and educational programs in seventeen states and the District of Columbia, with the strongest representation from California, Illinois, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The results of one of the first U.S. Government programs to support the arts, the posters were added to the Library's holdings in the 1940s.

Background and Scope

More than nine hundred original Work Projects Administration (WPA) posters are in the custody of the Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs Division, constituting the largest WPA holding in the United States. These original silkscreen, lithograph, and woodcut posters were produced between 1936 and 1943 in the District of Columbia and seventeen states: Alabama, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Washington. The posters depict various programs and projects sponsored by the government: health and safety programs, cultural programs including art exhibitions and theatrical and musical performances, travel and tourism, educational programs, and community activities. Printed mainly on poster board, these works were also produced as one-sheet and multi-sheet designs and were sometimes signed by the artist.

The New Deal and the Arts

In 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration (the name was changed to Work Projects Administration in September of 1939), as part of his New Deal program to put millions of unemployed Americans back to work. In July of 1935, Federal Project Number One (Federal One) was established within the WPA as a central administration for the arts-related projects. Federal One provided funds specifically for artists, musicians, actors, and writers through the Federal Art Project (FAP), the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theatre Project, and the Federal Writer's Project. FAP employed more than five thousand artists in various art projects including the many poster divisions that were created throughout the United States.

Many New Deal administrators believed that art could be a part of the daily lives of all Americans, not just the elite, and could enrich the lives of all who came in contact with it. The main objective of FAP was the employment of out-of-work artists, but this was not its only goal. The activities of FAP also included art production, education, and research. The project employed artists in the fields of easel painting, sculpture, photography, mural painting, and graphic arts, and it also held exhibitions and organized community arts centers through which many Americans were first introduced to the arts. Another well-known, well-received FAP project, the Index of American Design, created a survey of illustrations of American decorative and folk arts from colonial times through the late nineteenth century.

The Poster Divisions

A year before FAP was organized, in 1934, New York City had created the Mayor's Poster Project within the Civil Works Administration. Posters were already being produced by this group for some of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia's favorite projects. In 1935, this department was absorbed by the federal government and became the country's first FAP poster division.

The New York poster division was headed by Richard Floethe, a German-born internationally known industrial designer who was educated in the fundamentals of the aesthetic movement known as the Bauhaus. The freedom given to project artists under the enlightened leadership of Floethe enabled them to experiment with bold colors and many different styles. In an essay written in the 1930s and later published in Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s by Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project, edited by Francis V. O'Connor (Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society [1973]), Floethe wrote, "...the government unwittingly launched a movement to improve the commercial poster and raise it to a true art form."

By 1938, there were FAP poster divisions in at least eighteen states. New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia had thriving poster divisions, with New York City's being the largest division. The poster divisions designed posters mainly for the Federal Art, Music, Writer's, and Theatre Projects. In addition, other New Deal programs (such as the Civilian Conservation Corps), as well as departments of city and state governments, needed posters to promote and advertise their programs.

The Creative Process

At first, posters were created by hand, individually painted and lettered. Later on, the divisions' artists usually used the silkscreen process, which was adapted and refined for the mass production of posters by project artist Anthony Velonis in 1936. Before he came to FAP, Velonis used this process in his work at Stern Brothers Department Store in New York City, where he designed show cards and other promotional materials. Realizing that the output of the New York poster division could be greatly increased using the silkscreen method, he sought the approval of the division's administrator, John Weaver, to set up a silkscreening workshop to produce posters and teach others the process.

The printing of a poster was a collaborative effort. Artists were responsible for the poster's design, color selection, and sometimes the cutting of the stencils used to print the poster. The workshop's technical staff screened the posters. The exchange of ideas between the designers and the printers resulted in a technically and artistically well-balanced poster. With this silkscreening process, as many as six hundred posters were printed in a day.

With the influential critic and print curator Carl Zigrosser, Velonis coined the word "serigraph"(from "seri"--Latin for silk and "graphein"--Greek for to write or draw) to convey the fine-art rather than commercial aspect of the process. Velonis also wrote a book entitled Silk Screen Technique (New York: Creative Crafts Press, 1939) that was used as a "how-to" manual for other poster divisions. He traveled extensively to advise FAP artists on the technique of silkscreening.

Due in part to congressional opposition, the New York City FAP and its poster division were once again placed under Mayor La Guardia's sponsorship in 1939. By 1942, all the remaining WPA art projects were transferred to the Defense Department to become the Graphics Section of the War Service Division. In the history of the WPA art projects, over two million posters were printed from thirty-five thousand designs. Today, only about two thousand of the posters produced by all the poster divisions are known to exist.

The Legacy

In a 1938 issue of Signs of the Times, a journal of advertising and design, it was said: "The poster division … is doing a valuable service to the profession in general and the consumer in particular, in trying to combine good craftsmanship and design with original ideas …it is to be hoped that these beneficial WPA productions may act as a stimulating influence to poster artists in all parts of the country." Richard Floethe, in Art for the Millions, stated that the divisions' goal was to "preserve the skill of the unemployed artist" and return artists "to private industry … with more knowledge in their profession and greater confidence in themselves." Not only did the poster divisions succeed, but government support of the arts through the Federal Art Project gave new impetus to American artistic expression. The different approaches to poster design of the many artists associated with the WPA combined to create a truly original, American poster style.