New Deal imagery

Between 1935-1944, the United States Farm Security Administration—Office of War Information (FSA-OWI) undertook the largest photography project ever sponsored by the federal government. In order to build support for and justify government programs of the New Deal, the Historical Section within the Information Division of the Resettlement Administration set out to document America, often at her most vulnerable, and the successful administration of relief service. FSA-OWI captured thousands of images and employed photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Arthur Rothstein. Today, the collection is maintained and catalogued by the Library of Congress, and now is easily searchable and accessible online thanks to Yale’s Photogrammar.

Since FSA-OWI photographers were sent across the country, in many instances to remote rural areas, it is no wonder that some Mesker facades were captured in their photographs. The buildings, whether Mesker or not, were not the primary subjects of the photos, but mere backdrops for the various economic and social successes and failures that the photographers were attempting to document. In some instances, a dilapidated and age-worn edifice is portrayed as a harbinger of depression, while in others, a very similar building is beautifully maintained, houses a viable business, and is a symbol of prosperity (and more importantly the effectiveness of the New Deal). Since the architecture is a constant, it was relegated to a prop, in whatever scene the propaganda required.

During the same period, such powerful imagery—namely the comparison of “outdated” commercial buildings with their updated or modernized counterparts—was also used by manufacturers of modern storefronts. Companies such as Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company (PPG) and Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Company (LOF), produced numerous publications and advertisements seeking to promote the modern aesthetic of their architectural storefront products as well as their profitable use in commercial installations. In fact, this commonplace storefront modernization during the 1930s and 1940s was produced by a nationwide, government-sponsored modernization movement that was active in over eight-thousand communities at its height. Over a ten-year period during the Great Depression, five-billion dollars were spent to make physical improvements to thousands of stores, and particularly on exterior renovations. The modern storefronts were sought to offer a striking counterpoint to the Depression, “an image of modernity that was deliberately at odds with the dismal present because it symbolized a hopeful future” (Gabrielle Esperdy, Modernizing Main Street: Architecture and Consumer Culture in the New Deal, p. 3). The Modernization Credit Plan (MCP) was enacted in 1934 as part of the National Housing Act and enabled low-rate insured Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans specifically to stimulate the “Modernize Main Street” initiative (part of the “Better Housing Program” or BHP). The success of the BHP and MCP relied on the cooperation of leading building material manufacturers, which included PPG and the Vitrolite Company (soon thereafter purchased by LOF). Together, and largely through extensive advertising and promotion, they sought to champion store modernization as the path to national economic recovery. Many a Mesker was remodeled as a result (see this post for some examples).

Below are just some Meskers that were found on the Photogrammar site (alphabetically, by state then town). Some survived. Others were lost in the never-ending cycle of modernization.

Yreka, California. In the background, far left, is a facade by Mesker Brothers Iron Works. It survives without the cornice pediments at 219-223 W. Miner St. Photograph by Russell Lee, July 1942.
Montrose, Colorado. Meskers Brothers facades line both sides of the street with the First National Bank in the foreground (demolished). Photograph by Arthur Rothstein, October 1939.
Ouray, Colorado. Jeffers Building at 635 Main St. (left) with a custom facade by Mesker Brothers Iron Works, and 629 Main St. with storefront by same. Photograph by Russell Lee, September 1940.
Ouray, Colorado. Hammon & Waring Grocers and Schwend & Mostyn Produce Co. at 621 Main St. with cornices and columns by Mesker Brothers Iron Works. Photograph by Russell Lee, September 1940.
Silverton, Colorado. Municipal Light Plant with cornice by Mesker Brothers Iron Works (demolished). Photograph by Russell Lee, September 1940.
Telluride, Colorado. One-story facade by George L. Mesker & Co (demolished). Photograph by Russell Lee, September 1940.
Aledo, Illinois. J.P. Lemon Building with facade by Mesker Brothers Iron Works (demolished). Photograph by Russell Lee, March 1937.
Yates Center, Kansas. Facades by Mesker Brothers Iron Works at 119 (left) and 117 W. Butler (center) and what appears to be a George L. Mesker & Co. iron front (right; demolished). Photograph by John Vachon, October 1938.
Bozeman, Montana. Crystal Bar and Cliff’s Cafe at 123-127 E. Main with a Mesker Brothers Iron Works cornice (right). Photograph by Russell Lee, September 1942.
Austin, Nevada. At far left is the R. Hogan Building with ornamental iron work supplied by George L. Mesker & Co (demolished). Rendering of the building was featured in the company’s 1908 and 1909 catalogs. Photograph by Arthur Rothstein, March 1940.
Elko, Nevada. Two-story facade with bay windows by Mesker Brothers Iron Works (demolished). Photograph by Arthur Rothstein, March 1940.
Truchas, New Mexico. Cordova Building with a cornice (unusually broken up with a window at center) by Mesker Brothers Iron Works (demolished). Photograph by John Collier, January 1943.
Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Facade by Mesker Brothers Iron Works at the southeast corner of SE Main and Hill (demolished). Photograph by John Vachon, April 1938.
Circleville, Ohio. Storefront and facade by George L. Mesker & Co., likely the Ohio Cereal Co. Building, featured in the company’s 1904 and 1905 testimonial catalogs. Photograph by Ben Shahn, August 1938.
Mount Orab, Ohio. Storefront by Mesker Brothers Iron Works located at the northwest corner of Main and High. Photograph by John Vachon, 1942.
Sisseton, South Dakota. Cornice and pressed brick metal panels by Mesker Brothers Iron Works (right; demolished). Photograph by John Vachon, September 1939.
Sheridan, Wyoming. In the foreground are facades by Mesker Brothers Iron Works; they still survive at 162-166 N. Main. Photograph by Marion Post Wolcott, August 1941.

3 thoughts on “New Deal imagery

  1. Howard

    Thank you for compiling these wonderful b&w photos and associated information. Always look forward to receiving your blog Darius.

      1. Fran Parr

        Darius: Thanx so much for wonderful photos. My father worked at Mesker Brothers Iron and Steel in St. Louis. I am named for Francis Mesker,
        Fran Parr

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