Wall Art: WPA National Parks Posters

HISTORY

The 1930s was a dark time for Americans. The stock market crash of 1929 (known as Black Tuesday), took the country from an economic recession, into the deepest decline of the 20th century. As the economy entered into a downward spiral, unemployment rose to a staggering 25%. Many industrial sectors (such as farming, mining, shipping, construction) were crippled by a variety of economic factors, such as a lowered demand for goods, as Americans began to cut back on expenditures.

Running on a platform of change, Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised a "new deal for the American People". His 1932 landslide victory over Herbert Hoover ushered in a new era of government relief (which was in stark contrast to Hoover's belief in rugged individualism). 

During his first 100 days in office, Roosevelt laid the groundwork for what would famously become the New Deal. This series of domestic programs (enacted between 1933 - 1938) aimed at providing relief for the unemployed, aiding in economic recovery, and reforming the broken financial systems. 

"The New Deal"  by Conrad A Albrizio (1934), dedicated to President Roosevelt, placed in the Auditorium of the Leonardo Da Vinci Art School. [149 East 34th St., NYC]


FEDERAL PROJECT NUMBER ONE

The second phase of the New Deal, historically known as the "Second New Deal" (1935-38), brought about the creation of the Works Progress Administration relief program. Commonly referred to as the WPA, this New Deal agency was the most ambitious of any of the reform efforts. This initiative employed millions of unemployed workers (mainly unskilled men), to carry out a variety of different public works projects. These projects addressed a broad range of infrastructure improvements around areas such as public buildings (schools hospitals), transportation (roads, railroads, bridges), public spaces (parks, benches), and public services (water, sewage).

At it's peak in 1938, the WPA provided more than 3 million jobs for men, women and youths. This made the federal government the single largest employer in the nation.

Dewey Woodward, a WPA worker, Washington, D.C. Photo Courtesy of the New Deal Network.

WPA Farm Workers Ad. Photo Courtesy of the New Deal Network.

A major aspect of the Works Progress Administration was a group of projects referred to as Federal Project Number One. Known as "Federal One" for short, this subdivision was comprised of 5 different project groups: the Federal Writers Project (FWP), the Historical Records Survey (HRS), the Federal Theater Project (FTP), the Federal Music Project (FMP), and the Federal Art Project (FAP). Collectively, these arms of the WPA sought to provide relief to America's artisan workforce. Writers, actors, artists, and musicians were able to find work, through programs dedicated to employing people of these skills.

Edward Laning and assistants at work on his mural "The Role of the Immigrant in the Industrial Development of America" done under the WPA Federal Art project for the Dining Room of Ellis Island. Photo Courtesy of the New Deal Network.


WPA POSTERS

The Federal Art Project was the visual arts extension of the WPA effort. This relief effort called upon the artistic community to provided artwork for non-federal government buildings such as schools, hospitals, and libraries. The artisans and craftsman employed by the program created an enormous body of public art through a variety of mediums such as posters, murals, paintings and sculptures. From 1935-1943, the FAP produced more than 200,000 individual pieces. The program also provided support to communities through art instructions and art research.  

While the most enduring works of art may be the 4,000+ murals (still found on many public buildings today), my favorite pieces were produced by the FAP's poster division. Developed through a variety of different productions methods (silkscreen, lithograph, woodcut), the posters of the WPA were designed to promote the many aspects of Roosevelt's programs, as well as educate the public on a multitude of social topics. These prints explored themes such as travel, public safety, educational programs, theatrical and music performances, and support for the armed services. Their unique style and distinct wording echo the sentiments of the New Deal era.

With over 35,000 different designs created during the years of Federal One, these posters serve as a testament to the enormous size of FRD's relief effort.

WPA Poster  "John Is Not Really Dull" Reproduction. Image courtesy of Vintagraph. Prints available at Vintagraph.

WPA Poster  "John Is Not Really Dull" Reproduction. Image courtesy of Vintagraph. Prints available at Vintagraph.

The pieces that have always caught my eye have been the WPA's National Parks series of posters. Launched in 1938, Dorr Yeager (of Western Museum Laboratory's) was commissioned to produce a series of posters around the nation's parks. By 1941, the production of the National Park System posters had ended, with only 14 designs ever being developed. The exact number actually made is not known. 

At the close of the initiative, the posters were divvied up, and sent back to the parks. During the years that followed, poster had found their ways into all sorts of un-catalogued places (private collections, flat files, art auctions). Many designs were thought to have been lost. Slowly, a few original poster began to turn up (some in very nice condition). As of today, only 33 copies have ever been found (with only 1 copy known to exist for Yosemite, Zion, Lassen, Glacier, Fort Marion, and Petrified Forest). The three posters that have not been found are Wind Cave, Great Smokey Mountains, and Yellowstone Falls.

The Library of Congress had purchased 7 originals of these "Posters for National Parks", and made them available through public domain. They can be found here.

* Above Facts courtesy of Ranger Doug.

WPA Yellowstone National Park Poster - Image courtesy of Library of Congress

WPA Grand Canyon National Park Poster - Image courtesy of Library of Congress

WPA Zion National Park Poster - Image courtesy of  Library of Congress


REPRODUCTIONS

So, let's get this out of the way. You're probably not going to get your hands on an original WPA poster. Here's why:

  • As for the National Parks posters, only an absurdly small amount of those originals have ever been found intact. As of today, only 33 have been discovered, with 3 originals still unaccounted for.
  • For the ones that have been sold, they've commanded a pretty high price. In 2004, an art collector discovered a group of 9 original park posters. At auction, one Grand Canyon poster alone brought in $9,000. That's 2004 dollars.
  • According to Artbusiness.com, the federal government kinda wants them back. Bummer.

So... Your best bet is a faithful reproduction. That's when you turn to Ranger Doug. Who is Ranger Doug, you ask? A pretty amazing fellow, that's who. Check it out:

In 1973, park ranger Doug Leen (a 7-year seasonal ranger at Grand Teton) came across a copy of a Grand Teton poster "destined for the burn pile". This sparked a curiosity in Doug, which lead him on a 20-year effort to find and reconstruct the National Parks poster set. As poster began to pop up around the country, Mr. Leen began to develop a more complete picture as to how these posters where made, and how they could accurately be recreated. With his extensive research, and his passion for the designs, Doug has constructed the most faithful reproductions available. Doug even works directly with the National Parks system to produce new poster designs.

That's the type of guy you should trust with your reproductions. Also, his company gives back 1% of sales charitable causes. So, that should make you feel good.

WPA Yellowstone National Park Poster Reproduction. Prints available at Ranger Doug.

WPA Yosemite National Park Poster Reproduction. Prints available at Ranger Doug

WPA Mount Rainier National Park Poster Reproduction. Prints available at Ranger Doug

WPA Grand Canyon National Park Poster Reproduction. Prints available at Ranger Doug

WPA Glacier National Park  Poster Reproduction. Prints available at Ranger Doug.

WPA Grand Canyon National Park Poster Reproduction. Prints available at   Ranger Doug

WPA Grand Canyon National Park Poster Reproduction. Prints available at Ranger Doug

A quick Google search will turn up a number of other companies who are also selling National Parks poster reproductions. Companies such as The RetrovertPrint Collection, and Vintagraph all offer large selections of WPA-themed artwork. While the National Park prints may not be as faithfully reproduced as Ranger Doug's, these sites do offer a wide variety of additional prints outside of the Parks theme. Each site offers some of the other amazing WPA designs, depicting everything from personal health to public safety. Search hard enough, and you can find a piece of wall art for any decor style.

Below are a number of the "See America" prints (some of my favorites), designed by the artists of the Works Programs, and intended to promote tourism within the country. 

WP See America Poster Reproduction. Image courtesy of Vintagraph. Prints available at Vintagraph.

WPA See America Poster Reproduction. Image courtesy of Vintagraph. Prints available at Vintagraph.

WPA See America Poster Reproduction. Image courtesy of Vintagraph. Prints available at Vintagraph.

WPA See America Poster Reproduction. Image courtesy of Vintagraph. Prints available at Vintagraph.

WPA See America Poster Reproduction. Image courtesy of Vintagraph. Prints available at Vintagraph.

WPA See America Poster Reproduction. Image courtesy of Vintagraph. Prints available at Vintagraph.


"IN THE STYLE OF"

While only 14 National Parks posters were ever officially commissioned, their distinct graphical style has had a lasting impression. Everything from Disney to Star Wars has been given the WPA treatment. Today, many of the national parks turn to Doug Leen and Brian Maebius to produce posters "in the style" of the original WPA designs. Now, you can get official prints that were once not available, from parks like Devil's Tower, Bryce Canyon, and Hawaii. Check out Mr Leen's Site Ranger Doug to order a poster of your favorite National Park.

I actually ordered the National Parks Post Card Set from Ranger Doug. The postcard size makes them a great option for an off-the-shelf photo frame. I found a 4 paneled frame, chose my 4 favorite designs, recut the mat, and hung them in our hallway. I absolutely love the set, and look to get a full size poster in the future.

Ranger Doug See America - Caves Poster. Image Courtesy of Ranger Doug. Prints available at Ranger Doug.

Ranger Doug Devil's Tower National Park Poster. Image Courtesy of Ranger Doug. Prints available at Ranger Doug.

Ranger Doug Hawaii National Park Poster. Image Courtesy of Ranger Doug. Prints available at Ranger Doug.

Ranger Doug Bryce Canyon National Park Poster. Image Courtesy of Ranger Doug. Prints available at Ranger Doug.

Ranger Doug General Grant (King's Canyon) National Park Poster. Image Courtesy of Ranger Doug. Prints available at Ranger Doug.

Ranger Doug Sequoia National Park Poster. Image Courtesy of Ranger Doug. Prints available at Ranger Doug.

Do you have a favorite WPA National Parks poster? Do you have a favorite National Park? Let me know if there's a design you've seen that I should check out.