Folks, once you start lookin' you're gonna start finding. I'm sure some of you readers are going to look at my WPA pics and conclude that I've been smokin' tumbleweed. Not the case, friends. I actually had what is surely a mistaken memory that I saw a WPA poster promoting travel on Highway 395 and I went looking for it. Maybe someone made an advertisement that I mis-remembered or something. I also recalled buying a postcard of the WPA poster for the Petrified Forest when I was out there a few years back. So I was making discoveries on the Library of Congress site and here and there and the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, and then I found Ranger Doug, and here's what he has to say about it:
Between 1935 and 1943 the WPA's Federal Art Project printed over two million posters in 35,000 different designs to stir the public's imagination for education, theater, health, safety, and travel. Due to their fragile nature only two thousand posters have survived to this day; less than one tenth of one percent! These rare images were rescued and restored from black and white photos beginning in 1993 by Ranger Doug.
Ranger Doug's Enterprises was established by me, Doug Leen, in 1993 after the discovery twenty years earlier of the only surviving WPA poster--Grand Teton National Park. Sensing the possibility of a larger collection, my research took me to remote West Virginia where, ten years later, I discovered the remnants of this art collection--13 black and white photos of this series printed between 1938 and 1941. I immediately embarked on a mission to bring these rare posters back into the public domain.
During the next ten years, several originals have turned up in addition to the one I found in 1973--Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest. Then five Mt. Rainier posters turned up in a garage in South Seattle--three "sandwiched" together in one frame! Later, Bandelier National Monument discovered more than a dozen--with complete documentation of their publication. In 2005 an anonymous collector called with two more original finds and returned to his source to acquire a nearly full set. The search continues...
We now republish all 14 original WPA National Park posters with two additional See America posters printed for the US Travel Bureau. We've also added several contemporary poster designs to this collection at the request of the parks: Devils Tower, Bryce Canyon, Denali, Olympic, Mesa Verde and Hawaii, with more coming. After finding the original Mt. Rainier poster we've re-colored it and now offer this as a Limited Centennial Edition (of 500) silkscreen poster. Our original "blue sky" edition continues to be available as an open edition…
Alright - now Ranger Doug has cleared up some mysteries. We now know why there are so few of them, why they rend to feature obscure parks, and where the modern "non-authentic" ones come from. All the ones on this page are recent creations of Doug & Co and I think they're aces. He's got them as posters, notecards, limited edition prints - something for every budget.
Some history of the WPA also from Doug Leen...
After the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched a massive bureaucratic structure called the New Deal. This was primarily structured as work relief programs that began in 1933 as the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration or TERA. TERA underwent several organizational changes among them the Public Works or Art Project (PWAP), and the Civilian Works Administration (CWA) finally stabilizing as the Federal Project Number One in 1935. "Federal One" was only one section under the Division of Professional Service Project within the Works Progress Administration or WPA. To further complicate this bureaucratic web, "Fed One" had four subdivisions: The Federal Theater, Music, Writers, and Art Projects.
By 1938 the Federal Art Project or FAP employed artists in all 48 states with a budget of 1% of the WPA's total budget and was clearly the largest single employer of artists in the United States. Incidentally, this 1% is the model by which most cities today allocate funding for art projects within municipal buildings and is the basis for funding our foundation. Now, just when you thought you had all this memorized, in 1939 the Works Progress Administration kept its WPA acronym but changed its name to the Work Projects Administration for better public recognition!
The efforts of the FAP are mostly known today by the 4000 public murals that have survived on the walls of post offices and schools around the country. Perhaps least known are the posters by their very fragile nature. Between 1935 and 1943 over two million posters were printed by the WPA/FAP. These posters were based on 35,000 designs of which only 2,000 actual posters survive today. It is sad to realize that nearly 33,000 poster designs have been lost forever, representing 99.9% of our public poster art.
The early posters were individually hand painted in one or two colors and were produced in very limited editions, perhaps as few as 50. Poster subjects included art, theater, travel, education, health and safety. About one third of the artists producing these posters resided in New York City; a holdover from Mayor LaGuardia's "Fish Tuesday" poster project. Because of LaGuardia's model success, the WPA absorbed the mayor's poster project in 1935.
In 1934 Anthony Velonis joined the WPA/FAP and introduced the commercial technique of serigraph production. According to Posters of the WPA by Christopher DeNoon, in 1938 the WPA/FAP poster divisions had spread to at least eighteen states with the Chicago poster unit producing 1500 posters per day. With the serigraph commercial process, posters with up to eight or more colors could be efficiently produced.
With the advance of World War II and a concurrent rise of anti-communism, severe limitations were placed on the FAP, namely an annual salary cap of $1000 for artists. Another limitation was the "18 month rule" which limited artists to 18 months employment. This cut out 70% of all artists from the WPA. During the war the FAP was transferred to the Defense Department where the emphasis shifted to war posters. This move severely limited the artistic quality. By 1943 the FAP was disbanded entirely.
The National Parks Series were produced between 1938 beginning with the Grand Teton poster and ending with the Bandelier National Monument poster in 1941. The artists and actual dates of production are unknown. The original posters, distributed to local Chambers of Commerce, were produced for internal marketing only and not for sale.
So there you go. Now even 70 years later some of those posters surely exist and need to get back out there. Doug, like me, has a "thing" for the National Parks posters (although a bunch of the Indian Court posters are still extant - I'll post them later) but regardless, if your parent was one of the WPA artists, if you have one hanging on the wall of your cabin, if you're cleaning out the basement at the Alamo... Please be aware that that old poster you found represents an important time in America's history. A time when rebuilding the economy also meant restoring a quality of life - appreciating nature and the arts, avoiding the spread of infectious disease and all kinds of stuff. Contact Doug Leen, or me, or the Library of Congress, call Antiques Roadshow - whatever - just don't toss it in the trash.