On the wall, alongside the circulation desk at the Main Library (and, occasionally, in the children’s room), you may have noticed some framed prints of posters promoting reading. These are reprints of posters created between 1935 and 1943 by the WPA (Originally the Works Progress Administration and later renamed to the Works Projects Administration).
The WPA was one of the “Alphabet Agencies,” so called because of the initialized names given to the new government departments created as part of the New Deal, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. While the WPA was disbanded in 1943, other “alphabet agencies” created at this time are still around today, such as the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation), FCC (Federal Communications Commission) and the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission).
The WPA was a government agency charged with combatting the nations’s extreme unemployment in the 1930’s. A jobs program, the WPA was responsible for the construction of many public buildings, roads, parks and other public works-type projects. The WPA was disbanded in 1943 when World War II left the country with a labor shortage and unemployment was virtually nonexistent.
Apart from the WPA’s Public Works projects, a smaller focus of the WPA centered around putting artists and performers to work as well, which is where the reading posters come about. Many of the reading-themed WPA posters originate from Chicago, between 1936 and 1940, as part of the Illinois WPA Art Project. Several of the reading posters are themed around months of the year; others in the series highlight kinds of reading material, while others promote library services or concepts.
The WPA posters were not limited to reading and library themes. Not by a long shot. If you are interested in losing some serious time online, the Library of Congress has an online archive consisting of 932 digitized WPA posters. While you’ll find the reading posters among this collection, they are but a tiny fraction of what was created.
There are certainly many designs promoting cultural enrichment, whether promoting libraries, live music, theater, visits to zoos and aquariums and a beautiful national parks series. These posters share design sensibilities with many posters promoting public health messages, ranging from the very general (“Lack of funds need not discourage from seeking competent medical care – consult your health bureau”) to the very specific (there are an incredible number of posters created to raise awareness of Syphilis).
Of course, given the time, national security was a major subject of WPA posters as well, with many variations on the adage, “loose lips sink ships,” such as the highly stylized image of a soldier, with a raised finger raised to pursed lips, behind the text, “Keep it to yourself, buddy.”
The library and reading posters, though, are our favorites. Bold, fun, design and a great message makes these prints timeless yet of a time. We’re proud to display them here and hope to continue to add to our collection!