A Common Canvas: Pennsylvania's New Deal Post Office Murals
New Deal History

Shortly after taking office, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched the New Deal, a comprehensive social and economic recovery program designed to thwart the ravages of the Great Depression and stabilize the nation's economy following the Wall Street Crash of 1929. By FDR's inauguration on March 4, 1933, unemployment had reached all-time highs as less than half of American workers were employed fulltime.

President Roosevelt mounted an ambitious attack on the Great Depression with a battery of so-called "alphabet agencies," including:

  • AAA (Agricultural Adjustment Administration)
  • CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps)
  • CWA (Civil Works Administration)
  • FERA (Federal Emergency Relief Administration)
  • FSA (Farm Security Administration)
  • FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation)
  • NRA (National Recovery Administration)
  • NYA (National Youth Administration)
  • PWA (Public Works Administration)
  • REA (Rural Electrification Administration)
  • RFC (Reconstruction Finance Corporation)
  • SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission)
  • SSA (Social Security Administration)
  • TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority)
  • WPA (Works Progress Administration).

The CCC gave jobs to millions of unemployed men in every state in the nation, as well as in several territories. By August 1935, the CCC had enrolled more than a half-million men in 2,650 camps who worked on outdoor, recreation, and construction projects. Pennsylvania's CCC workers planted more than sixty million trees. The value of the work performed across the country by the end of the CCC program in 1942 amounted to eight billion dollars.

The most far-reaching program of the New Deal, the WPA took many unemployed people off relief rolls by offering them work building roads, airfields, and public buildings. The WPA employed more than 8.5 million individuals throughout the nation who worked on 1.4 million projects, including 651,087 miles of roads, 123,031 bridges, 125,110 buildings, 8,192 parks, and 853 landing fields. The WPA also funded archaeological investigations.

The earliest New Deal archaeological investigations in southwestern Pennsylvania's Somerset County, in 1934, were supported by the CWA and the FERA before the WPA stepped in. Beginning in November 1935 and continuing through June 1940, WPA-funded excavations in Somerset County kept a field crew employed. Visit the New Deal Archaeology site to learn more about Archaeology projects of Somerset county. This website tells the story of New Deal archaeologists, their major findings, and how their work continues to influence archaeologists today.

WPA leaders argued that writers, artists, musicians, and theater people were out of work as much as laborers and farmers, and succeeded in having Congress allocate 7 percent of WPA funding to those groups. The Federal Music Project hired musicians to play with symphony orchestras and community choral concerts. The Federal Theatre Project enabled touring companies to bring plays and productions to isolated locations. The Federal Writers Project compiled and published state and local guidebooks, organized archives, indexed newspapers, collected folklore, and conducted oral history interviews. The Museum Extension Project produced literature and visual aids--from colored plates of costumes and quilt designs to miniature dioramas used in classrooms. The most visible and lasting legacies of the New Deal were created by formerly unemployed artists who decorated hundreds of post offices, schools, and public buildings with murals, canvasses, and sculpture.

Between 1934 and 1943 the U.S. Treasury Department, with the help of WPA funding, commissioned more than twelve hundred original works of art in post offices across the nation. Pennsylvania post offices received eighty-eight of these works of art by eighty-two commissioned artists. All were requested to work in the "American Scene" style, a straightforward realism portraying subjects easily recognizable by every American. The artists turned out works of art depicting Pennsylvania's industrial heritage, local history, farming, transportation, and important historical figures. Today, murals still remain in dozens of post offices in the Keystone State.

In Pennsylvania, FDR had a close friend and ardent ally in Governor George H. Earle III, who emulated the president's New Deal with a package of economic relief and recovery programs that prompted newspaper reporters to christen it "Pennsylvania's Little New Deal." In his inauguration speech of January 15, 1935, Earle declared that "minimum wage laws, abolition of sweatshops, protection of the right of unionization, decent workmen's compensation laws, and unemployment insurance are but a few of the lines on which this fight [against poverty and economic depression] must be won."

Pennsylvania's 1935 Child Labor Act raised the minimum working age to sixteen and regulated the number of hours teenagers could work. In 1936, just one year after the federal Social Security Act became law, the state legislature, at Earle's prodding, established unemployment compensation for workers who had lost their jobs. Other measures included "old age assistance," with which the Department of Welfare allocated money for burial expenses of the indigent, and the Mothers' Assistance Law provided nutritional aid to both mothers and children.

Earle echoed the vast and enormous building projects carried out under the auspices of the WPA by signing a bill in 1937 that authorized the creation of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to build what soon became known as "America's First Superhighway." This state-of-the-art public works project remains among the most significant legacies of Pennsylvania's Little New Deal, as do public buildings erected with the assistance of the state Public Works Administration, including the Finance Building and the Northwest Office Building in Harrisburg's Capitol Complex.

Because the Great Depression wielded such a heavy blow on Pennsylvania--by the mid-1930s, more than 37 percent of its workers were unemployed--both FDR's New Deal and Governor Earle's Little New Deal worked in tandem to not only create jobs but to build enduring projects which still serve citizens to this day. Also visit the National New Deal Preservation Association for information on national and state-by-state commemorative activities.

Roosevelt Labor's Choice Pin

Roosevelt Labor's Choice pin

Construction of the Pennsylvania Turnpike

Construction of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, aided by the WPA, gave work to more than 15,000 laborers. (Photo: Pennsylvania State Archives)
PA turnpike construction

Breadlines during the New Deal era

Breadlines during the New Deal era

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