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During the same period, such powerful imagery—namely the comparison of “outdated” commercial buildings with their updated or modernized counterparts—was also used by manufacturers of modern storefronts.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).