Vibrant government poster promoting the New Deal and the Public Works Administration

Earl Purdy / Division of Information Federal Public Works Administration, PWA REBUILDS THE NATION. Washington, D.C.: Public Works Administration, [1935-39?]
Lithograph printed in colors, 34 ¼”h x 51 ½”w at neat line plus margins. Few minor creases in printed area and minor toning and wear at left and right extremities, and a few minor mends along edges, but very good for such a large, separately-issued map.

A delightful Depression-era propaganda map issued by Federal Government to promote the contributions of the Public Works Administration, one of the major programs in FDR’s New Deal.

The PWA was established by the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act and was tasked with spending billions on major public construction projects to generate employment and help stabilize the economy. Under the leadership of Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, between 1933 and 1939 the PWA planned and funded a staggering 34,000 projects, including hospitals, schools, bridges, dams, highways and roads, and other infrastructure. Every year, this avalanche of construction “consumed roughly half the concrete and a third of the steel of the entire nation.” (Wikipedia) The PWA should not be confused with the Works Progress Administration, whose mission encompassed a much wider range of projects in the public interest, many involving lower-skilled labor. 

The map depicts the continental United States, with colorful vignettes depicting selected PWA projects in each state: irrigating the Imperial Valley in southern California, an “Indian School” on the Fort Berthold Agency in North Dakota, repairs to the Washington Monument, and so on. The decorative border is formed by a further 43 pictorial vignettes of other projects and related themes. In the unlikely event viewers didn’t get the point, a text panel at lower left hammers it home:

“In picture and legend, this map indicates how the Federal Public Works Administration has aided local communities to rebuild the United States. Thousands of PWA improvements and structures… have modernized our cities—conservated and developed our resources—refurbished our school system—improved public health—advanced our recreational facilities—and helped to create a stronger, better-equipped nation for all the people.”

Despite the PWA’s enormous accomplishments, it and other New Deal programs failed on their own to return American industrial production to pre-Depression levels, and assessments of its impact remain mixed.

The map is signed in print by “Cartographer Earl Purdy”. Purdy was born in 1892 in Cohoes, New York, received a B.S. from Colgate and a B.A. from Cornell, and served in the U.S. Navy during the First World War. Trained as an artist and architect, Purdy worked with a number of architectural firms, among them McKim, Meade and White, and produced designs for, among others, the American National Cemetery in Florence, Italy; a Veterans Hospital in Hawaii; and Playland in Rye, New York (where I spent a number of happy afternoons in my youth). He also designed the United Nations “Geneva” stamp, and his watercolors and etchings were widely exhibited. He spent much of his life in New Rochelle, New York, but near the end of his life moved to Indiana, where he died in 1971.

An interesting and decorative persuasive map from one of the most creative, and most fraught, periods in the history of American democracy.

Persuasive Maps: PJ Mode Collection, #1276. Rumsey #3975. OCLC 7195102 et al, giving numerous institutional holdings. Background on Purdy from his obituary in The Indiana Gazette for April 23, 1971, p. 22.