Vintage Posters From the Works Progress Administration

By Brian Resnick

Their advice may be comically obvious, but these public service announcements allowed a generation of artists to shine in dark times.

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Library of Congress

The Great Depression was a dark time for millions of Americans. But even through the financial tragedy, America retained its cultural wealth.

FDR's New Deal and Works Progress Administration were remarkable in that they sought to employ not only construction workers and engineers but also artists and educators. The following illustrations from the WPA are a testament to the idea that good art can be made available to everyone -- and that public service posters and workplace safety guides are as worthy canvases as those found in museums. 

"It was very exciting, very heady actually," Tony Velonis, a Depression-era silkscreen artist, told the Library of Congress in a 1994 interview about working for the WPA. "I couldn't imagine a better art university than the mixture of artists that came together at that time. It was very exciting." 

From a graphical perspective, these posters are remarkable. They share a distinct style, a blunt and colorful pop-art quality that immediately attracts the eye. And the medium fits the  message. A lot of the information displayed is also blunt and even comically obvious to us now. Of course, the market is the place to buy food. And yes, machinery is dangerous!

Other posters require a double-take: Do children really like low-cost housing? Wait, dinosaurs had syphilis? Is the average baby really the most ignorantly nurtured creature in this world? Perhaps not, but maybe during that trip to their local health bureaus, people learned something worthwhile.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/03/vintage-posters-from-the-works-progress-administration/253863/