2014-02-14 / Community

Library Links

Retro propaganda posters are library decor
By Kevin Davis

If you’ve been in South Portland’s Main Library, you may have noticed hanging on the wall alongside the circulation desk, some of our rotating collection of framed, reading-themed, prints. We own five of these prints, thanks to the generosity of Friends of the South Portland Public Library, and we try to swap out the print on display every month or so. Currently on display is our “Miss Muffet” print, featuring an illustration of a girl reading, with a large spider descending from the top of frame. The text reads:

Little Miss Muffet… …sat on a tuffet reading a picture book there came a spider – and sat down beside her and said, “May I have a look?”

This print replaces our January print, which featured a child pulling a bookladen sled through the snow, accompanied by the text, “January – a year of good reading ahead.” Notable for their bold, stylized, illustrations, these prints

Left, Miss Muffet reading poster, created for Illinois WPA Art Project by Arlington Gregg. (Courtesy image) Left, Miss Muffet reading poster, created for Illinois WPA Art Project by Arlington Gregg. (Courtesy image) have drawn many positive and curious comments from library visitors since we began acquiring and displaying them. I thought I’d take the opportunity to share a little information about them, and point you to some resources for learning about – and seeing – many more. These prints are part of a much larger body of poster art, produced by The Works Projects Administration between 1935 and 1943. The administration was one of the “alphabet agencies” created as part of the New Deal by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Formed to combat the nation’s massive unemployment at the time, the Works Projects Administration was tasked with putting people to work across the country. The majority of its projects were public works-type projects, constructing public buildings, roads and parks. Among these kinds of Works Projects Administration projects was the Forest City Cemetery, off of Lincoln Street, here in South Portland. Much smaller in scale than the public

works initiatives, but with their own lasting legacy, were the Works Projects Administration arts projects. These projects focused on theater, art and literacy, and employed many in those fields at the time. While these projects employed artists and performers, they simultaneously enriched the culture across the country. In fact, there is an original – and lasting – Works Projects Administration art project that anyone can see right here in South Portland. The mural that depicts the wreck of the steamship “Bohemian,” high on the wall in the South Portland Post Office, was a Works Projects Administration commission, painted by Alzira Boehm Peirce.

Which brings us back to the library’s small collection of framed prints. To be clear – our prints are not original Works Projects Administration posters. The WPA poster designs are all in the public domain and many designs have been repurposed and reprinted, available through any number of artists and online vendors. As the designs tend to evoke a retromodernism, they seemed appropriate for the style of the building when we were looking for some new art to decorate with – even though they predate the main library’s architectural style by more than a couple decades.

Many of the reading-themed Works Projects Administration posters originate from Chicago, between 1936 and 1940, as part of the Illinois Works Projects Administration Art Project. Several of the reading posters are themed around months of the year; others in the series highlight kinds of reading material (adventure stories and humor,) while others promote library services (“A trip around the world at story hour time…”) or concepts (“Be kind to books club … are you a member?”).

The Works Projects Administration 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 that consists of 932 digitized Works Projects Administration 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 that promote 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 that promote 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 Works Projects Administration 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.”

Though they are certainly of their time, the library and reading posters, in particular, seem most timeless (though, perhaps I am biased). I’ll close with a quote from one of my favorites: “For greater knowledge on more subjects use your library more often.”

If you are interested in the prints you’ve seen at the library, or any I’ve discussed here, I have created a page on the library’s website, http://southportlandlibrary.com/ wpa-posters/, where you can view images of the prints in our collection, and link to more information about the WPA and the WPA posters collection of the Library of Congress.

Kevin Davis is director at South Portland Public Library.

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