South Orange’ s first post office opened in 1841 and closed almost immediately for lack of customers. The community tried again in 1843, and South Orange residents have sent and received mail from some seven different locations since then. Our current building on Vose Avenue was begun in 1936, a project of the Works Progress Administration. It’s a large airy building, notable especially for the mural near the ceiling on the northern wall of the lobby.
According to Patricia Raynor, a scholar of New Deal art, our 1939 mural by Bernard Perlin was one of hundreds created as part of the New Deal. Post office murals were executed by artists working for the Section of Fine Arts. Known as "the Section," it was established in 1934 and administered by the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department. The Section's main function was to select art to decorate public buildings.
Raynor writes, “Mural artists were provided with guidelines and themes for executing their mural studies. Scenes of local interest and events were deemed to be the most suitable … Artists were constantly reminded that the communities were their patron and they went to great lengths to satisfy the desires of everyone involved in the project in order to save their commissions.”
South Orange’s mural, which is apparently untitled, is described as “Family Scene.” From the far left to the right, it depicts farmers, then athletes, then a woman embracing two children under a maple tree. In the center of the mural, Perlin painted equipment for farming, fighting and playing games. The background, in muted browns and greens, is the Baird and The Lone Oak Golf Course that then surrounded it. The artist’s name appears in the lower right hand corner on the handle of a tennis racket.
Bernard Perlin, whose work is collected now and appears in London’s Tate Gallery, was born in Richmond, Va., in 1918. He studied at the New York School of Design, the National Academy of Design Art School and the Art Students League. He won a Kosciuszko Foundation Scholarship for study in Poland in 1938 and returned to the Art Students League to study graphics under Harry Steinberg while he executed our mural. From 1942 to 1943, he worked in the Office of War Information Graphics Division in Washington, D.C., with Ben Shahn, then as a war correspondent for Life magazine, covering the Middle East, and for Fortune magazine, covering the Pacific and Orient. After the war, he painted and taught at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and then at a number of smaller institutions in Connecticut. In more recent years, his work has been less political than during the Depression, World War II, and its aftermath.
While the South Orange mural doesn’t appear to be overtly political, it remains a product of its era. In notes for an exhibit of Depression murals at Vassar College, scholar Patricia E. Phagan notes, “During this period of a devastating depression, the identity of the nation became of overwhelming concern, especially for President Roosevelt's New Deal administration with its broad work programs to aid the unemployed and re-build faith in the nation's democratic ideals.” This is reflected in art of the period, which, Phagan suggests, reflects “open values directed toward every citizen, a social ideal closely aligned with the New Deal notions.” In other words, murals such as our own sought to reflect the community, the dignity of its individuals, and its most positive elements.
Patricia Raynor notes that fewer and fewer post office murals survive, although “these murals provide local communities with a colorful record of their heritage and give us all a glimpse of the American public's taste during a fascinating time in our nation's history.” Fortunately for South Orange, our mural remains to mirror our community.