WPA Posters: Colorful Messages in Dark Economic Times

Today’s post comes to us from Cheryl Lederle of the Library of Congress.

When the nation’s financial future was at its darkest, some exceptional artists used color and design to spread the word about programs that could help.

Poster for a Federal Art Project exhibition. By Thomas Stanley Clough, 1938.

The stock market crash of 1929 brought about one of the bleakest economic crises in the history of the United States. In response, President Franklin Roosevelt launched a number of programs and agencies, an effort sometimes collectively known as the New Deal, designed to provide assistance to the unemployed and poor, revive the economy, and change the financial system to prevent another depression.

The largest of these agencies, the Works Progress Administration, needed to inform the public about its programs, and turned to poster artists to get the word out quickly. From 1936 to 1943, various branches of the WPA produced hundreds of posters depicting programs and projects sponsored by the government, including exhibits, community activities, theatrical productions, health initiatives and educational programs. The Library of Congress Web site has 907 of the posters, the largest collection known to exist.  The experts who acquire and manage these posters have created sample lists on common themes. Explore these groups of items to get started:

Cultural Programs

Educational Programs

Community Activities

World War II

Poster announcing free adult education classes. By Sam Braun, 1937.

As with all historical materials, it’s prudent to preview searches before implementing them with students.

  • Students may identify persuasive techniques, considering not only the wording, but also the images used.
  • Groups of students may examine a set of posters and identify common themes; students may also choose a theme and compile a set of posters that represent that theme.
  • Ask students to consider which aspects of life in the United States today they would document through visual art if they were directing a program similar to the Federal Art Project.

Explore the Library’s collection of  WPA posters for more compelling images from the Great Depression and World War II.

The New Deal Primary Source Set includes selected posters as well as other primary sources from the time, and a teacher’s guide with historical background and additional teaching suggestions.

Poster promoting reading.

Use the Library’s Primary Source Analysis Tool and Guide to Analyzing Prints and Photographs to help students analyze these posters.

How would you use these posters with your students? If you’ve already used posters like these in your teaching, please let us know how it went.

 

 

 

One Comment

  1. Harriett Ledwidge
    August 8, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    History repeats itself yet again. Posters still quickest way to get point across and gives more employment to artists. Just like President Borak Obama’s speeches, short n to the point with no bullpoo!!

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