The Works Progress Administration was the largest agency within Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal — the government funded program to employ the unemployed and recover the economy after the Great Depression. From 1935 to 1943, the WPA Poster Division employed hundreds of artists and craftspeople to create millions of posters to promote New Deal programs, affordable housing, workplace safety, cultural and arts events, healthy living, and tourism. At the same time, the program employed workers not only creating the art on the posters, but thousands to print and hang them.
As far as inspiration goes, these are at the top of the list for us. This was one of the first times the process of screen printing was used for the arts rather than industrial purposes (road signs, etc). The artists (also working in lithography, woodblock printing, and hand painting) tested the limits of the medium, and it shows. They were limited by colors and the process itself, so they had to think of new ways to show their images and convey their messages. With these limitations, artists usually stuck to 2 or 3 color designs, constantly reminding us that we can send the message we need with only a few colors (though it is fun to break out 6 inks sometimes).
In some of the posters, people became stylized happy everymen and buildings became simple boxes. While in others, the artists would need to remind us that our foes wanted to destroy us, illustrating foreign dictators as terrifying monsters.
Unfortunately, many of these posters served as purely functional propaganda, so the government felt no need to document the posters as historical artworks. The Library of Congress has cataloged about 900 of them, but many of the over 35,000 designs and millions of posters have simply been lost. The WPA Living Archive is an organization that scours print collections around country searching out undocumented WPA posters and documenting and archiving them. They have already doubled the number of posters thought to have existed.
These posters are crucial to us as poster designers and printmakers. They are a testament to the real power of the poster as a communicative device as well as a truly masterful work of art.