The Index of American Design was the project of one of several Fine Arts Divisions in the Federal Art Project (FAP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) from 1935 to 1942. The collection, now at the National Gallery of Art, includes nearly 18,000 watercolor renderings depicting traditional American arts and crafts before 1900. The larger purpose of the project was to provide a visual inventory of American vernacular culture and, by implication at least, a definition of the uniqueness of the American National Identity.

This remarkable project was shot through with unresolved contradictions. The representation of examples of the fertile imaginations and ingenuity of folk artists was governed by strict guidelines drawn up and implemented by committee; the artists who worked on the renderings were obliged to erase their own artistic individualites in order to produce uniformly photo-realistic representations of unique, hand-made objects; examples of genuine folk artifacts -- whirligigs whittled by hand or dolls made from rags and dried ears of corn -- stood side by side with the productions of early mass manufactury like moulded glass and cast iron; objects from various times and places lost their local and historical contexts to became expressions of some generalized, ahistorical Americanness.

The Index presents an archive of images of American material culture as well as a gallery of beautiful images of a world lost to view. At the same time, it embodies the contradictions and cross currents that characterized the 1930s.

American Studies
@ UVa.