Infrastructure and Primary Sources: Posters from the Works Progress Administration

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion in traditional media outlets, social media, and the halls of government about infrastructure, including making repairs to roads, bridges, airports, railway tracks and tunnels, the electric grid, water pipes, and connectivity to the Internet. However, this is not the only time when infrastructure projects were important. In the 1930s, the Works Projects Administration and other New Deal programs were working to improve roads, bridges, trains, and airports, as well as providing water and electricity to places that might not have had access to those vital resources.

How did the government get information out and encourage support for these programs? Many projects were publicized with posters. The WPA poster project created posters to publicize fine and performing arts programs, educational and health programs, and later, during World War II, programs to support the war effort. In the area of infrastructure, WPA posters covered topics such as water conservation, urban planning, sanitation and erosion, encouraging citizens to save water, dispose of trash properly and work to protect land from damage and loss. But at least one went a step further and documented the history of its infrastructure.

Man in pilgrim-like clothing getting water from a well outside of a fort.

History of civic services in the city of New York Water supply No. 1 : The first public well was dug opposite the fort. Vera Bock, 1936

Man and a woman sitting at a table with two men bowing to them. A woman heading toward a pump with a man and horse nearby.

History of civic services in the city of New York Water supply No. 2 : The tea water pump garden. Vera Bock, 1936

Drawing of New York City with image of man showering, fireman opening a hydrant and a woman washing clothes.

History of civic services in the city of New York Water supply No. 4 : An average of 930,000,000 gallons is consumed daily. Vera Bock, 1936

The City of New York created a series of posters that told the history of civic services in New York. Created by Vera Bock, a noted children’s book illustrator, these cheery posters provide brief stories about important events in the history of the police and fire departments as well as information on the work to protect and provide access to the city water supply. They are easy to read and the graphics catch the eyes of the reader.

Encourage students to engage with these unique posters. Use the Library’s primary source analysis tool and teachers guide for analyzing photographs and prints to help students analyze these posters.

Ask students why the posters were created. How effectively do they think  the posters got the message across?

What would students include in an advertisement for infrastructure? Do they think posters would be successful today or would they choose another medium?

Consider what infrastructure topics are not included in the Bock poster set. Why do students think these topics were left out?

Encourage students to learn more about infrastructure issues in their community. Ask them what they think are the most important issues relating to infrastructure in their community.

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