A Common Canvas: Pennsylvania's New Deal Post Office Murals
New Deal Arts & Architecture


As part of the New Deal effort to stimulate the economy, the federal government embarked on a massive program of public works construction. Across the country thousands of post offices, courthouses, bridges, and dams were built. The most visible and ubiquitous of these facilities were the post offices. The Treasury Department, which appropriated the funds for all federal construction, also designed most of these projects through its Office of the Supervising Architect. One percent of the appropriated funds was reserved for "embellishment" in the form of murals or sculpture. The Treasury Department's Section of Fine Arts (known simply as the Section), formed at the beginning of the New Deal, invited artists to enter national competitions for large post offices around the country; runners-up were offered commissions for smaller post offices. The artworks were expected to reflect the town's heritage in some way. Popular subjects included local industry, agriculture, and history. Artists were expected to travel to their assigned post offices, meet with the post master and other residents (often a local historian or librarian) and generate several ideas for subject matter. After a sketch was approved by the Section's administrators, the artist could proceed to create his or her artwork.

The Section was active from 1934 to 1943. During this time, Pennsylvania received 94 commissions for murals and sculpture for federal buildings (88 post offices, 5 courthouses, 1 customs house). Nationwide, 80% of post office artworks are murals and 20% are sculpture. In Pennsylvania, almost half of our artworks are sculpture, giving Pennsylvania the most sculpture of any state, and the second largest collection of both murals and sculpture in the country. The artworks were distributed across the state in urban and rural locations.

The Artists

Unlike the arts programs of the Works Projects Administration (WPA), the Section was not a relief program and commissions were merit based. The Section administrators were enthusiastic supporters of American art and hoped to create a uniquely American art via the mural program. Artists were requested to work in the "American Scene" style. The Section only vaguely defined this term, suggesting a straightforward realism portraying subjects easily recognizable by every American. Allegorical or symbolic paintings, abstraction and European-style modernism were forbidden. The Midwestern Regionalists like Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry were championed as exemplars of the American Scene and many post office murals resemble the Regionalists' work.

A variety of artists worked on Treasury Department projects. Some were well-known artists with national reputations. Others were just beginning their artistic careers. Often a post office commission was an artist's first opportunity to create a public work of art.

Featured Artwork and Post Offices in this Survey

Post Office Survey (PDF)

Nine post offices have been selected for this survey:

  • Allentown
  • Belle Vernon
  • Chester
  • Mount Union
  • Pittsburgh (Squirrel Hill Branch)
  • Renovo
  • Selinsgrove
  • Union City
  • Wilkes Barre (Kingston Branch)

These nine are located across the state in both cities and small towns and their artworks represent the major themes of industry, agriculture, and history. The murals and sculptures are displayed in active post office facilities and may be viewed by the public during regular business hours. With the exceptions of Belle Vernon and Union City, all artworks remain in the post office buildings for which they were created. Whenever possible, color photographs have been provided, black and white images have been used for the others.

Norristown Post Office

Local Industry, U.S. Mail (oil on canvas); location-Norristown Post Office; artist-Paul Mays, 1936; photo-Michael Mutmansky
Local Industry, U.S. Mail (oil on canvas); location-Norristown Post Office

New Deal era sculpture

New Deal-era sculpture

New Deal era sculpture

New Deal-era sculpture

New Deal era bronze plate

New Deal-era bronze plate

Other Pages

Post Office Map

New Deal theme pages:
Arts and Architecture

Related Links

State Museum of Pennsylvania- The Common Canvas exhibit ran here through May 17, 2009.

Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission- The official history agency of Pennsylvania.

PAtrailsofhistory.com- Information about the 25 historic sites and museums along the Pennsylvania Trails of History.

State Museum of Pennsylvania | Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission