Historical treasures can be found in many unexpected places. Sometimes, they may be right in front of us for a long time before we recognize their value. When the New Deal sought to breathe life into the Depression-era economy, scores of public artworks were commissioned around the country. Twelve of those artworks were commissioned to the post offices of twelve Nebraska towns, and are still on public display more than 70 years after their installation.
Nebraska’s Post Office Murals: Born of the Depression, Fostered by the New Deal is a new book from the Nebraska State Historical Society that presents the story of these historical pieces. Richly illustrated with photographs and never-before-published artists’ sketches, the book uncovers interesting aspects of the Depression through its art. Each mural and its artist had a background story, and author Robert Puschendorf follows the journey of each mural to its completion.
To oversee the creation of the public art pieces in federal buildings nationwide, the New Deal created a new division of the United States Treasury: the Section of Painting and Sculpture. In some states, the Section held contests to determine which artists would receive a commission. The artists of Nebraska’s post office murals were not selected by contest, but based on previous experience and, sometimes, their submissions for the contest of a different state.
Project supervisors wanted each of Nebraska’s murals to reflect the interests of the area where they would be displayed. Several of the mural artists made trips to Nebraska to research local history and scenery to incorporate into the mural’s theme. Mural subjects ranged from farming and ranching scenes to historical moments and social life. With such consideration of local interest and history, the murals reveal the spirit of the times from which they emerged.
Edward Rowan, superintendent of the Section, kept up correspondence with each artist through their draft stages and revisions. These correspondences reveal interesting contrasts between the desires of the Washington executives, the artists, and the local people. Albion, Auburn, Crawford, Geneva, Hebron, Minden, Ogallala, O’Neill, Pawnee City, Red Cloud, Schuyler, and Valentine received murals, and Nebraska’s Post Office Murals contains color foldouts of each final work.
Author Robert Puschendorf, NSHS associate director and the deputy state historic preservation officer, spent years researching the book. With James E. Potter he is the co-author of the Nebraska Book Award-winning Spans in Time: A History of Nebraska Bridges, and has published numerous historical articles.
Nebraska’s Post Office Murals: Born of the Depression, Fostered by the New Deal, is 120 pages and costs $29.95. To order, visit www.nebraskahistory.org/murals or call 402-471-3447.
-Joy Carey, Editorial Assistant