Propagandist Posters

Which Playground for Your Child?  Greenbelt or Gutter?  Arthur Rothstein, December, 1935, in Images of America: Greenbelt, composit.

 

This poster represents the purest form of propaganda.  The young boys playing in the street, combined with a cartoon-like drawing of an imposing modern sky-scraper are sharply juxtaposed with the round inset showing a lush paradise by the water.  This suggests that Greenbelt is the safest place for children to grow up; there they will recline in fertile clearings, far away from any form of violence.  Indeed, the peaceful nature of Greenbelt seems to be badly needed, as the two boys in the foreground appear to be playing with toy guns.  Life in large, bustling urban centers is no place for children – in fact, the poster’s message conveys that the only place available for children to play in the city is in the dirty streets, near the gutter.  It is interesting to note that all of the children in this poster appear to be white.  

Death in the City Streets, Safety in the Greenbelt Town, Arthur Rothstein, 1935, Courtesy of the Greenbelt Museum, photograph.

 

“Death in the City Streets, Safety in the Greenbelt Town” contains much the same message as the previous poster.  A graphic car accident, surrounded by abstract lines, most likely meant to symbolize city streets or a roadmap, occupies the upper left corner, followed by the large, bolded words “death in the city streets.”  Beneath this, a vague, aerial plan of early Greenbelt is shown, accompanied by the white, nonthreatening and barely visible words “Safety in the Greenbelt Town” (“safety” is capitalized and larger than the surrounding words).  To fully ensure that prospective Greenbelt residents understood the city’s status as a safe haven, the phrase “no highway passes thru” was added in darker ink in the bottom left corner.  This poster reinforces the idea of Greenbelt as a peaceful, utopian society, removed from the dangers of the city.  Indeed, Yasumura muses “if Greenbelt is the safe suburb, what is the opposite of that?  What are these pictures trying to tell us about how dangerous D.C. is, and those that reside in it are?”

Greenbelt Towns Created Jobs Quickly!  Resettlement Administration’s Suburban Resettlement Program, 1936, Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

 

“Greenbelt Towns created jobs quickly” highlights one of the three reasons that Greenbelt was constructed (to put people to work, house low-income families, and experiment with modern town planning as seen in Radburn, New Jersey and in the garden cities of England).  The poster details the speed with which the government put more than eight thousand men to work.  The poster also contains statistical information which reveals that the Greenbelt project employed more man power and money spent on wages and materials, than any other New Deal town.  

Franklin Deleno Roosevelt, N.F. Burneti, 1933, Courtesy of the Greenbelt Museum, ink on paper.

 

In this strongly pro-Roosevelt poster, the president is seen at the center of the image, looking stoically at the viewer, presenting an image of strong leadership.  Roosevelt, notably larger in size, is superimposed above the capital building, overseeing the government.  Striped rays of light appear to emanate from a source (likely the sun) behind the capital building, illuminating Roosevelt’s figure.  A bald eagle carrying the American flag looks intently into the distance. This is a man selected by the people. 

Female Domesticity in Early Greenbelt

As stated in the museum’s orientation video, the income limit required of Greenbelt residents often “had the effect of keeping women at home, although some did take the odd job here and there – giving piano lessons, working a shift at the food store, or volunteering for the local newspaper.” Although these small jobs were viable options for local women, society had not yet embarked on the long journey towards the equality of men and women. Therefore, government photographs continually praised and upheld the ideals of female domesticity.  On his “documentary” photographic tour across America in 1942, Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division of the FSA and father of that agency’s documentary photography movement, affirmed the prevalence and normalcy of domesticity.  Indeed, the photos that Stryker scripted which depict Greenbelt housewives hard at work often show a stream of pure sunlight coming in through the window and highlighting the women’s faces, almost as if they were goddesses.  Traditionally, sunlight has been used in paintings to show purity and/or divinity.  These photographs acted as a strong force of propaganda which supported and encouraged female domesticity.  The next seven photographs show women at work both inside and outside of the home, in the food store, and engaging in a leisurely activity with neighbors and friends.  

Interior of House, Greenbelt MD, Arthur Rothstein, November 1936, Library of Congress, Photograph.

 

This promotional photograph shows a woman, posing for the camera while washing dishes at the sink of a model home in Greenbelt.  The stream of pure sunlight flooding into the kitchen from the window, shining on the woman, highlights her face and apron, creating a pleasant glow.  In addition to idealizing the woman, the photograph also displays an ideal space, with sunlight glinting off the floor and walls. In other words, this photograph is a type of propaganda because it is meant to support and celebrate female domesticity, and emphasize women’s subordination.

Woman Beating Eggs, Man at Desk, Greenbelt, Maryland, Gretchen van Tassel, July 1946, Library of Congress, Photograph.  

 

Woman Beating Eggs, Man at Desk (previously untitled) is another photograph which reinforces the desirability of female domesticity and highlights traditional gender roles.  A woman, wearing an apron tied around her waist, looks down at a carton of eggs, deep in concentration as she prepares a meal; meanwhile the man sits comfortably at his desk, examining various pieces of stationary.  It is noteworthy that the man seems relaxed whereas the woman’s work has only just begun.

Resident at Greenbelt with Child in the Greenbelt Cooperative Grocery Store, Maryland, Russell Lee, February, 1938.  Library of Congress, photograph.

 

As noted within the Greenbelt Oral Histories, when the Greenbelt Co-op (then simply called the food store) opened in 1937, it represented a remarkable revolution in shopping.  The new trend of independent shopping was only just beginning to take hold in the country as a whole.  Where before patrons would be required to provide a clerk with their shopping list so that the clerk might gather the items for customers, now patrons (mostly consisting of housewives) had greater autonomy to roam within the store, gathering items on their grocery lists and choosing from a wider array of options.  

The Local Utility Company Giving a Cooking Demonstration for Greenbelt Women, Marjory Collins, June, 1942.  Library of Congress, photograph.

              

When the first residents moved into Greenbelt in 1937, they were faced with new technology (such as electric ovens, stoves and irons) which they may not have known how to use.  Therefore, female workers from the local utility company visited the town in 1942 in an effort to teach Greenbelt housewives how to use their new technology.  As this photograph shows, the electrical company employees also held cooking classes for Greenbelt wives seeking to educate themselves. 

 Woman in Front of Greenbelt House*, Marion Post Wolcott, September 1938.  Library of Congress, photograph.  

                                                          And

Laundry Billowing in the Wind, John Vachon, November, 1937.  Library of Congress, photograph.

                                

These two photographs show the contrast between the garden and service sides of original Greenbelt block homes.  In the first photograph, a woman waters her garden on the garden-side of her house.  The garden side occupies the space traditionally thought of as the back of the house, but, in Greenbelt, the planners intended for residents to enter the house through the garden side.  The garden side provided access to pathways throughout the town including underpasses, sunken below roads.  This design plan separated pedestrians from vehicles, keeping everyone safe.  In contrast, Laundry Billowing in the Wind depicts the service side entrance (which most would think of as the front of the house).  Greenbelt had very strict rules about laundry lines – famously, laundry was supposed to be removed from the lines outside by 4pm, supposedly so men returning from a day at work would not have to face such an unpleasant sight. Additionally, the hanging of laundry was controlled so as to differentiate Greenbelt from overcrowded urban centers.

*In the Library of Congress digital collection this is erroneously titled Apartment Houses at Greenbelt

Family on Terrace in Greenbelt Home, Maryland, Marion Post Walcott, September 1938. Library of Congress, photograph.

  

Family on Terrace in Greenbelt Home, Maryland highlights the emotional and physical closeness of Greenbelt women in the beginning, and especially during the war years.  While husbands, fathers, and brothers were abroad fighting during World War II, housewives benefited from the close-knit community of Greenbelt.  Greenbelt’s design, along with its cooperative ideals, helped housewives provide emotional support to one another.  In this photo, three women and two babies sit on an apartment balcony, taking advantage of the sunlight.  The women are knitting and talking amongst themselves while one of the babies sits on its mothers’ lap, grasping a toy.  Another young child stands between two chairs, seemingly having just dropped his teddy bear.  This photo demonstrates how Greenbelt fostered the blending of women’s work and leisure.

Greenbelt: A Propagandist History, has highlighted two ways in which propaganda was utilized in early Greenbelt: through official government posters intended to promote the town, and through photographs displaying female domesticity. Posters created by the government extolled Greenbelt as a kind of utopian refuge far from the quick-paced and dangerous modern metropolis, praised the ease and speed with which the town created jobs, and idolized its leaders.    Staged (and possibly some un-staged) photographs of Greenbelt house-wives praised and upheld the ideals of female domesticity, while also providing a window through which later generations could view their lives.  I sincerely hope that this website has provided a new and intellectually stimulating take on early Greenbelt history.  

Works Cited

Prologue in Greenbelt: History of a New Town (1937-1987), edited by Mary Lou Williamson. 1997, The Donning Company/Publishers, Virginia Beach, VA.

 

“The Last Frontier”: Russell Lee and the Small-Town Ideal in Mind’s Eye, Mind’s Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered, by James Curtis.  1989, Temple University Press, PHI.  

 

Greenbelt: A Model Community.  Orientation video.  2010, Friends of the Greenbelt Museum.

 

Images of America: Greenbelt, Jill Parsons St. John and Megan Searing Young on behalf of the Friends of the Greenbelt Museum.  2011, Arcadia Publishing.

 

Which Playground for Your Child?  Greenbelt or Gutter?  Arthur Rothstein, December, 1935, in Images of America: Greenbelt, composit.

 

Death in the City Streets, Safety in the Greenbelt Town, Arthur Rothstein, 1935, Courtesy of the Greenbelt Museum, photograph.

 

Greenbelt Towns Created Jobs Quickly!  Resettlement Administration’s Suburban Resettlement Program, 1936, Courtesy of the Greenbelt Museum, ink on paper.

 

Franklin Deleno Roosevelt, N.F. Burneti, 1933, Courtesy of the Greenbelt Museum, ink on paper.

 

Interior of House, Greenbelt MD,Arthur Rothstein, November 1936, Library of Congress, Photograph.

 

Woman Beating Eggs, Man at Desk, Greenbelt, Maryland, Gretchen van Tassel, July 1946, Library of Congress, Photograph.  

 

Resident at Greenbelt with Child in the Greenbelt Cooperative Grocery Store, Maryland, Russell Lee, February, 1938.  Library of Congress, photograph.

 

The Local Utility Company Giving a Cooking Demonstration for Greenbelt Women, Marjory Collins, June, 1942.  Library of Congress, photograph.

 

Apartment Houses at Greenbelt, Marion Post Wolcott, September 1938.  Library of Congress, photograph.  

 

Laundry Billowing in the Wind, John Vachon, November, 1937.  Library of Congress, photograph.

 

Family on Terrace in Greenbelt Home, Maryland, Marion Post Walcott, September 1938. Library of Congress, photograph.

Visitor Information

Historic House

The Historic House is OPEN Sunday, Nov. 10

10B Crescent Rd.

Greenbelt, MD 20770

Open Sundays 1-5pm

Admission $5 or under

Contact us to visit or book  tours on other days!

Exhibition Gallery

 

Lenore Thomas Straus Exhibit

Greenbelt Community Center

15 Crescent Rd. 

Greenbelt, MD 20770

Open M-Sat 9am-10pm, 

Sundays 10am-7pm

Greenbelt Museum Office


15 Crescent Road

Greenbelt, Maryland 20770

301-507-6582 

info@greenbeltmuseum.org

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Preserving and sharing the New Deal history of an experimental planned community built by FDR in suburban Maryland in 1937 and still thriving today.