The Art of Work: A Look at WPA Posters From 1936-1943 [Photo Gallery]

Feb. 19, 2015

The Works Progress Administration (renamed in 1939 as the Work Projects Administration) or WPA was the largest and most ambitious American New Deal agency, employing millions of unemployed people (mostly unskilled men) to carry out public works projects, including the construction of public buildings and roads.

But the WPA didn’t just employ workers to build bridges and roads. It also put artists to work designing and painting murals and posters.

The WPA Poster Collection of the Library of Congress consists of 907 posters produced from 1936 to 1943 by various branches of the WPA. Of the 2,000 WPA posters known to still exist, the Library of Congress's collection of more than 900 is the largest. The posters were designed to publicize art exhibits, community activities, theatrical productions, health programs, protection of the environment, educational programs and often, workplace safety.

So do these posters represent the art of work or a work of art?

WPA posters were used in 17 states and the District of Columbia, with the strongest representation from California, Illinois, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The results of one of the first U.S. Government programs to support the arts, the posters were added to the Library's holdings in the 1940s.

The first dozen posters in this gallery were produced for the workplace, to caution workers about safety or health, or to promote certain jobs or just American production in general. Hand safety, eye safety, safety around machinery and other various workplace EHS topics of the time are represented, including bullying – still an issue today – and syphilis (not so much). The remaining posters are an example of the scope of the subjects immortalized by the WPA artists, from cultural institutions to youth athletics, from drinking and driving warnings to art exhibits and from pet shows to plays.

(The source of the poster images is the Library of Congress. Special thanks to Jordy Byrd, public relations specialist with Graphic Products, for bringing these posters to my attention.)

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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