A sugar chest alongside its rendering | Photo by Sara Havens
A sugar chest alongside its rendering | Photo by Sara Havens

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933, he had quite a task ahead of him. The country was in the throes of the Great Depression, and the unemployment rate was 25 percent or higher, especially in Kentucky, where Prohibition and the closing of coal mines left many without jobs.

FDR enacted the New Deal, a series of programs aimed at creating jobs for the unemployed, stabilizing our economy and reforming the financial systems that led to the stock market crash in 1929. One such program was the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which later formed the Federal Art Project (FAP) that provided jobs for more than 10,000 artists, including many in Kentucky.

The Index of American Design was part of FDR's New Deal. | Photo by Sara Havens
The Index of American Design was part of FDR’s New Deal. | Photo by Sara Havens

Frazier History Museum‘s newest exhibit, “Kentucky by Design: The Decorative Arts and American Culture,” is a comprehensive look at what our state’s artists contributed to FAP’s Index of American Design, which set out to preserve early American art and furniture — especially handmade items and traditions that were disappearing due to mass production.

Basically, artists who were selected to work for the Index would canvas the state, searching for artifacts to paint (using watercolor) in an effort to document them for future generations. The Frazier exhibit features 20 of these original watercolor renderings, and some are even paired with the actual piece of furniture or relic being documented.

One such item is the now extinct sugar chest, a piece of furniture designed to store sugar since it was so difficult and expensive to transport before 1825. These chests were a highly sought after commodity for affluent households in middle Tennessee and central Kentucky and were generally displayed in the front room.

Another unique piece on display is a chased repoussé bronze powder flask from 1800 that stored gunpowder — not booze — and prevented it from getting damp. And next to the flask is the large pumpkin salt gourd, which was used to store salt, a valuable commodity second only to gunpowder.

The pumpkin salt gourd would store the popular commodity. | Photo by Sara Havens
The pumpkin salt gourd would store the popular commodity. | Photo by Sara Havens

The exhibit does a good job of explaining the various programs and the men and women who participated, including Louisville native and state FAP supervisor Adele Brandeis. The niece of Supreme Court justice Louis D. Brandeis, she oversaw the Kentucky artists working for the Index and was known as an excellent if slightly strict leader.

Not unlike today, public art projects in the commonwealth included murals for the more than 25 new WPA post offices, various public sculptures (like the pair of marble figures that flank UofL’s Grawemeyer Hall), and posters, prints and Index renderings. The program kept many area artists working through difficult economic times.

Brandeis knew she was keeping many families afloat, and that’s what kept her going. In an oral history interview in 1965, Brandeis explained: “I did know through being on the Board of the Art Center School here … that there were a great many young struggling artists who had been working in the Art Center School and had no idea of ever being able to make a living in Depression days. It occurred to me that if they could possibly be taught how to do this interesting and meticulous work for the Index, that maybe it would somehow serve a purpose later on and at least pay them a little something and tide them over and keep them from being quite so discouraged.”

Nationwide, the FAP created 100 community art centers, 2,500 public murals, 17,700 sculptures, 250,000 prints, 2 million posters and more than 18,000 watercolors for the Index.

Artists working for the Index would paint images of furniture and artifacts. | Photo by Sara Havens
Artists working for the Index would paint images of furniture and artifacts. | Photo by Sara Havens

And in Kentucky, the New Deal programs helped create the Kentucky Dam in Gilbertsville, Mammoth Cave National Park, Louisville’s Main Fire Station, as well as 320 bridges, 310 schools, 173 libraries, 20 public swimming pools and nearly 60,000 miles of new roads. Also, more federally funded public housing was built in Louisville than any other city in the country.

“Kentucky by Design” continues at the Frazier History Museum through Feb. 12. Frazier is located at 829 W. Main St.

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Sara Havens
Sara Havens is the Culture Editor at Insider Louisville, known around town as the Bar Belle (barbelleblog.com). She's a former editor of LEO Weekly and has written for Playboy and The Alcohol Professor. Havens is the author of two books: "The Bar Belle" and "The Bar Belle Vol. 2."