Signs of Their Times: The American Way

At the most fundamental level, signs are a form of visual communication conveying a message through words, graphics, or a combination of the two. Signs’ forms range from traffic signs to billboards, from handbills to the hand-lettered homemade varieties; from simple notices to subtle and sophisticated attempts to sell, promote, or persuade. Today’s blog post initiates a new series Signs of Their Times, which will present a rich variety of signs from the Library’s Prints & Photographs collections as pictured in their contexts within time and place — their historical, cultural, or social milieu.

Below are three Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information photographs from February and March 1937 capturing versions from a national billboard advertising campaign sponsored by the National Association of Manufacturers themed "There’s no way like the American Way." The sign pictured below on a roadside near Kingwood, West Virginia, by photographer Edwin Locke features a well-dressed family and their dog enjoying one of the sweet fruits of the "World’s Highest Standard of Living" while out for a ride in their automobile:

Road sign near Kingwood, West Virginia

Road Sign near Kingwood, West Virginia. Photograph by Edwin Locke, February 1937. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a14706

In the second photograph shot by Dorothea Lange, the billboard is pictured along a stark and arid stretch of U.S. Highway 99 in California. "Father" is welcomed home by his daughter while "Mother" awaits at their house’s threshold. This domestic scene is the obvious product of the "World’s Highest Wages:"

Billboard on U.S. Highway 99 in California.

Billboard on U.S. Highway 99 in California. Photograph by Dorothea Lange, March 1937. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b31725

The third billboard, also taken by Lange in the same California vicinity, is mounted on the side of a pipe and plumbing supply business. The family pictured enjoys a picnic together. Clearly, the "World’s Shortest Working Hours" are providing the leisure time for such a pleasant outing:

Billboard on U.S. Highway 99 in California.

Billboard on U.S. Highway 99 in California. Photograph by Dorothea Lange, March 1937. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b31722

The sight of these billboards within the context of the Great Depression’s millions of jobless and migrant farm families gone bust was not lost on the perceptive documentary photographers during those desperately lean years.

Learn More:

  • Take a visual drive past some 65 roadside billboard photographs within the collection of Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives including the two now iconic "billboard" scenes by Dorothea Lange (left) and Walker Evans (right):
  • Photo shows two people walking (hitchhiking?) along road near a billboard that says "Next time, try the train. Relax."

    Toward Los Angeles, California. Photograph by Dorothea Lange, March 1937. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b31801

    Photo shows two similar houses with movie posters in foreground for Carole Lombard in "Love Before Breakfast" and Anne Shirley in "Chatterbox."

    Frame Houses and a Billboard, Atlanta, Georgia. Photograph by Walker Evans, March 1936. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsc.00236

  • The Work Projects Administration (WPA) Poster Collection comprises more than 900 of the visual products from one of the first U.S. Government programs to support the arts. The posters were designed to publicize exhibits, community activities, theatrical productions, and health and educational programs in seventeen states and the District of Columbia.
  • Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929 assembles a wide array of Library of Congress source materials from the 1920s that document the widespread prosperity of the Coolidge years, the nation’s transition to a mass consumer economy, and the role of government in this transition.

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