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What are WPA Posters?

Mosaic of several WPA posters

Posters created by WPA hang in museums around the world. But what are WPA posters? Before answering that, let's discuss what the WPA was. Started in 1935 by president Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Works Progress Administration, known as the WPA, was a job program created in response to unemployment during the Great Depression. The WPA created work opportunities for millions of Americans during its run and was responsible for creating everything from iconic buildings to remarkable works of art, including WPA posters. In 1939 the WPA was renamed to the Work Projects Administration.

What did the WPA do?

The WPA was a wide-ranging program that tried to employ as many job seekers as possible to alleviate the hardships of the Great Depression. Although we're most interested in WPA Posters, the WPA is perhaps best know for public works projects that built hospitals and schools or improved infrastructure by building roads, storm drains and bridges. Some famous buildings constructed as part of the WPA include the Dock Street Theatre in Charleston and the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.

WPA A Good Lunch Poster

In total, the WPA constructed 40,000 new buildings, which included schools, libraries, armories, auditoriums, gymnasiums and other recreational buildings. The WPA also improved around 85,000 existing buildings and built facilities such as stadiums, bleachers and fairgrounds.

But importantly to our discussion of WPA posters, it also sponsored creative projects through the Federal Arts Project that provided jobs to thousands of artists, including photographers, writers, musicians and illustrators.

The WPA’s Federal Music Project created new orchestras, music ensembles and bands, as well as teaching music and creating new works. The Federal Theater Project staged thousands of performances across the country, helping prop up a field that suffered heavily during the depression. The Federal Writers’ Project employed thousands of writers who created books, and oral histories for much of the country.

What are WPA posters?

Keep Your Teeth Clean poster

As part of the WPA Federal Art Project, illustrators in the Arts Service Division created illustrated works, posters and other pieces to support musicians, theaters and writers. Their works were distributed to help market public performances and encourage participation in the arts.

The illustrators also created works that promoted public health and safety and domestic travel to see United States natural wonders and National Parks.

WPA artists and staff refined the silk-screen printing process to enable them to mass produce their work. Before silk screening the artist created the posters by hand. The silk-screen process allowed them to print many more posters for distribution.

By the late 1930s there were poster divisions in more than 18 states that were kept busy supporting public projects. More than 5,000 artists were employed over the life of the Federal Art Project. But they didn't create only posters. Artists also painted murals, created sculptures and other works of fine art.

Some famous WPA Posters include the Keep Your Teeth Clean and Keep Clean posters, promoting good personal hygiene. Workplace safety posters such as Save Your Eyes, Wear Goggles and Protect Your Hands, You Work With Them were used in factory and other industrial settings to promote good work habits. These posters continue to be popular as illustrations in workplaces across America.

Zion National Park poster

A series of National Park Posters include iconic images for Zion National Park, Yellowstone National Park and Arches National Park. A related series that promoted public recreation includes Visit the Aquarium and Visit the Zoo Elephant, featuring an elephant, and a poster for Chicago's Brookfield Zoo featuring a panda bear.

The collection of WPA posters is extensive and worth exploring to enjoy the variety of art created. 

What happened to the WPA?

The WPA ended in 1943 at the onset of World War II. The need for a wide-reaching government jobs program ended with the large recruitment of citizens into the armed forces and at factories that supported the war effort. 

Be it an historic building, or a poster on the wall, we remember the WPA by the remarkable works left behind by the many creative individuals involved in the program.