The WPA’s Amazing Artistic Record Of American Design


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.