I started this blog to indulge in the discovery (and rediscovery) of Salem’s history, but also American history, which I haven’t really studied in any depth since high school. And I’ve completely forgotten what I learned then, or before, because it was the same old narrative, year after year, Plymouth to Ford’s Theater again and again and again. Past politics. So boring–I hated history by the time I went away to college and was determined to avoid it by majoring in something that was almost completely contrary to my interests and talents: economics. But my time abroad, along with the few history courses I allowed myself to take, convinced me that it was only American history that was boring, so I went on to get my Ph.D. in European history and become a history professor, which is quite simply the best job ever. Of course now I know that American history is not boring (though it is short), because I’ve uncovered more of its layers, including that which is most interesting to me: its culture. My American history curriculum starts with creativity and ends with events, and so I tend to fall down a rabbit hole when I encounter an amazing database like the Index of American Design, a project that commissioned Depression-era artists to produce nearly 18,000 watercolor renderings of traditional American arts and crafts made before 1900 under the auspices of the Federal Arts Project (FAP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The project encompassed 34 states, regional exhibitions of the renderings, and the creation of a permanent inventory of reference materials with which one can rediscover American material culture again and again and again–as accessed today through the portal of the National Gallery of Art.
Index renderings are photographic in their simplicity and detail: the artists are documenting and creating at the same time. Like all WPA initiatives, the Index was first and foremost a way to put unemployed people, in this case artists, to work, but like several FAP projects, the goal of archiving all forms of American culture seems to be just as important. The artists of the Index of American Design, just like the architects of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), used their own artistry to capture and preserve American artistry, as a form and expression of artistic nationalism. Their meticulous drawings of shop signs, andirons, cabinets, dolls and dresses, showcased in a series of national exhibitions, enabled an anxious American audience to discover (or rediscover) its own cultural identity, through very familiar forms.
There are several Salem items in the Index (of course), including some very primitive wooden dolls, a cartouche, and a very characteristic chair. I’m biased, I know, but I think more Salem items should have been included–and wondering if the democratization goals of the Index worked against seats of “high” culture?
A few posters of WPA/FAP/IAD exhibitions held in 1937-38: