The Postal Service possesses over a thousand murals produced by FDR’s New Deal during the Great Depression. The paintings celebrate American workers, local histories, and significant national events. The murals themselves should be celebrated with a new USPS stamp series.While the volume of First Class single-piece mail has been steadily dropping (at about 3.6 percent annually for the past two years), good old-fashioned postage stamps are still a big business.
According to the 2015 Postal Facts, the Postal Service sold 19 billion stamps in 2014, nearly 70 percent of them in the popular Forever format. The USPS Cost and Revenue Analysis reports that First Class single-piece mail, which is defined as mail bearing postage stamps, accounted for more than $10.2 billion in revenues — about 15 percent of total USPS revenues.
The Postal Service and its Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee give a lot of thought to the images that go on these stamps. “Postage stamps are miniature works of art,” says Postal Facts, “designed to reflect the American experience and highlight heroes, history, milestones, achievements and natural wonders.”
Other stamps raise questions about what’s appropriate for a U.S. postage stamp. The Postal Service is currently promoting stamp series depicting soda fountain favorites, pickup trucks, and pets. These stamps are playful and nice looking, but the subjects aren’t exactly heroes or milestones.
Promoting commercial enterprisesThe more contentious controversies over subject matter have involved stamps promoting commercial ventures. In recent years, for example, the Postal Service has issued stamps celebrating Harry Potter, Batman, Disney Pixar characters, and the Ringling Bros circus.
In some ways, these stamps are a win-win. The Postal Service doesn’t have to pay for the right to use the images (although it’s been reported that at one point Disney did want royalties), and private companies get lots of free advertising. These stamps sell well and appeal to younger customers.
On the other hand, the commercial stamps require bending the rules about appropriate subjects. The Postal Service has a policy saying, “Stamps or stationery shall not be issued to promote or advertise commercial enterprises or products.” Apparently some stamps fall under an exception: “Commercial products or enterprises might be used to illustrate more general concepts related to American culture.” Still, it’s hard to see how Harry Potter and Disney Pixar illustrate such “general concepts.”
Collectors and others have complained that the Postal Service is simply getting too commercial in its choice of subjects. Some members of the Stamp Advisory Committee were particularly upset that Postal Service bypassed the panel in its decision to run 100 million Harry Potter stamps.
“Harry Potter is not American. It’s foreign, and it’s so blatantly commercial it’s off the charts,” John Hotchner told the Washington Post. Hotchner is a former president of the American Philatelic Society, and he served on the Stamp Advisory Committee for 12 years until 2010. “The Postal Service knows what will sell,” says Hotchner, “but that’s not what stamps ought to be about,”
Another issue that has come up with postage stamps involves copyrights. Back in 2013, the Court of Federal Claims ordered the Postal Service to pay artist Frank Gaylord over $685,000 for using a photograph of his Korean War Veterans Memorial on a stamp without permission. (A judgment of over $500,000 was upheld on appeal.) The same thing happened when the Postal Service issued a “Forever” stamp depicting the Statue of Liberty that turned out to be a picture of modern replica of the statue in front of a New York City-themed hotel casino on the Las Vegas Strip.
There’s one subject that has apparently never been featured on USPS stamps, and it would make for a great series. There wouldn’t be any controversy over promoting commercial enterprises, the images wouldn’t cost the Postal Service a cent in royalties, and there wouldn’t be any issues with copyrights.
The Postal Service should issue a stamp series celebrating one of its most valuable treasures — the murals painted on post office walls by the New Deal during the Great Depression.
The heart of Mural AmericaThere are over 1,200 post office murals, many of them painted by well-known artists like Ben Shahn, Milton Avery, Olin Dows, and Rockwell Kent. The murals typically depict significant chapters and figures in the history of local communities and the nation as a whole, as well as the activities of Americans at work — miners, farmers, steel workers, and often postal workers themselves.
During the Great Depression, Americans searched for images that could serve as beacons of hope during a time of economic and emotional despair…. Today, these works of art remain prized community resources, often housed within historic post offices.Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, Report to CongressThe artists and writers of the 1930s were often left wing in their politics, and the murals sometimes came in for controversy. But as Karal Ann Marling writes in Wall to Wall America: Post Office Murals in the Great Depression, “Most people and most artists occupied the social center, the gathering place of an embattled democracy. The federal patron watched over the painter and the public as they met there to dream and hope and reminisce together. That place, of course, was the post office, the heart of Mural America.”
As the introduction to the website WPAmurals.com explains, during the Great Depression the Roosevelt administration initiated several projects to create jobs and provide economic relief, put artists to work, and boost the country’s morale. The Federal Art Project (F.A.P.), a division of the Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.), created over 5,000 jobs for artists and produced over 225,000 works of art.
On its web page about the murals, the Postal Service provides this background on the New Deal art:
“It is this legacy of the thousands of workers who labored at their craft for little money but great pride which we have to inspire us today,” writes WPAMurals.com. “Although many of these works of art found in post offices in Alabama to as far away as the Virgin Islands, have been destroyed or stolen, those that remain must be preserved. They stand as a reminder of a time in our country’s history when dreams were not allowed to be destroyed by economic disaster.”
Putting the murals on stampsNo one knows how much the Postal Service’s art collection is worth. Many of the post office murals are certainly worth millions of dollars, and they’re often more valuable than the post office building that houses them. But the collection is literally priceless. That’s because the Postal Service has a policy not to sell any of its New Deal artworks.
The Postal Service is well aware that its New Deal art collection is very valuable. It has strict rules that restrict taking photographs of the murals and making use of the images for commercial purposes. Yet for some reason, the Postal Service has never featured its murals on postage stamps. They would fit the criteria perfectly.
According to this statement about the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, “The committee’s primary goal is to select subjects that are both interesting and educational for recommendation to the Postmaster General, who decides which stamps will be issued.” That sums up one of the original intentions of the murals themselves — to educate the public about the history of their own communities, much like church art educates people about their religion.
According to a page on USPS.com, the criteria for selecting subjects include featuring American or American-related subjects; honoring extraordinary and enduring contributions to American society, history, culture or environment; and commemorating positive contributions to American life, history, culture and environment.
The New Deal murals do exactly that. They depict distinctly American subjects, and they are themselves “extraordinary and enduring contributions” to American culture. They are beautiful objects of art, and they would make beautiful stamps. Collectors would love them, and they would remind Americans of the living legacy of the New Deal.
About the only reason one can think of for not using the murals on stamps is that there might be objections from those who would prefer that the New Deal never even happened. As historian Kim Phillips Fein writes in her book book Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal, conservative businessmen and politicians have spent decades trying to undo the work of the New Deal. Privatizing the postal system has been one of their main goals, so selling off the historic New Deal posts offices that house the murals fits right in to their agenda. That’s all the more reason to celebrate post office murals.
Murals on loanAccording to the USPS Facilities Handbook, Section 332, the Postal Service has a policy “to preserve, protect, and maintain the New Deal Art Collection.” It therefore does not sell any of these artworks, and when a post office building containing New Deal art is sold, the Postal Service typically makes a long-term loan agreement with the owner.
This USPS policy is in keeping with how New Deal art is managed by the General Services Administration, which, as this legal fact sheet explains, recognizes that “during the operation of the WPA art program, it was clearly stated that the federal government would hold full legal title to artwork on long-term loan. Title to such artwork remains in the government today.”
The loan agreements stipulate how the mural must be treated, the restrictions on reproductions and photographs, and, if the building is going into private hands, how the public will continue to have access to viewing what is, in effect, public property.
A couple of years ago, I submitted a FOIA request to the Postal Service asking for a list of the murals. The Postal Service provided a list containing 1,380 murals, sculptures, and other artworks, which you can find here. The Postal Service also provided a list of the murals on loan.
According to these lists, there are about 130 murals on loan. Some are still in a post office building no longer owned by the Postal Service, while others have been moved to new locations.
Sometimes the loan agreements on the murals work out fine, and sometimes they don’t.
When the Postal Service sold the historic New Deal post office in Venice, California, to movie producer Joel Silver, the loan agreement for the mural — the “Story of Venice” by Edward Biberman — stipulated that the mural would be available for public viewing six times a year and by appointment only.
Many people in Venice were angered that the mural would be available so infrequently, but as the New York Times reported in a 2013 article about the sales of historic post offices, the Postal Service had concluded that no adverse effect would be caused by the sale of the Venice post office, so the terms of the agreement were negotiated without review by consulting parties.
Silver subsequently ran into financial problems, defaulted on property taxes, and ended up in court with his contractors. For over three years now, work has been stalled on the project, with the building surrounded by a construction fence. The mural, which was restored and briefly exhibited at the L.A. County Museum of Art, is now in storage at the U.S. Art Company — where it’s obviously unavailable for public viewing.
Art at riskThe fate of post office murals was one of the subjects in a report by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation that criticized the Postal Service for how it was managing its legacy of historic post offices and art. Most of the report is about the buildings, but there’s a section on the murals as well.
“While the USPS indicates its intent to retain ownership of artwork following disposal of historic buildings,” stated the ACHP report, “the long- term care and public access often remains in question. During the Oakland meeting [with ACHP representatives], testimony was presented that asserted the deterioration of artwork, removal of murals from post offices, and little or no access afforded to the public following disposal of the historic buildings.”
The ACHP report came up with 15 findings and corresponding recommendations. The final finding concerns the murals:
The Postal Service challenged nearly all of the findings and recommendations in the ACHP report. In a letter to the ACHP, USPS Vice President of Facilities, Tom Samra, wrote that the Postal Service was complying with all the legal regulations governing its historic properties, and he faulted the ACHP for failing to provide an “objective report.”
For further readingThe Postal Service doesn’t publish images of the murals on its own website, but two excellent sites for viewing the murals are LivingNewDeal.org and WPAmurals.com. There are also two helpful articles about the murals on Wikipedia here and here. For more information, check out these sources:
- Kieffer, Connie W. “New Deal Murals: A Legacy for Today’s Public Art and Art Education,” Art Education (March 2000).
- Marling, Karal Ann Wall-to-Wall America: A Cultural History of Post Office Murals in the Great Depression (1982).
- O’Connor, Francis, editor. Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930’s by Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project. (1975)
- Peck, Marlene, and Markowitz, Gerald E. Democratic Vistas: Post Offices and Public Art in the New Deal. (1984).
- Raynor, Patricia. “New Deal Post Office Murals,” National Postal Museum
- General Services Administration, “Legal Title To Art Work Produced Under The 1930s And 1940s New Deal Administration,”
By they way, if you would like to throw your support behind the idea for a stamp series on the murals — or if you have another idea for what would make a good stamp subject — the stamp selection process is described here. You can send your suggestions to Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee; 475 L’Enfant Plaza SW, Room 3300; Washington, DC 20260-3501.
(Photo credits for the slide show: Click on the image.)
Some related posts about the murals on Save the Post Office. (View with excerpts.)