From the mid-1930s to the early 1940s, artists working for the Federal Art Project’s Poster Division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA, later renamed Work Projects Administration) created thousands of designs for posters in workshops across the United States. You may be familiar with iconic WPA poster images promoting United States tourism, such as the See America posters by Frank S. Nicholson and Alexander Dux. Some posters also promoted the theater, music, and even the health benefits of milk.
When the WPA ended in 1943, the Free Library’s Print and Picture Collection became a federal repository for a great number of the posters, fine prints, and drawings created in the Philadelphia WPA print and poster workshops. The fine prints and drawings have been inventoried by the U.S. General Services Administration, but since the posters were ephemeral and not meant to be preserved, tracking and inventorying them is not easy.
Posters for the People, an online archive of WPA posters founded by Ennis Carter and Alex Peltz, has tracked down over 2,100 of the over 35,000 poster designs created by WPA poster artists. The Library of Congress WPA Poster Collection has the largest collection of WPA posters with over 900 posters. The Print and Picture Collection recently cataloged 116 WPA posters, all produced in the Philadelphia workshop. We found that several of the posters in our collection are not held by other institutions and are new additions to the Posters for the People public record.
With the help of the library’s Collection Care and Digital Development departments, we conserved and digitized our WPA Poster Collection for the public to access in an online exhibition: WPA Posters from the Pennsylvania Federal Art Project.
The posters made in the Philadelphia poster workshop deliver messages in a powerful and decorative way. Some promote Philadelphia and Pennsylvania tourism, with posters of sites like Memorial Hall and the Philadelphia Zoo. Others promote the library itself, reading, and taking care of books. Other posters remind us to prioritize safety, avoid jaywalking, and even forgo risk-taking. The PIX collection of posters includes silkscreens, woodcuts, and lithographs by artists including Katherine Milhous, Robert Muchley, Allan Nase, Isadore Possoff, Nathan Sherman, and Louise Welsh, as well as many anonymous artists.
Thanks to a partnership with Ennis Carter and Posters for the People, two of our winter holiday-themed WPA Posters are now available for reproduction. Winter in Fairmount Park is a silkscreen by an unidentified artist showing bare trees in a snow-covered landscape. Merry Christmas, another silkscreen by an unidentified artist, shows an angel and candles in front of the silhouette of a tree. The reproductions are available as 12" x 18" digital prints or 16" x 20" giclée prints, with profits from the sale being shared between the Free Library and Posters for the People, an online archive of nearly 600 WPA posters.
Want to learn more about WPA Posters? The Free Library can help! Read about Katherine Milhous, artist and supervisor of the Philadelphia WPA poster workshop, and see her work held by our Children’s Literature Research Collection in our Digital Collections. Reference books available include Ennis Carter’s Posters for the People: Art of the WPA, Christopher DeNoon’s Posters of the WPA, and the ebook See America: A Celebration of our National Parks & Treasured Sites.