In tough times, art can make our communities better: cancer posters from the 1930s

Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Works Project Administration in 1935 to get unemployed Americans back to work. This history is familiar to me. However, I’d never heard of the Federal Project Number One, which was a program committed to including art projects in the WPA. Writers and artists, musicians and actors were included, their work taken seriously and valued.

The posters in this slide show were created as part of the project from 1935 to 1938. Some of the early art work was created and lettered individually, but these posters were made from the silkscreen process, which allowed for mass production. The posters dealt with all sort of issues relevant to Americans, but I’m sharing those that focus on cancer. I found all of them at the Library of Congress, here.

In addition to their sheer beauty, I wanted to share them because they reveal how our attitudes have shifted over the years about this disease and how they’ve remained the same. From the beginning, women have been instrumental in the cancer community, moving attitudes from fear to confrontation. It’s quite a balancing act. In order to get people to be screened and tested, they need to be motivated but not overwhelmed by fear. We can see how artists helped to find this balance.

These posters are a hopeful reminder that during tough economic times, art can help us make our communities better and safer, and they are the precursors to the awareness campaigns we are so familiar with in the twenty-first century.

Filed under: Cancer, Uncategorized

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