It may be the most unique collection of art in the world. An estimated 1,200 large murals, all painted between 1934 and 1943, remain on the walls of an equal number of United States post offices. Separated by many miles, the multitude of art by 850 artists is displayed in every state.
In Missouri there are 29 murals, while Illinois is home to 77. Several in the St. Louis metropolitan area.
“The murals were commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Section of Fine Arts near the end of the Depression,” says United States Postal Service historian Jenny Lynch. “They were painted and installed in post offices during President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. The objective was to make people feel uplifted and positive during a very difficult time in our history, while also creating something of lasting beauty and significance to American citizens. Moreover, they also provided work for unemployed artists.”
“Almost all are still displayed where they were first installed, most often filling the wall over the door leading into the postmaster’s office,” says David W. Gates Jr. of Crystal Lake, Illinois. An avid fan of anything post office related, Gates has visited and photographed every one of the Illinois murals and many of those in Missouri.
Gates says post office lobbies were selected to display the art because at the time these were some of the most frequented places in each community.
The artists were commissioned based on their previous work or drawings they submitted, but the competition to be awarded a mural was open to anyone.
The Section of Fine Arts preferred subjects of people of local interest, historical places or events, scenes of daily life or postal history.
For example, in the Wellston post office, the 1939 mural “Old Levee and Market Street, St. Louis” was painted by Luman Winter (1908–1982) and depicts the St. Louis levee in the mid-19th century.
“The Louisiana Purchase Exposition” is the subject on the wall in the University City post office. Painted in 1940 by Sedalia native Trew Hocker (1913-1963), it portrays a scene from the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis.
In the small, southern Illinois community of Eldorado, “Mining in Illinois” by William S. Schwartz (1896- 1977) illustrates the area’s mining industry with an underground scene of men mining coal.
In contrast to the mural in Eldorado, the Nashville, Illinois, mural “Barn Yard” was created by artist Zoltan Sepeshy (1898-1974) in 1942 and represents the area’s agricultural heritage.
Once an artist was selected to paint a mural for a specific post office, he or she was encouraged to visit or at least write to the postmaster and notable local citizens for suggested topics.
Gates has visited the National Archives in Washington, D.C., to study the correspondence between artists, the public, postmasters and the Section of Fine Arts. “The files reveal most commissions for murals ranged from $600 to $900, but the main post office in St. Louis was awarded the most expensive mural project,” he says. “The contract for the nine horizontal panels, each measuring 29 feet wide by 9 feet high and covering a combined 3,000 square feet, was $29,000 and took two years to complete.”
The task was undertaken by Chicago artists Edward Millman (1907-1964) and Mitchell Siporin (1910–1976). The panels chronicle the first 100 years of St. Louis and Missouri history in images that portray colonial origins, westward expansion and conflict. To visually tie the panels together, each has a ribbon of blue in the background representing the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
While the St. Louis murals are painted in dark hues and filled with heavily muscled, stern-faced characters, an Illinois mural “The Letter,” painted by Francis Foy (1890–1963) in 1938, sets forth a light-hearted moment. Located in the East Alton post office, it illustrates two women at the front gate of a house surrounded by a profusion of flowers, sharing the content of a letter delivered by the postman seen walking down the street.
Most of the post office art pieces were murals, but commissions for other art mediums were also awarded. The 1941 mural in the Cassville, Missouri, post office by Edward Winter (1908-1976) titled “Flora and Fauna of the Region” consists of three vertical panels of painted porcelain. Two are devoted to native Missouri flowers and plants, while the center panel focuses on Missouri wildlife.
In Maplewood, the art consists of several wood relief carvings by Danish-born sculptor Carl Mose (1903-1973). Titled “Family Group”, the sculpture was created in 1942. The peaceful outdoor scene represents a man, woman and child. The child is reaching for a dove, the universally recognized bird of peace, in a time when the world was already at war.
Nationally, some of the murals have vanished. That occurred with the Herrin, Illinois, mural, "George Rogers Clark Conferring With Indians Near Herrin, Illinois," painted by Gustaf Dahlstrom (1893-1971) in 1940.
In the 1960s, the Herrin post office was remodeled, and the mural disappeared but was recovered more than four decades later. Through donations from the United States Postal Service, fundraisers and private contributions, $28,000 was raised to restore the art before it was returned in 2011 to its original 1940 location.
Most of the artists had distinguished careers. Examples include Mose, whose statue “Eagle and Fledging” is on the campus of the United States Air Force Academy, and Winter, who established an international reputation as an expert in the field of enameling.
The murals generally remain sources of local pride, but having been on display for more than 80 years, they are also frequently overlooked.
However, because local history was one of the topics encouraged by the U. S. Treasury Section of Fine Arts, a small number of the murals in the country may become controversial. A few artists included slavery and interactions with Native Americans within the context of their murals as a representation of an area’s history. Gates says he is not aware of any issues with any of the murals.
To recognize the artistic and historical importance of the murals, in April 2019 the U.S. Postal Service issued a set of stamps with images of five of the more than 1,200 murals. (Murals from Missouri or Illinois were not selected.)
Meanwhile, Gates is determined to visit, document and publish a book on the murals in every state. So far, he has visited and documented 188, and published photo-laden books on the 35 murals in Wisconsin and the 25 in Tennessee. To keep up with his quest, sign up for his newsletter at postofficefans.com.
Every mural, categorized by state: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_post_office_murals
Missouri murals: newdealartregistry.org/map/MO/
Illinois murals: newdealartregistry.org/map/IL/