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The WPA’s Amazing Artistic Record Of American Design

April 2024
4min read

From the winter of 1935–36 until shortly after America’s entry into World War II, hundreds of artists were engaged throughout most of the nation in compiling a graphic record of surviving artifacts from the American past. Antiques shops and old farmhouses, private collections, historical societies and museums, California missions and Shaker barns, were ransacked for evidence that would accurately and colorfully picture the story of our early arts and crafts. The program, organized under the Works Progress Administration, was aimed at maintaining and improving artistic skills that were languishing in the trough of the Great Depression for lack of employment. The Index of American Design that resulted from that program is the most extraordinary and most comprehensive collection of its kind in the world. (It is now in the custody of the National Gallery in Washington.) At their best these fascinating renderings are more revealing than photographic records.

Although this was make-work, it had other aspects. With bewildering suddenness, the almost mystic sanctity of American prosperity had been violated by the stock-market crash of 1929. The nation was completely unprepared for the suffering that followed. It seemed like some outrageous, inexplicable prank of nature that had turned the American Dream into a nightmare. Out of the ensuing bafflement arose a need to understand what was valid in American experience— a search for something more basic and durable than the euphoric aberrations of the 1920’s. And in these drawings it was possible to recapture the vitality and warmth of everyday life in earlier, saner times. There has long been a need for wide distribution of this pictorial information. This purpose will be substantially served by The Treasury of American Design, a two-volume work prepared by Clarence Hornung, to be published in the fall of 1972 by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. The reproductions herewith are selected from the eight hundred and fifty illustrations in these books.




In America the art of the sculptor was deeply rooted in the craft of the woodworker. Long before native artists began to chisel their images from marble and cast them in bronze, generations of wood carvers had displayed their considerable talents fashioning portraits and other figures from local timber. And long after the more sophisticated American sculptors were earning fair reputations in the world of the fine arts for their work in stone and metal, contemporary artisans continued to shape effigies in wood that were both decorative and useful. None maintained that tradition more vigorously than the carvers of ships’ figureheads, and few American ships ventured forth without some colorful figurative symbol to breast the waves.



Until late in the nineteenth century, America remained a predominantly rural nation where the look of the sky and the way of the wind were matters of constant concern to the countryman. The ingenuity and imagination of craftsmen found their freest expression in designing the weather vanes atop buildings across the land. (Picasso once remarked that cocks—commonly used above churches to recall Peter’s denial of Christ have never been so well seen as in American weather vanes.) Vanes of infinite variety were whittled, forged, cut, and cast into shapes that provided a sort of glossary of American interests and enthusiasms over the years.



Service in early American fire companies was voluntary and without pay; formal membership was a distinction, although the young men who actually “ran with the machine” for excitement were often toughs who fought with men from rival companies before bothering with the fire that meanwhile blazed on. Association with a company was a matter of pride that was reflected in the artistry lavished on equipment and regalia—embellishments that were usually paid for by the firemen themselves or by their friends.




When he visited the West Coast in the 1830’s, Richard Henry Dana thought that the Californians seemed always to be on horseback and that they were the world’s finest riders. “They are put upon a horse when only four or five years old …,” he wrote, “and may almost be said to keep on him until they have grown to him.” Horsemanship in the Southwest was virtually a necessary accomplishment, and a matter of pride. Saddles, bridles, bits, spurs, and the other trappings were highly personal expressions of taste and pretension. The individual design and the elaborate ornamentation of such gear reflected skills of ancient tradition that reach far back into Spanish history.



In the last quarter of the nineteenth century the circus flowered in its full glory. People of all ages, all colors, in all sections of the land, eagerly awaited the grand parade into town that was the opening act of the seasonal visit. “It was India and Arabia and the jungle to us,” Hamlin Garland recalled from his prairie childhood. “History and the magic pomp of chivalry mingled in the parade of the morning. … It was our brief period of imaginative life.” After the show was over, he added, “the memory of its splendors went with us like a golden cloud.” Among the popular arts of America nothing quite matched the extravagance and brilliance of circus-wagon ornament that lured the eye and fired the imagination with images of boundless invention. During the season such caravans found their way to hamlets even too obscure and far away to attract a trolley car.



With the passing of wooden vessels some carvers turned from modelling ships’ figureheads to fashioning shop figures. Until ordinances in many crowded communities prohibited such “obstructions and hazards to passing pedestrians,” effigies of almost every race and type known to man could be spotted along city streets—ladies of fashion, race-track touts, turbaned Turks, kilted Scotsmen, and, most endearing of all, cigar-store Indians in the form of braves, squaws, and occasionally papooses. Less than a century ago that mighty, brightly painted tribe of silent, native advertising agents numbered in the tens of thousands. Surviving members in good condition command high prices in today’s auction houses.




Early in the nineteenth century it was reported that in the art of woodcarving, Samuel Mclntire of Salem “had no rival in New England.” Aside from his figures in the round, his relief carvings added distinction to the finest furniture and buildings constructed in his day. His equally skilled Philadelphia contemporary, William Rush, carved, among numerous other things, enlarged models of human organs for display in professional anatomy classes. Later in the century artisans often plied their craft in anonymity for less exacting clients. The primary requisite for the trade signs they produced was to illustrate their message in the most direct terms.



Throughout the colonial period and for years after, little if any distinction was drawn between the crafts and the fine arts in this country. Painters with no formal training or serious practice in art limned the features of their neighbors as a sideline to such workaday jobs as producing ship and tavern signs. Conversely, professed artists of acknowledged talent as readily turned from taking likenesses of their neighbors to producing signs and similar decorations for ship and home and public place. Whatever the level of its artistry, the painted panel that hung before a wayside inn was a welcome sight for the stagecoach passenger. Until the day of railroads and then macadamized turnpikes, overland travel had few rewards beyond the simple satisfaction of reaching a destination in one piece. In 1791, when President Washington undertook a necessary southern tour, Jefferson wrote him: “I shall be happy to hear that no accident happened to you in the bad roads. …”


A NOTE TO MEMBERS OF THE AMERICAN HERITAGE SOCIETY The Treasury of American Design will be published this autumn by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., at a retail price of $50 for the two-volume set. Arrangements have been made, however, for members of the American Heritage Society to receive copies at a substantially lower prepublication price. Details will be mailed out shortly. Interested members may write to Martin Rapp, American Heritage Publishing Company, Inc.,551 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017.

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