National Parks Posters from the WPA Era
By Joanna Wendel
In honor of The Pursuit of History’s limited edition screenprint of Fort Ticonderoga, designed in the iconic style of WPA National Parks posters from the 1930s, we’re taking a closer look at the story behind the original posters. These now-familiar designs were rescued from decades of obscurity by Doug Leen, today the country’s foremost supplier of vintage-style National Parks posters.
An Iconic Style Emerges
In 1935, the federal government established the Works Progress Administration (later renamed the Work Projects Administration) to create jobs for thousands of unemployed Americans. While most of the resulting jobs were in construction, a small portion of the WPA budget was set aside for arts and culture.
Under Federal Project Number One, the WPA employed musicians, actors, and writers—and over 5,000 artists. Some artists created public murals and monuments, while others designed posters to promote public health, education, and the arts.
Among the best-known of the 35,000 poster designs created by WPA artists are the 14 posters made to promote the National Parks. Between 1938 and 1941, a group of artists working in a facility at the University of California, Berkeley designed posters for 13 parks (one design per park, except for Yellowstone, which received two: Old Faithful and Yellowstone Falls). Each poster was printed via silkscreen in an edition of about 100.
Most of the artists who collaborated on these designs remain unknown because the WPA did not keep records of their specific contributions. Only one artist, Chester Don Powell (1896–1964), has been identified definitively based on contemporary photographs that show him working on several poster designs. Powell studied art in Chicago and moved to San Francisco in 1927, where he worked as a freelance designer and illustrator before taking a position with the WPA. Initially, he worked on a construction crew, but he was later assigned to the National Parks project when his background as an artist became known. When the WPA ended its poster initiative in 1941, Powell became a marine draftsman, and he continued to work in architectural design after WWII.
With their elegant typeface and vividly stylized views of majestic scenery, the National Parks posters look like they should have become instant collectors’ items. However, like all WPA posters, they were never meant to last. Within a decade or two of their creation, most of the original posters had been damaged, discarded, or simply lost.
Ranger Doug’s Revival
The present-day popularity of the original National Parks posters is mostly due to the influence of Doug Leen. In the early 1970s, while working as a ranger at Grand Teton National Park, Leen found a Jenny Lake poster in pristine condition and took it home. It wasn’t until the early 1990s, however, that Leen became curious about the poster’s history. He contacted an archivist at the National Parks Service, who supplied him with black and white negatives of 13 of the original 14 designs.
Intrigued, Leen began a quest to track down as many of the original posters as he could find. It wasn’t easy. Only about 40 originals are known to exist currently: six are owned by Leen, five are in the Library of Congress, and the rest are owned by various National Parks and by private collectors. To date, no one has located original prints of the designs for either Great Smoky Mountain or Wind Cave National Park. Leen still hopes that they will be found, and he’s offered a $10,000 reward for each.
Thanks to Leen’s initiative, it’s now possible to enjoy these timeless designs celebrating the country’s natural beauty while also supporting the work of the National Parks Service.
All images from the Library of Congress.