17 October 2012

Works Progress Administration posters

I've devoted a section of this blog to the Civilian Conservation Corps, but have heretofore neglected another New Deal public works project - the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

I was reminded of this today while reading in Ptak Science Books about the immense economic scope of the WPA:
From 1935-1943 the WPA put some 8.5 million people to work in a vast social undertaking, distributing food and clothing, building houses, roads, bridges, parks and making enormous construction improvements to the national infrastructure. There was also an arts art to the project which employed many thousnads of artists, actors and writers in producing dramas, histories, guidebooks and other sorts of artistic projects, including the artwork for the posters advertising other WPA projects.
"During its 8-year history, the WPA built 651,087 miles of highways, roads, and streets; and constructed, repaired, or improved 124,031 bridges, 125,110 public buildings, 8,192 parks, and 853 airport landing fields."--Indiana University Lilly Library.
During its lifetime the WPA spent about $12 billion, which worked out to be something like 4-6% of the GDP, annually.  To put this in some perspective, that would be like taking the entire amount of money spent on the war on terror over the past 11 years and investing it all in caring for the poor and fixing bridges and building roads and so forth...
A gallery with thumbnails of hundreds of WPA posters is available at the Ptak Science books source article.


  1. Wow. Just imagine if we had invested all that money in our country, investing in our own people. We would have grown stronger and more of a positive place in the eyes of the world. The way we have devoted so many resources, so much wealth, and given up so many freedoms (think TSA), you might easily conclude that the terrorists won.

    1. The terrorists in the Pentagon, you mean?

    2. If you mean people who are bent on destroying our way of life and handing the country over to rule by a narrowly-defined special interest group, then the terrorists HAVE won. They're called the 1%.

  2. Boy, what a treat - graphic design from an era when people still knew how to design, as opposed to letting photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign or some other equally-predictable software do it for them. It's amazing how something as simple as these posters can point out how much we've lost - a sense of aesthetics being only the most obvious!

  3. These posters have always impressed me, and suggest an era where what we believe about being American was very different than it is today. I'm a (very) amateur designer, and I love pouring over the WPA posters for their aesthetics as well as the social context that they provide to this 30-something. The link is in the article, but the Library of Congress hosts the original art, and it's a vast collection, scanned at very high resolution. Take a look at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/wpaposters/wpahome.html for the whole lot.


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