By Patricia Raynor, Loan Coordinator
This summer, I gave a presentation on New Deal post office murals in the Pacific Northwest at the Labor and Working Class History Association’s (LAWCHA) annual conference in Seattle, Washington. The LAWCHA is a non-profit association whose members research the labor movement in North and South America. As I have written about New Deal post office murals during my career, the organizer of a session on art and work in the 1930s contacted me about speaking on this topic. I also had the fortunate opportunity to share this presentation at the Kitsap County Historical Society & Museum in Bremerton, Washington, which is located on the Puget Sound about 65 miles west of Seattle. During my research on Northwest murals, a particular work quickly became one of my favorites. Painted by Ernest Ralph Norling (born Pasco, WA, 1892; died Seattle, WA, 1974), “Logging” is a prominent fixture in the Bremerton, WA post office to this day. I contacted the Kitsap County Historical Society seeking photographs in their collection depicting the early logging industry for my scheduled talk in Seattle. Not only did the Historical Society graciously provide me with several images, they invited me to speak at the Kitsap County Museum prior to the LAWCHA conference.
Bremerton Post Office; image courtesy of Catherine Sampsell-Willmann.
The “Logging” mural spans one side of a wall in the Bremerton post office, which was constructed in 1937. A New Deal program called, “The Section of Fine Arts,” administered by the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department, authorized funding for the beautification of public buildings – mostly post offices and courthouses. During the years the Section existed, 1,124 mural contracts were awarded. Norling was granted the commission to paint the Bremerton mural based on his previous work rather than through direct competition. He completed his oil on canvas mural in 1938.
The artist was familiar with the early logging industry. In a 1964 oral interview, Norling noted that he had worked in a logging camp as a teenager. He stated that he used the logging scene in his work because it hadn’t been overdone. Two lumberjacks cutting down a Douglas fir dominate the center of the mural. Along the perimeter, other logging scenes include surveyors, felled timber being cut into sections, logs being hoisted by a steam donkey (steam-powered winch), and finally logs being transported by train.
Mural detail of shipyard; image courtesy of Catherine Sampsell-Willmann.
Norling was ambitious in his layered representation of the logging industry. However, the artist has additionally given us a glimpse of the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, uninterrupted in operation since its establishment in 1891. You can see the navy yard from the commuter ferry when you come into port. A depiction of the shipyard could easily have represented Bremerton’s past and present industry when the mural was painted as it had been a pivotal industry in the town since its founding. The artist’s use of regional iconography in the mural is another topic for further exploration. Shipyard and port; image courtesy of the author.
I arrived to Bremerton on a picturesque and windy morning, a breathtakingly lush landscape that can only be found in the Pacific Northwest. The Historical Society had invited the Bremerton community to attend the lecture at the museum. They were an enthusiastic audience and clearly felt very strongly about preserving the mural because of its ties to the history of Bremerton. After the program, a group of us walked to the nearby post office to view the mural. The public’s insight and comments during the onsite discussion gave me greater knowledge about the history of Bremerton and its industries, as well as new impressions of the artist’s intent, both literally and metaphorically.
The author, mid-presentation; image courtesy of the Kitsap County Historical Society & Museum.
Bremerton residents view and discuss "Logging;" image courtesy of the author.
If you have a New Deal post office mural in your town or city, it can be a useful tool for exploring your community’s history. Many of these murals sparked local controversy when they were installed and caused heated conversations on whether the subject matter conveyed was accurately portrayed. Especially through a retrospective lens, the themes presented in these artworks continue to provoke thoughtful discussion and debate to this day.
For more information on New Deal post office murals:
For information on New Deal art in Washington State:
Mural images used with the permission of the United States Postal Service. All rights reserved.