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ON THE SHELF

Self-help art

November 30, 2008|Carolyn Kellogg

As president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt enlisted the United States in a massive course of self-betterment. Among the most obvious components of this effort were the infrastructure projects of the Works Progress Administration.

But self-improvement didn't stop with bridges and roads: The WPA encouraged Americans to get better. To get hired, eat more vegetables, brush their teeth, go to plays and the zoo, visit national parks, even to seek treatment for syphilis.

How did the WPA do this, exactly? With posters, hundreds of which have now been reprinted, in full color, in "Posters for the People: Art of the WPA" by Ennis Carter (Quirk Books: 216 pp., $50).

The Federal Arts Project, which created the posters, employed 500 artists and had offices in 18 states. Operating from 1935 to 1943, it created more than 35,000 designs and distributed 2 million posters nationwide.

"Posters for the People" offers a gorgeous selection, gathering the most artistic and inspiring, the cutest and the most terrifying. The images, from many hands over many years, cover a wide array of styles. There are sleek Art Deco travel posters, lurid fire warnings, block-print crafts show advertisements and beautiful nature prints.

The messages are usually cheerful. Other times, they spin: "Jobs for girls & women: if you want a good job in household employment, apply at Illinois State Employment Service."

It would be nice if women and girls had been encouraged, with equal enthusiasm, to become doctors or seek better-paying jobs. But in a depression, I suppose, being cheerful about any job -- even housekeeping -- is the kind of self-improvement we all might need.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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