The WPA’s Amazing Artistic Record Of American Design


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. …”