New Deal Post Office Mural
The Great Depression brought on in large measure by the 1929 stock market crash, was a hard time for people all over the United States. Beset by large-scale unemployment which approached 25 percent in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted his New Deal program. The New Deal created programs to put people back to work and to generally relieve the hard times people were experiencing.
His New Deal sponsored several art programs to meet these objectives. From 1934 to 1943, the New Deal murals and sculptures seen in Post Offices around the nation were produced under the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture, later called the Section of Fine Arts. Unlike the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project, with which it often is confused, this program was not directed toward providing economic relief. Instead, the art placed in Post Offices was intended to help boost the morale of people suffering the effects of the Great Depression with art that, in the words of President Roosevelt, was:
…native, human, eager and alive — all of it painted by their own kind in their own country, and painted about things they know and look at often and have touched and loved.
The Section of Painting and Sculpture was initiated to commission 1,400 murals in federal post office buildings in more than 1,300 cities across America. They are examples of New Deal art.
Under the direction of the Public Works Art Program, the agency oversaw the production of 15,660 works of art by 3,750 artists. These included 700 murals for public display. The post office was the one concrete link between every community of individuals and the Federal government that functioned importantly in the human structure of a community. The post office brought to a locality a symbol of government efficiency, permanence, service, and even culture.
Artists competed anonymously in national and regional contests. Runners-up often received commissions for smaller buildings. After receiving a commission, an artist was encouraged to consult with the postmaster and other townspeople to ensure that the subject would be meaningful. Since the local post office seemed to be the most frequented government building by the public, the Section requested that the murals, approximately 12’ by 5’ oil paintings on canvas, be placed on the walls of the newly constructed post offices exclusively. In 2006, more than 1,150 Post Offices across the continental United States continued to house this uniquely American art for people to enjoy as they go about their daily lives.
The McRae Post Office was built by the WPA in 1935. In 1939, artist Oliver M. Baker was commissioned to paint one of these murals for the new facility.
Mural “Turpentine and Cotton” painted by Oliver M. Baker, was housed in the McRae Post Office until 1952
Picture: U.S. National Archives, Washington, D. C., USA
Entitled “Turpentine and Cotton”, the mural was housed in the local post office until 1952. The mural was removed from the wall during some renovation and repair and was never replaced. According to the local post master, the mural was stored for a while but soon removed and destroyed. The method of destruction is not known. A search of the internet brought no results for Oliver M. Baker, so his background and expertise for this project is not known.
There are many questions surrounding this painting. It is very possible that many citizens of McRae and Telfair County who visited the post office may have seen this mural while it was still there. In addition, there may be one or more people who know exactly what happened to the painting.
It is very unfortunate that this work of art has disappeared. The Pioneer Historical Society is dedicated to the task of preserving as many of these artifacts as possible even though they may be only in published form.
The Pioneer Historical Society is a 501 (c)(3) organization whose mission is to sustain the interest of the county's citizens in the preservation of the county's history and to encourage interest in the arts. The Telfair Museum of History and the Telfair Center for the Arts are also integral parts of The Society. The Pioneer Historical Society meets the first Wednesday of each month at 11:30 am at the Fairway Restaurant at the Little Ocmulgee State Park. After a dutch meal, a short program of area interest is presented after which a short business meeting is held. Everyone interested in the history of Telfair County and the surrounding area is urged to join. Memberships are $10 per year for individuals. Family and business memberships are available.
For more information contact Robert E. Herndon, President, at 229-868-2520 or by email at [email protected]. You are encouraged to visit our website at phshistory.org