HARRISBURG - Pennsylvania's history is painted on the walls of its post offices.

From the shipyard scenes in Philadelphia and the bustling railroad shops in Renovo to the agricultural tradition in Selinsgrove and the Revolutionary War's Wyoming Massacre in Tunkhannock.

The post office mural project touched all corners of Pennsylvania, and its birth in the 1930s can be traced to the advocacy of a Philadelphia painter.

As President Franklin D. Roosevelt prepared to launch his New Deal recovery program at the height of the Depression, Philadelphian George Biddle urged his old prep-school pal to include opportunities for struggling artists.

Roosevelt did.

To mark the 75th anniversary of the New Deal, the State Museum of Pennsylvania has mounted an exhibit focusing on one of the many federal art programs launched at the time. Administered by the U.S. Treasury, it brought great art directly to the people at the nexus of their communities: the post office.

"A Common Canvas: Pennsylvania's New Deal Post Office Murals," uses dozens of high-quality photographs to trace the extraordinary stories of murals and sculptures by artists - some world-famous, others unknown - that adorn post offices from Ambler to Aliquippa.

Of the 94 murals or sculptures commissioned in Pennsylvania - second only to New York - 88 remain, most in their original locations.

"They were more than making beautiful works of art," said Dave Lembeck, an independent scholar and cocurator of the exhibit. "They were capturing people's lives from the 1930s, preserving details of industries specific to Pennsylvania and a place in history."

Lembeck and architectural photographer Michael Mutmansky, both of State College, traveled the state for years documenting the artwork, primarily murals depicting local industries and agricultural landscape or historical tableaux featuring pilgrims, Revolutionary War soldiers, and American Indians.

Philadelphia-area post offices and Philadelphia artists figured prominently in the project.

There were at least 20 post office murals in the Philadelphia area. In Conshohocken, the mural depicted steelworkers; in Drexel Hill, "aborigines"; and in Quakertown, of course, the Quakers.

Some of the artists had studied or exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now the Moore College of Art). Other artists included George Harding, who studied with Howard Pyle, founder of the Brandywine School of illustrators in Chadds Ford, and John Folinsbee, a Bucks County impressionist.

Communities, some of them hundreds of miles from big cities, fought vigorously to ensure that their history was accurately represented by artists from Philadelphia, New York, or elsewhere.

"It was a local-versus-cosmopolitan thing," said Curtis Miner, senior curator of popular culture at the state museum. "Because of the unusually democratic nature of the project, artists were forced to pay attention to details they might have otherwise ignored."

Whether it was a bayonet missing from a depiction of the Battle of Bushy Run in Westmoreland County or an incorrect plowing method, the artists usually heard about it and corrected it, Miner said. One artist, Frank Marlo, caused a huge uproar when he put Puritan hats on Quakers in Quakertown.

"Early Quakers pictured wearing the garb of Puritans, whose persecution of the Quakers in New England is a well-known historical fact, might well be considered an 'effrontery' to their present-day descendants," opined 10 members of the Religious Society of Friends. "This mural is more appropriate for a post office in some New England town."

Visitors can see the offending image in Quakertown's Borough Hall, where the mural was moved when a new post office was built.

The timing of the Harrisburg museum's exhibit, which opened shortly after the presidential election, was fortuitous.

As the exhibit began to take shape in 2007, Miner lamented that the tribulations their grandparents had faced during the Depression did not seem to resonate with younger audiences.

The recession and the birth of President Obama's economic-stimulus plan changed that.

"The New Deal has been invoked more in the last three months than the last 30 years," Miner said in a January interview. "The exhibit was looking like a preface rather than an afterthought."

The arts, it turns out, will indeed be a part of the 21st century's jobs-creation program. The arts community learned that the stimulus package that Obama signed into law Tuesday includes $50 million for states to distribute to museums, theaters, and art centers. In Pennsylvania, this could mean the preservation of programs and jobs at arts organizations scheduled for severe cuts - among them, the state museum.

If You Go

"A Common Canvas: Pennsylvania's New Deal Post Office Murals" runs through May 17.

Where: State Museum of Pennsylvania, Third and Forester Streets, Harrisburg.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.

Admission: Free.

Information: Online at www.statemuseumpa.org or by phone at 717-787-4980.


Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.