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If  you’ve ever visited one of our National Parks, you know what an awe-inspiring experience that can be.  While each park is different, it’s safe to say that in one way or another, they’re all home to varying combinations of dramatic landscapes, stunning vistas, and boundless beauty.  It was these iconic qualities that were sought to be romanticized in a series of graphic art posters that over the last 80 years, have become nearly as famous and influential as the parks themselves.

In the mid 1930s, with the nation in the grips of the Great Depression and millions of Americans finding themselves unemployed, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted The New Deal, a massive government undertaking that invested billions of dollars into getting the people of the United States back to work.  Part of this historic program was the formation of what was first called the Works Progress Administration, and later came to be known as the Work Projects Administration (WPA).


Above:  Early WPA posters from Grand Teton, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Zion National Parks.

One part of the WPA was dedicated to the building and expansion of the nation’s infrastructure – bridges, roads, highways, parks, schools, museums,  libraries, and countless other public interest projects – that would be critical to the country’s post-Depression economic recovery.  But another part, called Federal Project Number One, was focused on the cultural expressions of everyday life – art, music, theatre, and writing – and what it was that made them uniquely American.  It was this arm of the WPA that along with painting thousands of murals in public buildings across the country, also gave us the iconic National Parks graphic artwork posters.

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These beautiful works of art were created by individual artists who were employed under the WPA program to promote the many virtues of our National Parks system.  In all, there were 14 WPA National Parks posters designed, and while none of them bear the signature of the actual artist, most of them have been been attributed to one man, artist Chester Don Powell.  Most of Powell’s posters were recognizable because they were adorned with ”Ranger Naturalist Service” across the top.

Powell grew up in the Midwest and studied art in Chicago, before moving to San Francisco in 1927 and opening a studio.  Soon after the stock market crash of 1929 – that started the downward spiral of the Great Depression – Powell found himself out of work, and later took a WPA position with the National Park Service.

This display from 1940 depicts the some of the finished designs and a multiple steps of the screen printing process, as well as Don Powell at work in the studio.

This display from 1940 depicts the some of the finished poster designs (top row) and multiple steps of the silk screen printing process (bottom), as well as Don Powell at work in the studio (photos at either end). 

Going on around the same time as the “Ranger Naturalist Service” series of posters being designed by Powell, similarly-themed designs were being created by other WPA artists. There was a separate National Park series espousing the “Preserve Wildlife” movement, as well as a series of “See America” posters that promoted other regional sites for the U.S. Travel Bureau.


Above:  Examples of some of the “See America” posters and “Preserve Wildlife series of posters. 

Between the years of 1935 and 1943, over 35,000 poster designs in total were created under the WPA program.  In addition to the National Parks system, they promoted all kinds of subjects and events, including local theater productions, concerts, city zoos, art exhibits, and public safety, to name a few.  From these designs, it’s estimated that more than 2 million posters were printed and distributed all over the country.  In contrast, from the 14 National Park posters that were designed, it’s estimated that less than 100 posters were printed for each, meaning that less than 1,400 prints were ever made.


Above:  The first three WPA posters – Grand Teton, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone National Parks.

Not surprisingly, as time went on and the decades passed, WPA posters slowly faded out of public view and most were ultimately forgotten.  In fact, only about 2,000 of the original 35,000 WPA posters designs have been documented today, with about 900 of those having been digitally cataloged at the Library of Congress, while the rest presumably lie in the hands of private collectors.  Similarly, for the National Parks posters, only about 40 original posters have been recovered, and the discovery of most of those is the result of the tireless efforts of one man, known simply as “Ranger Doug.”


Above:  WPA posters – Zion, Rainier, and Yosemite National Parks.

In the early 1970s, while “Ranger Doug” Leen was working as a seasonal park ranger at Grand Teton National Park, he discovered of one of the park’s original WPA posters in an old barn.  Over the next 25 years, Doug went on a personal journey to recover more of these long-lost original WPA National Park posters, culminating in the finding of a set of black and white photograph negatives containing most of the original WPA poster set.  Two of the posters (Wind Cave and Great Smoky Mountains) have never been found, but with these negatives, plus the Grand Teton poster that he found, Ranger Doug has returned 11 of the 14 original designs back to the public domain.


Above:  Examples of WPA-Inspired retro travel posters

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and with the popularity of the original set of WPA National Park posters, over the years, the public’s appetite for “WPA-inspired” posters has naturally grown.  Today you’ll find a plethora of retro-inspired artwork designed in the same vein as the original National Park posters – many still promote the National Parks, while others seek to promote all kinds of things, like: regional travel destinations, hotels, restaurants, beverages, and countless other live events.

We’ve been collecting artwork of this style for many years and have several of them hanging on our walls here at The Craftsman Bungalow.  And as you might imagine, they really do compliment the bungalow aesthetic quite nicely.  If you’re thinking about starting a collection of your own, check out our favorite Vintage Travel and National Park posters over at Etsy.com.  We’ve curated a little bit of everything in it, and we’re adding to it all the time!

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