Poster Art of the Great Depression

Posters for the People: Art of the WPA

By Ennis Carter

The great recession was a sobering wake up to the devastating potential of run-away financial markets that reached into nearly every aspect of daily living. Yet, it was small compared to the economic, social, and governmental earthquake that was the Great Depression. Even with the effects of the great recession freshly in mind, it is nearly impossible to comprehend the destruction and changes of the really great one.

Baby Boomers may remember their parents and grandparents talk about those days (as well as life on the home front during WWII). Consider just a few stats: unemployment peaking at 25% (1933), drastic fall off in wages of those employed at 20% (1933-34), a poverty rate of 60%, bank failures rampant at nearly 44%, large emigration within the USA and immigration out of the country (not to mention the Mexican Repatriation program), a long, lingering duration (12 years). Perhaps devastating is too mild a word.

From it, under the Roosevelt administration, arose a host of programs with the objectives of alleviating the nation’s suffering. Recalling your American history courses, you’ll remember the country became awash in alphabet agencies: AAA (Agricultural Adjustment Administration), CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), FCA (Farm Credit Bureau), NRA (National Recovery Administration), PWA (Public Works Administration), REA (Rural Electrification Administration), SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission), as well as many others, including the WPA (Works Progress Administration).

Launched and operating under the auspices of the WPA were a variety of projects, including the Federal Music Project, Federal Writers’ Project, and the Federal Art Project. These efforts gave us some memorable works, among them posters in support of a number of federal, state, and local campaigns focusing on health, work, education, travel, civic duty, and the like. It’s many of these that you will find beautifully displayed in this book by Ennis Carter. Here’s art that delivers an explicit message, oftentimes quite stunningly, as in “Milk for Summer Thirst,” “Swim for Health in Safe and Pure Pools,” “Hiking,” “Let Them Grow,” “Keep Clean,” and “Keep Your Teeth Clean.”

And, interestingly, pretty much all of the posters and messages still apply to life today.

For more on the WPA Federal Art Project and to view posters, visit the Library of Congress at Posters: WPA Posters. And, of course, pick up a copy of this book. w/c

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