Monday, October 6, 2014

Surviving the Depression with resourcefulness and style: "Little Heathens" and gorgeous WPA poster art

Ken Burns' PBS documentary The Roosevelts showed us how F.D.R. used the power of the Executive Branch to alleviate the effect on the country of the stock market crash, the Dust Bowl, and other disasters attendant on the Great Depression. Among his many enduring New Deal initiatives were the Civilian Conservation Corps, the improvements to the national parks and the nation's roadways, and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The latter encompassed public works and sidewalks and government buildings as well as theater, literature, and the arts. Posters promoting various WPA projects gave work to many graphic artists and are a colorful, tangible part of its legacy. Appearing throughout this post are a handful from the hundreds preserved in the Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs Division. Topics range from syphilis prevention to national parks and zoos to doll buggy contests and national defense (cf. the hideously racist poster below right).
“The way to whistle for a horse is to purse your lips together loosely, blow moderately hard and sing "Whee-oo! Whee-oo! Whee-oo!" in a high-pitched voice. Try it. You can do it.” So instructs Mildred Armstrong Kalish, author of the frank and fascinating Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression.  [I did it; I sounded like a bee.] "Use everything; waste nothing" was the unspoken motto of Kalish and her family, who lived through the Depression by means of animal husbandry, farming, brilliant domestic economies, and division of labor amongst grownups and children alike.
“Without knowing it, the adults in our lives practiced a most productive kind of behavior modification. After our chores and household duties were done we were give 'permission' to read. In other words, our elders positioned reading as a privilege—a much sought-after prize, granted only to those goodhardworkers who earned it. How clever of them.” Below is an excerpt from Kalish's first chapter; you can read it in its entirety here.
My childhood came to a virtual halt when I was around five years old. That was when my grandfather banished my father from our lives forever for some transgression that was not to be disclosed to us children, though we overheard whispered references to bankruptcy, bootlegging, and jail time. His name was never again spoken in our presence; he just abruptly disappeared from our lives. The shame and disgrace that enveloped our family as a result of these events, along with the ensuing divorce, just about destroyed my mother. Is it possible today to make anyone understand the harsh judgment of such failures in the late 1920's? Throughout my entire life, whenever I was asked about my father, I always said that he was dead. When he actually died I never knew.
So it was that Grandma and Grandpa chose to make our family of five-Mama, my ten-year-old brother Jack, my eight-year-old brother John, my one-year-old sister Avis, and me-their responsibility. They decided to settle us on the smallest of Grandpa's four farms, which was located about three miles from the village of Garrison, where they had retired after a lifetime of farming. However, because the fierce blizzards and subzero temperatures of Iowa winters made it hazardous to walk to the one-room rural school we would be attending, it had been arranged that we would live with Grandma and Grandpa in Garrison and attend school there from January until the school year ended in mid-May. At that time our family would move out to the farm. Each year from then on, we went to school in the country from September until Christmas, then moved back to Garrison and finished the school year in town.
Some of the artists who made posters are identified by name; above are beautiful works by Louis Siegriest and Shari Weisberg. Below, pieces by Ben Nason and Gregg Arlington.
Below, posters by Erik Krause and John Buczak and two more anonymous ones.
 The African-American theater posters are especially noteworthy; and who can resist the fabulous zoo images??
The WPA didn't forget the small fry; this is one of several doll & buggy parade posters in the Library of Congress collection! Which poster(s) would you like to frame and hang?
Below, another beauty, by Frank Nicholson. Sign me up!

Further reading: Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression by Morris Dickstein


  1. Has the name of the Federal Bldg. been changed to Native American Court?
    Something would have to be done about that picture, too.

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