The Extraordinary Story of Iconic American Travel Posters
In the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, the New Deal created jobs for more than 8 million Americans with the development of the Works Projects Administration (WPA). In an effort to bring work to struggling artists, the WPA also hired illustrators, painters and other creative workers for special government-funded work as part of what it dubbed the Federal Art Project.
The effort was astonishing in scope: Between 1935 and 1943, some 2 million posters in 35,000 different designs were created in an effort to promote education, theater, health, safety — and travel.
To inspire American tourism, artists created posters showcasing cities, museums, monuments, zoos and other wonders of the American landscape. Arguably the most iconic posters of all, though, touted one of America's greatest treasures: its spectacular national park system.
Vintage Posters of the National Parks
The majority of the WPA's national park posters are credited to artist C. (Chester) Don Powell, a Kansas man who studied art in Chicago. Unfortunately, World War II cut his project short, leaving just 14 original works, all of which are now collectibles that can fetch thousands of dollars.
Of the 14 posters, 11 originals have been recovered by a former park ranger, Doug Leen, who also works to create posters of additional parks in the same vintage style of the originals.
One poster, of Yosemite, is privately owned. Two posters, of Wind Cave and the Great Smoky Mountains, have been lost — if you find one, Ranger Doug wants to speak to you!
Grand Teton's Jenny Lake Museum
The first park to get its own poster was Grand Teton National Park. Its poster appropriately depicts towering peaks, while nodding to the park's first ranger station, Jenny Lake Museum.
The log-cabin station opened in the Montana park in the 1930s and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. An original of this poster hangs in the museum.
Grand Canyon National Park
The second completed poster is a rendering of Grand Canyon National Park's Moran Point, a popular spot on the east rim that showcases dazzling views of the canyon and its rivers.
The Grand Canyon had only been a national park for 19 years when this poster was created. Today, more than 6 million people visit the park annually, making it the second-most-visited in the country.
At the time the posters were created, they were sent to local Chambers of Commerce near the parks to help promote tourism. Only four copies from the original 1938 distribution exist.
Yellowstone National Park
Two posters were created for Yellowstone National Park. One featured a waterfall within the park; the other, pictured here, depicted the park's famous geyser, Old Faithful. There were no more than 100 total Yellowstone posters made, which is why they are so hard to find today.
Only two originals of this geyser poster remain, including one the Library of Congress bought for a cool $6,000. Although created by Powell, the originals have "EM" initials, assumed to be the initials of the person who made the screening.
Glacier Bay National Monument
Although Glacier National Park was inducted into the park system in 1910, it wasn't until 1925 that President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed Glacier Bay itself a national monument. Just 13 years later, the National Park Service was promoting the park, reached then by steamship and today by Alaskan cruises.
This poster, along with the additional 13 posters of the national parks, were hand-painted and mass-reproduced from paintings using silkscreen printing, which was a new technology in 1936.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Smoke billows out from the peak of Mt. Lassen in this poster depicting one of America's lesser-visited national parks. (A shame, as its forests, lakes and — of course — volcanoes are magnificent.)
The original poster of Lassen Volcano in California sold at auction for more than $4,000.
Zion National Park
To reproduce the lost posters, Ranger Doug uncovered black-and-white photography depicting the paintings. Guessing Zion's poster would highlight the park's beautiful sunset-hued colors, he crafted the version showed here. It was 10 years before he found the original, which actually used blue coloring.
Ranger Doug's version of this poster is the more popular of the reproductions purchased today.
Fort Marion National Monument
St. Augustine, Florida's Fort Marion was one of only two parks from the east to get a poster. (The other was Great Smoky Mountains National Park.)
Today, this monument is known as Castillo de San Marcos. It preserves a fort used by the Spanish, the British and then the Spanish again, before it was bought by the United States and used by the army until 1899.
National parks weren't the only American marvels to get the snazzy poster treatment. The United States Travel Bureau also commissioned works that could be displayed in cities to inspire exploration.
This poster was created by artist Alexander Dux, one of more than 5,000 artists employed by the WPA. While not officially part of the national parks project — and even though it promotes America broadly — it actually does showcase a national park as backdrop: Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.
Before the WAP was established in 1935, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had established his own poster project in 1934 to promote tourism to the Big Apple. When the federal project began, LaGuardia's project merged with, and became the largest division of, the WAP's Federal Art Project.
Both the mayor's and FAP's posters were mainly designed for art, music, theater and creative projects, but soon cities and states began using posters to promote other programs as well.
Also created for the New York City project was a poster promoting travel to Puerto Rico, as the city was touting destinations that could be reached by plane. New York City wanted more people to visit its airports and take flight.
This illustration was designed by Frank S. Nicholson and features a view of San Juan Harbor from Morro Caste.
Winter in New York
While New York City had the largest poster division in the country, New York State created tourism posters, as well, reminding travelers there was much more to see in the state than the Big Apple. This poster promotes the state's robust skiing scene; New York is home to 43 ski areas, reportedly more than any other state in the U.S.
Through the Federal Art Project, artists were paid $23.50 per week.
Chicago created a series of posters promoting the Brookfield Zoo, also called the Chicago Zoological Park, just outside of the city. The zoo had opened in 1934, and the city was attempting to promote it to nearby residents. Decades later, the zoo remains a popular Chicago attraction, housing 450 species of animals.
Other posters plugged sites like Buckingham Fountain, then touted as "the world's largest and most beautiful illuminated fountain"; it also remains a standout spot in the Windy City.
Pennsylvania created many posters to promote Philadelphia and various tourist destinations, including the Amish Country.
The Philadelphia Zoo, which opened in 1874, was touted in several posters made by the Federal Art Project in Pennsylvania. Each poster featured animals found at the zoo, including a hippo, two herons and this blue elephant. The Philadelphia Zoo remains one of the best in the nation, home to some 1,300 animals.
New York Airports
Opposition within Congress caused the WAP program to end. By 1942, the WPA art projects were handed over to the Defense Department and transformed into the Graphics Section of the War Service Division. Artists created training aids and patriotic posters for the war.
The project officially ended on June 30, 1943.
The End of an Era
Due to the Federal Art Project's eight years of employment, renowned artists such as Jackson Pollock were able to continue to earn a living creatively.
The program also brought art classes to schools and created more than 100 community art centers and galleries across America, keeping art alive for millions during the Great Depression.
The total investment? Nearly $35 million. (More than $520 million in today's terms!)