By the People, For the People: Posters from the WPA, 1936-1943, offers a unique opportunity to examine the social history of the United States through poster art. Works in this collection represent many programs from President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA) that address the arts, education, low-income housing, and public health. Additional works in this collection reflect conditions in the United States during World War II.
1. Federal Project Number One
The growing popularity of radio and motion pictures reduced the number of job opportunities available to professional musicians and theater workers during the 1920s. A decade later, the Great Depression eliminated many of the remaining jobs.
In 1935, the WPA established the Federal Project Number One, a collection of government-funded programs for professionals in the fields of drama, music, writing, and art. This project employed thousands of people to provide educational and recreational opportunities in communities across the United States.
The visual-arts branch of the program, the Federal Art Project (FAP), designed posters for many Federal Project Number One efforts. Searches on the terms, theatre project, music project, and writers' project yield hundreds of posters from this collection. The Special Presentation, "Amassing American 'Stuff': The Library of Congress and the Federal Art Projects of the 1930s" from the American Memory collection, The New Deal Stage: Selections from the Federal Theatre Project: 1935-1939, provides additional information about the WPA holdings available from the Library of Congress.
a. Federal Theatre Project
Under the direction of Hallie Flanagan, the Federal Theatre Project offered drama classes and presented performances ranging from vaudeville and a puppet circus to dance festivals and dramas such as an African-American production of Shakespeare's "Macbeth," the Living Newspaper's "Injunction Granted," and the courtroom piece, "It Might Happen to You." Additional information about the Federal Theatre Project is available in the American Memory collection, The New Deal Stage: Selections from the Federal Theatre Project: 1935-1939.
b. Federal Music Project
Project Director Nikolai Sokoloff led a campaign to provide free concerts, music education, and newly-commissioned music to the public. One of the major projects, the Index of American Composers, comprised a list of composers from across the nation. The list included biographical information and cataloged thousands of works to be performed by the WPA musicians. Performances within the Federal Music Project included symphony concerts, Verdi's opera, "Il Trovatore," and "Songs and Piano Music Everybody Should Know." An example of the Federal Music Project's research efforts is available in the American Memory collection, The WPA California Folk Music Project.
c. Federal Writers' Project
This program employed thousands of writers and served as a training ground for authors such as Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Wright. Early projects included guides such as "Who's Who in the Zoo" and "Skiing in the East" and history books such as "Cavalcade of the American Negro: The Story of the Negro's Progress During 75 Years."
Other efforts of the Federal Writers' Project are documented in American Memory collections such as American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 and Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938.
- Why do you think that the Federal Project Number One sponsored educational and recreational programs?
- Do you think that there were other benefits to the project besides providing employment opportunities?
- How did graphic artists represent the different branches of the Federal Project Number One and their variety of programs?
- What types of images were used to advertise a program?
- Do you think that these posters were successful advertisements? Why or why not?
- Do you think that there were other benefits to the posters besides providing employment and advertising?
- Why do you think that there were specific projects created by and for African Americans?