The Great Depression had a major impact on the screenprinting technologies. At a time when some 25% of people were without jobs, they were introduced to screenprinting posters produced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Programs. The Poster Program introduced screenprinting to millions of people and it extended around the world.

The Great Depression was a period of worldwide economic depression that lasted from 1929 until approximately 1939. The starting point of the Great Depression is usually listed as October 29, 1929, commonly called Black Tuesday. This was the date when the stock market fell dramatically: 12.8%. This was after two previous stock market crashes on Black Thursday (October 24), and Black Monday (October 28). The Dow Jones Industrial Average would eventually bottom out by July, 1932 with a loss of approximately 89% of its value.

The Great Depression

Throughout 1930, consumer spending continued to decline which meant businesses cut jobs thereby increasing unemployment.

Further, a severe drought across America meant that agricultural jobs were reduced. Countries around the globe were affected and many protectionist polices were created thereby increasing the problems on a global scale.

At the beginning of the Great Depression Herbert Hoover was president. He tried to institute reforms to help stimulate the economy but they had little to no effect – by 1933, unemployment in the United States was at a staggering 25%.

President Roosevelt’s New Deal

When Franklin Roosevelt became president on March 4, 1933, he immediately instituted the first New Deal. This was a comprehensive group of short-term recovery programs. It not only included economic aid & work assistance programs, but also the end of the gold standard and of Prohibition.

CCC – Civilian Conservation Corps: The Civilian Conservation Corps was created in 1933 by Franklin D. Roosevelt to combat unemployment. This work relief program had the desired effect and provided jobs for many Americans during the Great Depression. The CCC was responsible for building many public works and created structures and trails in parks across the nation.

CWA – Civil Works Administration: The Civil Works Administration was created in 1933 to create jobs for the unemployed. Its focus on high paying jobs in the construction arena resulted in a much greater expense to the federal government than originally anticipated. The CWA ended in 1934 in large part due to opposition to its cost.

HOLC – Home Owners Loan Corporation: The Home Owners Loan Corporation was created in 1933 to assist in the refinancing of homes. The housing crisis created a great many foreclosures, and Franklin Roosevelt hoped this new agency would stem the tide. In fact, between 1933 and 1935 one million people received long term loans through the agency that saved their homes from foreclosure.

This was then followed by the Second New Deal programs, which included more long-term assistance such as:

  • The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC)
  • The Social Security System
  • The Federal Housing Administration (FHA)
  • Fannie Mae
  • The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)
  • The Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC)
  • The Works Progress Administration (WPA)

The Works Progress Administration

The W.P.A. was the abbreviation for the Works Progress Administration, a government-funded arts program which had a visual artists’ division. The visual artists who participated in the WPA ranged from figurative and academic, all the way to abstract & surrealistic, in addition to almost every other school of painting, sculpture and the graphic arts (including prints and posters).

The WPA was an idea that George Biddle presented to his close friend and university classmate, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Biddle was a talented painter who felt the plight of the unfortunate and poor arts community during the Depression, and prevailed upon F.D.R. to create a program for this group of creative people.

The W.P.A. program (Federal Project No. 1, as it was called), included many projects, among which were the Federal Art, Music, Theater & Writers’ Projects.

The Federal Art Project

The Federal Arts Project (FAP) was founded in 1935 as a sub-unit of the WPA. The FAP existed in all 48 states. Its strongest outreach program was in art education for children, with more than 100 community art centers across the nation that managed art programs, and held art exhibitions of works produced by children and adults.

Under this program thousands of posters, prints, sculptures, paintings, drawings, and murals were produced, which were then, in turn, loaned to schools, libraries, galleries, and other institutions.

These programs spawned a new awareness of & appreciation for American art and provided jobs for needy artists.

World War II brought its demise, as efforts were concentrated on the war effort; however, during its life an estimated number of artworks produced were: 2,566 murals, 17,744 sculptures, 108,099 easel paintings & 240,000 prints.

The FAP had two goals: 1. To provide artworks for non-federal public buildings, and 2. To provide jobs for unemployed artists on relief (unemployment) rolls.

In order to accomplish these goals, FAP artists were organized into 3 different FAP divisions.

Art Production Division

The production of artworks held multiple divisions:

  • Easel division: This emphasized nationalism and the rediscovery of America in artwork subjects
  • Mural division: The focus was on works for public places with regional differences occurring (e.g. Chicago for realistic American scenes, New York City for abstract murals, and California for Asian-influenced themes).
  • Sculpture division: Here artists were encouraged to work in less expensive materials.
  • Graphic arts division: It produced posters for the government.

Art Education Division

The art education division included the establishment of community art centers. Art centers as institutions devoted to community education rather than practical training were rare before the FAP.

By December 1936, there were 25 art centers in the south and west. The heart of the community art center was its educational program provided through classes for both adults and children.

Art Research Division

The FAP facilitated art research through the founding of the Index of American Design. Its goal was to make an historical and pictorial record of the daily life of American people. They produced 20,000 index plates in six years of operation. Specific kind of designs studied included:

  • Textiles & fiber designs
  • Glasswork
  • Ceramics
  • Metalwork like copper or brass

Regional varieties such as the Shaker materials in New England.

Becoming A FAP Artist

Over 5,000 artists throughout the nation were involved. An eligibility process was organized, whereby the artists interested in participating in the FAP would apply to a panel of their peers. They first had to prove they were in financial need, unless they were in a supervisory job. Then, the artists would submit their work with any publicity, resume or exhibition records that they had. On the basis of the artists’ training experience and ability, the artists then received assignments.

The pay scale ranged from $23.00 per week to approximately $35.00 per week. The artists waited on line each week to receive their checks and this waiting line very often became an opportunity for the artists to socialize with and meet one another.

After being selected to be on the Project, artists were reviewed periodically and could be removed from a project if their financial status changed or if their work was unsatisfactory.

Future Famous Artists in the FAP

Many artists who became luminaries of 20th century art – known as The Irascibles – got their start in the FAP. Artists such as Milton Avery, Stuart Davis, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning & Jackson Pollock were just a few of the thousands of artists on the WPA Project who went on to achieve worldwide recognition.

FAP Artist: Jackson Pollock

Perhaps best known for his later “drip” paintings, Wyoming-born Pollock first studied at the New York Art Students’ League under American Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton. Pollock was employed by the FAP from 1933 – 1943. He worked in the easel & mural art divisions, creating works that were influenced by Benton, while also hinting at his future abstract style.

Mules draw two wagons displays the influence of along a road in front of a Benton & Mexican rickety-looking general muralists David Siqueiros & store. José Clemente Orozco.

A full moon dominates the painting Going West is sky, the brightest portion of typical of this period. which reads as a human. Set in a nocturnal profile looking toward the landscape where the lone muleteer. dynamic compositional. The theme of the American vortex is a synthesis of frontier is also a carry-over Orozco’s atmospheres & from Pollock’s Regionalist Benton’s terrains background.

FAP Artist: Willem de Kooning

Dutch-born de Kooning came to the US as a stowaway between the World Wars. He was employed by the FAP from 1935 – 1943. de Kooning successfully worked in the murals division, and created many works that brought him great public acclaim. Although his later work is quite wild and gestural, his early FAP work is comparably meticulous & detailed.

From late 1937 until early 1939, de Kooning worked on a mural for the Hall of Pharmacy for the New York World’s Fair, which he called Medicine. Thousands of motorists would have been able to see the curved wall of the building decorated with de Koonings mural. Unfortunately, neither the building or the mural survive today.

A Lasting Legacy

A year before the FAP was The New York poster division organized, New York City had was headed by Richard Floethe. created the Mayors Poster Project

Floethe was a German-born within the Civil Works internationally known industrial Administration. designer who was educated in the Posters were already being fundamentals of the aesthetic produced by this group for some of movement known as the Mayor LaGuardia’s favorite Bauhaus. projects.

The freedom given to project. In 1935, this department was artists under Floethe’s absorbed by the federal government enlightened leadership enabled and became the country’s first FAP poster division. them to experiment with bold colors & many different styles.

In an essay written in the 1930’s and later published in Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s by Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project, Floethe wrote,”…the government unwittingly launched a movement to improve the commercial poster and raise it to a true art form.”

By 1938, there were FAP poster divisions in at least eighteen states. New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia had thriving poster divisions, with New York City having the largest division.

The poster divisions designed posters mainly for the Federal Art, Music, Writers, and Theater Projects.


At first, posters were created by hand, individually painted and lettered. Later on, the divisions artists usually used the screenprinting process, which was adapted and refined for the mass production in 1936 by Anthony Velonis. Consequently, the printing of a poster was a collaborative effort.

Artists were responsible for the posters design, color selection, and sometimes the cutting of the stencils used to print the poster. The workshops technical staff screened the posters. The exchange of ideas between the designers and the printers resulted in a technically and artistically well-balanced poster. With screenprinting process, as many as six hundred posters were printed in a day.

Remember, an individual screen must be created for each different block of color, and the screens must be independently inked and precisely aligned!

Cover of Technical Problems of the Artist, Anthony VelonisVelonis coined the word serigraph (from seri, Latin for “silk” and graphein, Greek for “to write or draw”) to convey the fine-art rather than commercial aspect of the process. Velonis also wrote a book entitled Technical Problems of the Artist – Technique of the Silk Screen Process that was used as a “how-to” manual for other poster divisions. He traveled extensively to advise FAP artists on the technique of screenprinting.

Due in part to congressional opposition, the New York City FAP and its poster division were once again placed under Mayor LaGuardias sponsorship in 1939. By 1942, all the remaining WPA art projects were transferred to the Defense Department to become the Graphics Section of the War Service Division.

In the history of the WPA art projects, over two million posters were printed from thirty-five thousand designs. Today, only about two thousand of the posters produced by all the poster divisions are known to exist.

In a 1938 issue of Signs of the Times, a journal of advertising and design, it was said:

“The poster division . . . is doing a valuable service to the profession in general and the consumer in particular, in trying to combine good craftsmanship and design with original ideas . . . it is to be hoped that these beneficial WPA productions may act as a stimulating influence to poster artists in all parts of the country.”

Not only did the poster divisions succeed, but government support of the arts through the Federal Art Project gave new impetus to American artistic expression. The different approaches to poster design of the many artists associated with the WPA combined to create a truly original, American poster style.

The End Of An Artistic Era

The FAP ended with the closing of the fiscal year on June 30,1943, when the government turned its attention towards the war effort. In the late 1940s, thousands much of the artworks that were in the WPA project’s storage rooms were lost or sold off by the pound. Despite the unfortunate way the WPA and the government dealt with the artists’ work, many positive results took place.

The artists were able to sustain themselves through difficult times. Many artists gained experience, their careers were helped, and life-time friendships began during the WPA. The general public became exposed to the works of art through the exhibitions, the schools of art and the public institutions that displayed the screenprinted posters, murals, sculpture and other works of art.