Endearing images on the walls of 1930s post offices have captured the American scene and transformed the post office into a truly democratic art gallery. During the Great Depression that plagued the nation in the 1930s and 40s, Americans searched for images that could serve as beacons of hope during a time of economic and emotional despair. The Federal government, under the direction of President Roosevelt, implemented a “New Deal Policy” designed to provide work for the unemployed and hope to a destitute people.
An essential element of the project took the form of art, more specifically, art that the average American could relate to. This art for the people was shaped into federally funded murals that were installed in nearly 1,400 post offices around the country. Of the twenty one murals commissioned for post offices in Arkansas, nineteen exist today.
The Great Depression
The Great Depression (1929 – 1941) was a time in American history when the very foundation upon which the nation was built began to teeter. Between 1929 and 1932, the average American family income dropped by 40%, from $2,300 to $1,500. Instead of progress, survival became the keyword. The American ideals of democracy and capitalism were questioned, the land of opportunity had become a nation of hardship and misfortune. That patriotic spirit which had come to symbolize the democratic prosperity of America was covered in a shroud of hopelessness and despair. The nation was literally starving, millions were hungry and homeless, breadlines were miles long, people had lost hope that tomorrow would bring signs of a brighter future. The nation was dwindling from economic loss and despair. This was the nation that Franklin Delano Roosevelt inherited when he took office as 32nd president of the United States in 1933. In that year alone, 12 million American workers – ¼ of the nation’s population – were declared unemployed. Determined to raise American spirits and lift the nation out of its economic slump, Roosevelt prescribed his “New Deal” Program.
The New Deal was a series of worker relief programs established to create jobs and funnel money directly to victims of the depression. This federal government’s “New Deal” syllabus called for the creation of a number of programs that became commonly known as “alphabet soup.” The WPA, CCC, TVA, NRA, FSA, and AAA, were just a few of the numerous organizations established to bolster the economy and the American spirit. Roosevelt realized that in order to cure the “Great Depression” plaguing the nation, he had to do more than help the economy- he had to heal the American spirit.
The Depression Era of the 1930s was the era of the “common man.” Roosevelt once declared, “Always the heart and soul
of our country will be the heart and soul of the common man.” To mend the torn souls of the common man, Roosevelt looked to the arts. For it was his belief that a visual symbol of promise and hope would give Americans an image of a prosperous future to turn to when hope failed and strength faltered.
In the spirit of bringing hope to the common man and bridging the gap between art and the American people, the New Deal sought to install images if prosperity and hope around America. Officials initiated a series of art programs that commissioned unemployed artists and literally brought art to the everyday American. Between the years of 1933 and 1943 the federal government employed nearly ten thousand artists who produced an overwhelming quantity of work, i.e. 100,000 easel paintings, 18,000 sculptures, over 13,000 prints, and over 4,000 murals. The New Deal proved to be the most comprehensive program of government art patronage in American history. It also changed the relationship between art and society. Art’s elitist sphere was democratized. The New Deal essentially bridged the gap between art and society by stitching a new democratic being out of the two separate worlds, all the while, literally saving a generation of artists who would have been lost to the struggles of the depression.
 Franklin Roosevelt, Campaign Address at Cleveland, Ohio, November 2, 1940, Roosevelt Pubic Papers 6 (New York, 1941, 1969) 5-6.
The Treasury Department
On October 13, 1934, by order of the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture was officially established. Later renamed the Section of Fine Arts, its mission was to transform federal buildings-mostly post offices, into democratic art galleries. The Section, as it was commonly referred to, was the largest and longest lasting of the numerous art oriented programs established by Roosevelt’s New Deal Policy. During its nine year life, The Section employed nearly 850 artists and commissioned 1371 murals, a majority of which were installed in post offices around the nation. The Section officially closed its doors on June 30, 1943, as a result of America’s participation in World War II.
The Section was headed by Edward Bruce (1879 – 1943), Edward Rowan (1898 – 1946), and Forbes Watson (1880 – 1960). These three were not part of the established political bureaucracy, but came from artistic backgrounds. Bruce and Rowan were painters and Watson was an art critic. Thus they combined their skills to create an efficient artistic sphere where new ideas could prosper. Bruce, the individual responsible for first conceiving the Section, handled general policy and bureaucracy. Rowan dealt directly with the artists and provided artistic critiques and advice. Watson operated as the Section's publicist and art critic, promoting the organization in magazine and newspaper articles and encouraging general awareness of its programs.
Funding for the murals was established as a %-for-art plan. One percent of the cost of new federal buildings was set aside for the installation of artistic “embellishments.” Thus, as new post offices were being built around the nation, 1% of their cost, averaging $600, was set aside for the installation of art into their community.
The Section awarded jobs based on talent, not financial need, unlike other New Deal Programs. Furthermore, some murals were awarded on the basis of anonymous competitions, thus eliminating favoritism and giving young, unknown artists opportunities to receive significant commissions. The anonymity of the competition was assured because only unsigned designs were submitted to the juries. Sealed envelopes with the artist's name and contact information were taped to the back of each sketch. Once a winner had been determined, the identity of the artist was revealed. Unfortunately, well known artists quite often refused to enter the competitions stating that they were already recognized and their reputation adequately demonstrated their ability.
Such anonymity allowed for a wide variety of artists to be chosen. Of the 850 artists who won commissions for the Section, 162 of them were women, while three were African American . Controversy however, arose concerning the political affiliations of winning artists. Due to the competition's anonymity, artists of every political organization were commissioned-not just democrats and republicans, but also those associated with communism, socialism, and other radical political parties.
Most competitions were regional contests, less than 15 were national competitions. Once a specific federal building was chosen, the Section would appoint a regional chairman, generally a museum or art school director, who subsequently formed a jury and organized the competition. To elicit artists, the jury mailed announcements, advertised in newspapers, and promoted the contest in the Section Bulletin, which reached over 8,500 artists around the nation. Over the course of nine years, 15,426 artists submitted 40,426 sketches in 190 competitions.
Artists could also receive commissions based on “runner-up” status within the competitions. If an artist showed “exceptional promise” they would be given special consideration if a federal building within the artist’s local was constructed. Thus, an artist could forgo the competition on the basis of previous designs. A new sketch would need to be composed that focused on the new mural site. This sketch would subsequently be submitted to a committee for approval and a contract drawn up.
The Section was quite stringent concerning the artistic style in which the murals were executed. Although not officially limiting compositions to one specific genre, The Section overwhelmingly favored the realism of the American Scene, consistently shying away from modernist works involving elements of cubism and abstraction. This stylistic preference applied to murals both painted and sculptured. Marlene Park and Gerald Markowtiz in their book, Democratic Vistas: Post Offices and Public Art in the New Deal, contend that, “the Section wanted a contemporary American realism that was natural, authentic, and normative…On the whole, the Section believed that the public wanted recognizable and commonplace but dignified images.” The Section desired work that local residents could identify with and understand in a readily accessible manner.
It was “strongly recommended” that an artist visit the town that would be receiving the mural. Thus, it was believed that direct communication with the community and the local population would aid an artist in designing a scene that accurately represented the locale. However, long-distance travel within the United States was expensive and difficult. Artists would often forgo this initial “suggestion” and rely instead on correspondence with community members and library research to design a composition that represented a particular community. Quite often a post office mural depicting the life of a particular community was composed by an artist who had never actually visited the area.
Artists who received commissions were contracted to create a mural for a specific federal building. These murals they created within the studio and later installed in the building. The Section’s contract involved a number of stages that the artist was required to complete before the final mural could be installed.
The first official requirement was for an artist to submit a black and white sketch and a color sketch on the scale of one inch
to one foot to the Section for initial design approval. The Section recommended that artists submit four sketched ideas, thus increasing the likelihood that one would be approved for the building in question. The color sketch was deemed the most important stage because it was upon this design that competitions were judged and contracts signed. The color sketch was generally the only stage in the multi-step process in which the Section saw the artist’s actual work, the others consisting of photographs of the compositions. The selected color sketch was often critiqued by Edward Rowan, the Art Administrator of The Section. He generally urged artists to make small adjustments to their composition and/or their portrayal of the local community.
The second stage was of the submission of a “cartoon” of the proposed mural. This “cartoon” varied with the medium of the proposed mural. For painted murals, a to-scale black and white drawing of the composition was created. Artists would then photograph this cartoon and send the snapshot to the Section. For sculptured murals, a clay model or maquette was submitted to the Section for approval. This step was basically the intermediate stage, occupying the position between the small scale sketch and the actual mural. Artists often emphasized the linear aspects of the cartoon composition because it was those features that were transferred from the cartoon to the actual mural. Again, Edward Rowan would provide artistic advice, critiquing aspects such as modeling, perspective, and overall composition.
The logistics of each project was supervised by the Section via mail. The Section staff of 19 met regularly and submitted personal critiques of the works in progress; the sheer volume of correspondence is remarkable considering that for each mural there exists approximately 60 pieces of correspondence. However, it was Edward Rowan who directly corresponded with the artists.
The third and final stage was the creation and installation of the mural. The murals were created in the artist’s studio and then transported to the post office. Installation of the mural was generally carried out by the artists themselves or under their specific instructions.
Artists were paid in installments at the completion of each stage in the mural’s creation. The first and smallest payment was paid upon the approval of the initial sketch, the second when the cartoon or clay model/maquette was approved, and the third and largest payment was dispersed once the mural was installed and the postmaster had written to the Section confirming the installation. Artists were commissioned for various amounts, in Arkansas, the commissions ranged from $470 to $760. Basically, the Section attempted to pay approximately $10 per square foot.
It is within this context that twenty-one murals were commissioned for Arkansas. Twenty were installed and nineteen still exist. These existing nineteen consist of seventeen painted murals and two sculptured compositions.
 Barbara Melosh, Engendering Culture: Manhood and Womanhood in New Deal Public Art and Theater. (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, c.1991) 220.
Marlene Park and Gerald E. Markowitz, Democratic Vistas: Post Offices and Public Art in the New Deal. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984) 125.
All images of the murals on this site are used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®. All rights reserved