Photos: Depression-era billboards sold and celebrated the “American way”
Meanwhile, homeless families huddled under their shadows
Americans didn’t have a whole lot of money to spend in the 1930s. Great Depression and all. Nevertheless, people weren’t without wants, and advertising persisted as all manner of products were peddled to struggling folks desperate for something to hold on to. Like cigarettes.
Billboards were one high-visibility mode by which companies could market their wares, and though they weren’t the ubiquitous interstate litter we love to hate today, signage in the 1930s functioned as a shared spectacle for street-level eyeballs. It also served as a means for delivering other kinds of political messaging at a time when poverty had the nation questioning its future and big government was winning hearts and minds through massive public works and reform measures.
One group, the National Association of Manufacturers, launched a nationwide propaganda campaign aimed at reinforcing conservative American values and free-market capitalism. NAM was reacting to the liberal leanings of Roosevelt and his New Deal, echoing conservative calls that competition, not government intervention, was the clearest way out of the Depression economy. Their billboards reached an untold number of Americans, including documentary photographers from the Farm Security Administration (itself a program of the New Deal) who’d been dispatched to chronicle the sociopolitical atmosphere of the country. Not surprisingly, the FSA photographers took a lot of pictures of the NAM billboards, as well as other signage from the time. Their photos recognize the role of images in public life, critiquing their proliferation while acknowledging the photographer’s culpability in manipulating public sentiment. Dorothea Lange, John Vachon, and their cohort knew the power of pictures — that people are susceptible to the messages they contain. And so advertisements take center stage in their framing of the country, providing an authentic depiction of and a critical repurposing of capitalist corporate imagery at the same time.
These FSA photographs — both the NAM billboards and those intended for more prosaic marketing purposes — offer a window into the day-to-day experience of Depression-era America. Like any advertisements, they are timely, not timeless, reflections of people’s hopes and needs; mediated desire channeled through visions of happiness, success, and nostalgia. About billboards, Robert Zaretsky writes, “These banal human creations in fact reflect the chaotic and complex creativity of society.” Their temporality also echoes the constant churning and renewal of culture, a layering of moments raised to totemic importance, clamoring for our attention, only to be replaced — pasted over — with the next newest iteration of now.