National income plummeted, billions of dollars in savings accounts vanished and 13 million people--about one-fourth of the labor force--were out of work.
The Great Depression, which gripped the country following the stock market crash of 1929, was a profound shock to America's economy and self-confidence.
Elected in 1932 by voters desperate for solutions, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pushed through an unprecedented array of programs designed to put people back to work. The huge numbers in these federal programs built roads, tended forests, erected buildings and created works of art, among other things.
From December, 1933, to June, 1942, several programs funded through the Department of the Treasury and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) allowed jobless artists to paint murals, sculpt statues and even design public buildings.
"It was art for the people," said Pauline Alpert Stein, an American Studies instructor at El Camino College who wrote her 1984 Ph.D. dissertation on WPA art. "It wasn't hidden away in rich people's houses."
Sometimes it was the poor man's art in terms of quality too. According to Stein: "Some of it was good; some was terrible."
The Los Angeles area has the nation's second greatest concentration of WPA art, after New York City, said Stein.
Here is a sampler of Los Angeles-area WPA artworks selected with the assistance of Stein and Scott Cantry, art curator for the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs.
Although most of these artworks are still in good condition, some show their years. Among the most common defects are peeling paint and chipping.
Astronomers' Monument. Following the WPA philosophy that work be provided for as many people as possible, six artists created the six cast-stone figures for this 40-foot monument. Represented are astronomers Sir William Herschel, Sir Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler, Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei and Hipparchus. The monument is in front of the Griffith Observatory, 2800 E. Observatory Road, Los Angeles.
Beverly Hills Post Office mural. This mural, in the lobby of the post office at 469 N. Crescent Drive in Beverly Hills, shows WPA workers toiling for a paycheck. According to Stein, it is one of many artworks of the WPA that celebrate the common person but one of the few that actually portrays WPA workers.
Culver City Post Office mural. This mural depicting the rise of the motion picture industry is at 9942 Culver Blvd., Culver City.
Florence Nightingale statue. This concrete representation of the British nurse, hospital reformer and humanitarian is in Lincoln Park, 3501 Valley Blvd., Los Angeles.
Glendale Community College tile mosaic fountain. This fountain, in the Mexican and American Indian tradition, is in the campus quad at Glendale Community College, 1500 N. Verdugo Road, Glendale.
Hollywood Bowl fountain. A concrete figure of a woman playing a harp while kneeling atop an Art Deco-inspired fountain greets motorists negotiating Cahuenga Pass in front of the Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood.
Hollywood High School buildings. In these examples of architecture-as-art, Art Deco and Moderne styles are blended in the WPA-built science and liberal arts buildings of Hollywood High. The school is at 1521 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood.
Marquis de Lafayette statue. This plaster-over-concrete rendering of the French military figure and statesman, who played key roles in both the American and French revolutions, is in Lafayette Park, near where Lafayette Park Place meets 6th Street, Los Angeles.
Terminal Annex Post Office mural. This 11-panel mural portrays American Indian life, the Westward Expansion, science of the 1930s and combat soldiers. The panels were completed during a period ending in the early 1940s. Terminal Annex Post Office is at 900 N. Alameda St., Los Angeles.
Venice Post Office mural. This mural depicting the history of this beach city is at 1601 Main St., Venice.