WPA Great Depression Art – 5 of 31 post office murals found in Michigan

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Many of these United States Post Office murals were painted across the country from 1934 to 1943 and commissioned by the United States Department of the Treasury. Striving to lift the spirits of the American people suffering from the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt commissioned murals to be painted on some federal public buildings. The idea was to have artists paint murals depicting uplifting subjects and scenes, which would bring joy to the unemployed and underprivileged who could and had access.

A national artistic project

Artists were asked to paint in an “American scene” style, realistically depicting ordinary citizens. Artists were also encouraged to produce work appropriate to the communities where they were to be located and to avoid controversial subject matter. The section scrutinized projects for style and content, and artists only paid after each step of the creative process was approved.

Steelmaking – Midland, Michigan, Post Office – Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Art-in-Architecture program was a federal government arts project initiated in 1933 and completed in 1943. The program included murals and sculptures for public display in prominent locations in the community. It was designed specifically to employ artists under the Public Works Assistance Program (PWAP), which had been started to provide jobs for artists, engineers, architects and other skilled craftsmen during the Great Depression.

Automotive Industry - Detroit Post Office - Smithsonian American Art Museum,
Automotive Industry – Detroit Post Office – Smithsonian American Art Museum, museum acquisition

Great Depression art was an idea conceived by Depression-era section supervisor Edward Bruce. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) paid most artists $23 each per month to create the artwork. The WPA Project has produced over 2,300 commissioned murals.

Local themes for murals

Production - Buchanan Post Office, Michigan - Smithsonian American Art Museum
Production – Buchanan Post Office, Michigan – Smithsonian American Art Museum

Before proposing their subjects, the artists frequently consult the local populations. Some murals focused on business and the future of a community, while others celebrated local heritage. These provided reassuring images of the past to offset the uncertainty of the present. Mural artists kept in mind that their work differed significantly from easel painting while developing their ideas. Murals required the use of powerful forms that could be seen from afar.

Early Settlers - East Detroit, Michigan Post Office - Smithsonian American Art Museum
Early Settlers – East Detroit, Michigan Post Office – Smithsonian American Art Museum

Caro Michigan Post Office “Mail to the Farm” Mural

An example is at the Caro Michigan Post Office with the mural; Mail to the Farm. The main objective was to obtain works of art that met high artistic standards for public buildings, where they were accessible to everyone. The murals were intended to lift the spirits of the American people suffering from the effects of the depression. Each depicts uplifting subjects that local people knew and loved. (1)

Caro Michigan Post Office
Caro Michigan Post Office

About the artist David Fredenthal

David Fredenthal painted Caro Michigan’s Mail On The Farm in 1941. In his application to the government, Fredenthal noted, “As Caro is an agricultural district, I chose a simple agricultural subject and incorporated the idea of ​​the mail ; a letter brought to the plowman by his wife. The farmer who reads the unknown contents of the letter attracts the observer. “What’s in the letter?” »

An observation by noted historian Christine M. Nelson Ruby, “The serene bucolic air of the Caro de Fredenthal post office murals pleased the section officials so much that they did nothing about the lack of proportion correct in the figures, whose massive arms and hands are reminiscent of Thomas Hart’s Bensons figures.

Fredenthal was born in Detroit, Michigan, and studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills. He also painted murals for Detroits Broadhead Academy and the Manistique Post Office. Subsequently, during World War II, he was assigned to the South Pacific as a war correspondent and covered the defeat of Germany. Working for Life Magazine, Fredenthal covered the Nuremberg trials after the war. (3)

Mail Matters: Another Michigan Mural – Cranbrook Kitchen Sink

Gregory Wittkopp, director of the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, researched three of these murals. Please follow the link below for a fascinating account of how these works of art now adorn many of our rural post offices.

Mail Matters - Cranbrook Kitchen Sink

On the eve of World War II, as Americans continued to suffer from the economic fallout of the Great Depression, the U.S. Treasury…

Mail Matters: Another Michigan Fresco

This is a repost of content from the Cranbrook Kitchen Sink, which may be of interest to you. (2)

WPA Post Office Murals in Michigan

Here is a list of all known murals painted in Michigan post offices. Each listing indicated the location of the post office – the title of the work – the artist – the year completed and notes.

  • Belding – The Belding Brothers and Their Silk Industry – Marvin Beerhom – 1943 – Exhibited at Belding Public Library
  • Birmingham – The Pioneer Society Picnic -Carlos Lopez – 1942 – The building now houses private offices with a mural still on display.
  • Blissfield – Laying of the Erie and Kalamazoo Railroad – Jean Paul Slusser – 1938
  • Buchanan – Production – Gertrude Goodrich – 1941 – The mural has been repainted but is being restored. A reproduction of a drawing/study is displayed.
  • Calumet – Copper mining at Calumet – Joe Lasker – 1941
  • Caro – Mail to the farm – David Fredenthal – 1941
  • Chelsea – The Way of Life – George Fisher – 1938 – Moved to new post office August 2009
  • Clare – The mail arrives in Clare – Allan Thomas – 1937
  • Crystal Falls extending the border into the Northwest Territories – Allan Thomas – 1938
  • Dearborn – Ten Eyck’s Tavern on Chicago Road – Rainey Bennett – 1938 – On display at Henry Ford Community College Library
  • East Lansing – America’s First Agricultural College – Henry Bernstein – 1938 – On permanent loan and on display at Michigan State University Main Library
  • Eaton Rapids – Industry and Agriculture – Boris Mestchersky 1938
  • Frankfurt – On board the ferry car – Henry Bernstein – 1941
  • Grand Ledge – Waiting for the Mail – James Calder – 1939
  • Grayling – The Lumber Camp – Robert Lepper -1939 – Depicts a typical historic logging camp populated by loggers, sawing wood; stacks of logs, logging equipment, draft horses, locomotive; Native Americans observe the process.
  • Greenville – Logging – Charles W. Thwaite – 1940
  • Hamtramck – Industrial and agricultural products – Schomer Lichtner – 1940
  • Hamtramck – Farmer family – Schomer Lichtner – 1940
  • Hamtramck – Municipal workers – Schomer Lichtner -1940
  • Howell – Rural delivery – Jaroslaw Brozik -1941
  • Iron Mountain – Historical processing of mail transport in the West – Vladimir Rouseff – 1935
  • Iron River – Paul Bunyan Straightening the Round River ‘ – Milton Horn -1941 – carved wood relief
  • Marquette – Marquette Exploring the Shores of Lake Superior – Dewey Albinson – 1938 – Displayed at Marquette U.S. Post Office and Federal Courthouse
  • Paw Paw – Bounty – Carlos Lopez – 1939
  • Plymouth–Plymouth Trail–Carlos Lopez-1938
  • Rockford – Among the furrows – Pierre Bourdelle -1940
  • Rogers City – Port of Rogers City – James Calder – 1941
  • St. Clair – St. Clair River – James Calder – 1938
  • Wayne – Landscape near Wayne – 1875 – Algot Stenbery – 1939 – Mural missing

Sources for farm mail

(1) “List of United States Post Office Murals”. Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, August 22, 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_post_office_murals.

(2) Julie Montgomery on August 7. “Mail Matters: Another Michigan Mural.” Cranbrook Kitchen Sink, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, August 7, 2020, cranbrookkitchensink.wordpress.com/2020/08/07/mail-matters-another-michigan-mural/.

(3) “Postal Artwork: At select Michigan Post Offices, customers can purchase stamps, parcel post, and enjoy distinctive artwork.”, Michigan History Magazine, (Vol. 90, Issue 2), Publisher: The State of Michigan, through its State Board of Directors and the Department of History, Arts, and Libraries.


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