The posters of the WPA artists cover all sorts of subjects, rendered in many styles, and with varying degrees of skill. There are boldly graphic art deco treatments for health education, folk art illustrations of rural communities, beautiful travel posters, and theatrical advertisements. In those days hand lettering was still a widely practiced graphic art form. WPA poster art and the type design and symbolic logos of these images are built from a grammar that we just don't have today. They're things of beauty in their own right and a slice of history at the same time.
The Works Progress Administration was one of the most sucessful of FDR's New Deal programs. It was intended to give jobs, rather than a dole, to unemployed Americans during the Great Depression.
Creating jobs was far more costly than giving money away. Local programs were allocated funds from the federal government and the idea was to find useful work for people, using the skills they had in a way that helped them and their communities. The jobs didn't pay very well and wages often were delayed. In fact the program wasn't intended to create attractive jobs - that might have placed the government in competition with private industry, which was also in need of a boost - but rather, to give people in need a way to feed themselves and their families without injuring their self-respect or turning them into dependents on the state.
While WPA projects ranged from construction and education through the arts, it's the arts we're concerned with here. Graphic artists produced posters, mainly silkscreened, for purposes of health and safety education, the promotion of government projects - including other WPA projects, like the Federal Theater Project - and, eventually, propaganda and support for the armed forces during the Second World War.
The program continued to limp along on ever-diminishing budgets until 1943, long after its dynamic founder, Harry Hopkins, had moved on to become Secretary of Commerce.
"Give a man a dole, and you save his body and destroy his spirit. Give him a job and you save both body and spirit."
That's Harry Hopkins.
It wasn't perfect or universal; there was certainly waste, and at its height the WPA was only able to provide work for about 30% of the unemployed. But on the other hand, it did provide jobs for about 30% of the unemployed. Think about that.
Times - which were terrible for everyone, or nearly so - were especially hard on those people whose livelihoods were made from what amounted to luxuries. Artists, actors, dancers, writers and many other creative people devoted themselves to the low-paying bureaucratic tasks that were available - and from time to time, they made wonders. Have a look!