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WPA Murals, Part 1

Posted by Laurie Frost on September 9, 2009

27-0808aMural by Symeon Shimin, “Contemporary Justice in Relation to the Child.” Department of Justice Building in Washington, D.C., ca. 1940. Courtesy National Archives. [ARC Identifier 195951]

It wasn’t until I came across mention in Assassination Vacation of Edwin Booth being featured in a WPA post office mural in Bel Air, Maryland, that I realized murals in public places were  another one of the New Deal’s arts initiatives (I’m still waiting on the current Stimulus Package’s programs for writers and artists…). I wanted to have a look at these.

I started at the National Archives, where I found these:


“Painting depicting race involving people in wagons, on horseback, and a bike to stake claims on land plots. One of the wagon canvas’s says: Oklahoma or Bust:.” Artist: John Stewart Curry. Building and city not identified, ca. 1937.  Courtesy National Archives. [ARC identifier197273]


“Painting of steamboat pushing barges on Hudson River with New York City skyline in background, ca. 1937. ” Artist: Louis Lozowick. New York City General Post Office. Courtesy National Archives. [ARC Identifier 195793]


“Painting depicting World War I scene with soldiers and ammunition in foreground and large dirigible suspended in upper middle.” Artist Peppino Mangravite. Hempstead, New York, ca. 1937. Courtesy National Archives. [ARC Identifier 195789]

These frescoes (below) by Reginald Marsh are in the New York City Customs House. The shapes of these images confused me until I saw the photograph of their location. Courtesy National Archives. [ARC Identifiers 195957, 195814, 195816]





I did a little looking around and I found that the Midwest Chapter of the National New Deal Preservation Association maintains a webpage, New Deal Art During the Great Depression, with lists of post office murals organized by town and state. Many are accompanied by photographs, and while permission to use these might be easy to get, they aren’t in the public domain. But you can see them on by starting here.

My next idea was to go to the US Postal Service site. According to the USPS, even if you take a picture of one of these murals yourself only for non-commercial/educational purposes it must be credited “Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®. All rights reserved.”  Moreover,

Any use of mural images by a commercial entity or by a nonprofit entity for profit-making, commercial purposes requires approval from the Rights and Permissions office.

 Why? Because

The Postal Service is the owner and proud guardian of over 1,000 murals and sculptures commissioned by the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts from 1934 to 1943.

How exactly the USPS can consider itself the owner of art commissioned by the Federal government is beyond my comprehension, but the explanation, such as it is, appears in the General Services Administration Guidelines on Fine Arts, which you can look at here.

I had more success at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library. Their policy is

Unless copyright information is stated in the image caption, all of the digitized material available online from the FDR Library Archives belongs in the public domain. This means that, to the best of our knowledge, the materials may be freely used by the online researcher, teacher, or student. Users of online material should be aware, however, that it is still necessary to acknowledge the source of documents, photographs and other historical material by proper citation. Please see guidance below.

When you do see copyright information associated with documents or photographs, either in-person or on our website, it is your responsibility as a researcher to acquire permission from the copyright owner in order to legally use that material in your project or publication.

So I am able to share these with you, showing the process of creating one of these murals, which happens to be the subject of an exhibition at the FDR Library Museum on display through November 19, 2009:

First is a postcard depicting Stoutenburgh panel ca. 1940s [MO 1968.15.15], a mural in the Hyde Park, NY Post Office by Olin Dows. Second is a mixed media drawing for the panel  [Section of Fine Arts, Treasury Department MO 1968.15.17], and third, a final color study [Section of Fine Arts, Treasury Department MO 1968.15.1]. All Courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Hyde Park, New York.




4 Responses to “WPA Murals, Part 1”

  1. When I originally commented I seem to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on every time a comment is added I receive four emails with the same comment.
    Perhaps there is a way you are able to remove me from that
    service? Thanks!streetdirectory

    • havealittletalk said

      This is what WordPress says: If you want to stop receiving comment notification or start receiving notification on all comments on a particular blog, click the “Subscription Options” link at the bottom of the notification email. You can also use the link shown below.

      There’s a graphic showing the box here:

      Let me know if this does not work and I will look for another answer.

  2. Guillermo Z said

    Correction on caption of “ARC Identifier 195789” otherwise the airship image marked R-34. This is not a wartime picture. This is a depiction of an important aeronautical event which was the first crossing of the Atlantic by a lighter than air ship, the British R-34. It was also the first air crossing from East to West (and as a result the first to do a round trip). What appears to be rounds of ammunition are actually tanks of hydrogen used for the ship. The presence of the US Mail truck notes the importance of experimental air mail being tried out during the crossing. It did this in July of 1919 landing in Mineola, Long Island, NY (probably the location shown). It only missed being the first across the Atlantic by air by 2 weeks (Alcock and Brown did it earlier in a converted bomber)

    • havealittletalk said

      Very interesting. I’m sure the National Archives would appreciate receiving your information. I’ll try to track down the source of their caption, which is what I used, and where to send your correction with documentation sources. Thanks for writing.

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