Vintage posters reveal America’s most beautiful places

The U.S. National Park Service marks its 100th anniversary in August. These vintage posters from the historic “See America” campaign, alongside photos of the places that inspired the artists, showcase the unique beauty of America’s parks.

The See America campaign was developed by the U.S. government’s Works Progress Administration, a Depression-era agency that put unemployed people to work and, with this project, also encouraged tourism. There were 14 original designs for the posters, the U.S. Department of the Interior Museum’s chief curator, Tracy Baetz, told National Public Radio. Many more designs followed, but not all survived.

The program ended in 1941, at the onset of World War II. Although the Library of Congress acquired some posters during the 1940s, they were largely forgotten until 1973, when a park ranger named Doug Leen discovered a single original poster in a dusty old shed. He almost threw it into a pile destined for the dump, but instead took it home. Leen’s growing fascination with the art led him to photos of other posters that were stored in government archives. He hired an artist to reproduce many of them and sold new versions. As profits from the sale of the reproductions increased, he found a new career and, in the process, exposed an American treasure.

A New Deal initiative

Poster painting of a waterfall on left; comparison photo of same waterfall on right (Library of Congress and © Getty Images/DEA/M. Santini/De Agostini)
(Library of Congress and © Getty Images/DEA/M. Santini/De Agostini)

“See America” became a well-known slogan of the poster campaign. The artist who designed the See America poster on the left was inspired by scenes such as the one at the Yosemite Valley waterfall shown in the photo on the right. Revitalizing the economy was the central goal of then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program. Tourism was — and still is — an economic benefit to many who work in and near the parks.

Yellowstone, 1904

Map drawing of Yellowstone National Park (Library of Congress)
(Library of Congress)

This hand-drawn map provides a bird’s-eye view of Yellowstone National Park, which is located primarily in Wyoming, although about 3 percent of the park is in Montana and 1 percent in Idaho.

The founding of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 began a global national park movement. Today, more than 100 nations maintain some 1,200 national parks or equivalent preserves.

Yosemite: El Capitan and Bridal Veil Falls

Poster drawing of El Capitan and Bridal Veil falls on left and a vintage photo of people looking at mountains on right (Library of Congress and © Getty Images/National Geographic)
(Library of Congress and © Getty Images/National Geographic/Melville B. Grosvenor)

Famed naturalist John Muir helped draw the boundaries of Yosemite National Park in 1889. Set within California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, the park is revered for its cliffs, waterfalls, streams, giant sequoia groves and biological diversity. Almost all of the park — 95 percent — is designated wilderness. The artist who drew the vertical rock formation called El Capitan and the Bridal Veil Falls for the poster on the left captured the scene that tourists enjoy in the 1954 photo on the right.


Poster drawing of two rams standing on rocks (Library of Congress)
(Library of Congress)

The bighorn rams depicted in this poster are iconic symbols of the park system. The message is iconic too. One of the goals of the National Park Service is to protect not only the natural beauty of the parks, but also the wild animals that live in them.

150 million years

Poster drawing of a large rock structure alongside photo of same structure (Library of Congress and © Getty Images/Smith Collection/Gado)
(Library of Congress and © Getty Images/Smith Collection/Gado)

The illustration and photographic image feature the same massive sandstone cliffs of cream, pink and red — topography that is a hallmark of Zion National Park in Utah. The geologic features there took about 150 million years to form. The area is isolated, and the park service has made accommodations to make it more accessible to tourists.

Protect it and preserve it

Poster drawing of a deer drinking from a river (Library of Congress)
(Library of Congress)

White-tailed deer, like the one in this illustration, are among the diverse wildlife that visitors can see in the national parks today, along with scenic waterways and winding paths.

President Obama is among the tourists from all over the world who have seen the parks’ ecological value. Obama recently recalled his first visit to Yosemite, as an 11-year-old witnessing a moose drinking from a lake, a passing herd of deer and a bear with her cub. “That changes you. You are not the same after that,” he said.

Banner reading "Find your park" (National Park Service)
(National Park Service)