Thursday, June 15, 2017

New Deal Fairy Tale, Nursery Rhyme, and Story Art (8/10): The Mother Goose mural that children saved, but cultural apathy lost

Above: This grainy black & white photo of Bernice Cross's color WPA mural (see discussion below) is from the December 2nd, 1937 edition of the McComb Enterprise-Journal newspaper (Mississippi). It may be the only photo of Cross's mural, and was featured in many newspapers across the country, after a government official insulted it in 1937. (The photo is used here for educational and non-commercial purposes.)

The WPA mural that was called grotesque, saved by children, and then lost by cultural apathy

WPA artist Bernice Cross (1912-1996) painted the above Mother Goose mural--featuring Old King Cole, Humpty Dumpty, and other nursery rhyme characters--for the children's ward at the Glenn Dale Hospital (Prince George's County, Maryland), ca. 1935-1937. The mural caused a national sensation in 1937 when a Washington, D.C. health official called it "grotesque" and ordered its destruction. However, in response to the condemnation, a jury of six children was formed to judge the mural and determine its fate. 

The first child-juror brought in to judge the mural was asked, "Are you interested in this?" to which she replied, "Yes, it's very pretty." An African American child, whose eyes were transfixed on "the king about to eat a blackbird pie" said, "I think it is very nice." The other children agreed and the mural was saved (see, e.g., "Jury Of Children Saves Mural On Mother Goose," The Morning News (Wilmington, Delaware), November 25, 1937). 

Unfortunately, Cross's mural was later lost, as explained in a Maryland Historical Trust form: "The mural was described as being located on the left side of the lobby as one entered the children's hospital building, covering the whole wall above the wainscoting. It is no longer there and it is not known if it was painted over or removed" ("Glenn Dale Hospital," Individual Property/District, Maryland Historical Trust Internal NR-Eligibility Review Form, 1997, section 8, p. 7).

Cross's Mother Goose mural is not the only New Deal artwork to be lost or forgotten. Many thousands are unaccounted for, and many others are not on display. However, there are quite a few organizations, e.g., the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Living New Deal, and the federal government's General Services Administration, that are trying to find, inventory, display, or preserve these national treasures. Hopefully, a large New Deal Museum will one day house and display New Deal paintings, sculptures, wood carvings, lithographs, and more.

Above: The Mother Goose mural in this WPA photograph (taken at a children's hospital in Portland, Maine, ca. 1935-1939) was most likely painted by a WPA artist (see, e.g., "Children's Hospital Mural - Portland ME," Living New Deal, accessed June 15, 2017). Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Above: A closer look at the mural, showing Mother Goose, Little Bo Peep, and others. The idea behind these murals was to provide a more cheerful atmosphere for convalescing children. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Above: "Little Jack Horner," a ceramic sculpture by Edris Eckhardt (1905-1988), created while she was in the New Deal's Public Works of Art Project, ca. 1933-1934. Little Jack Horner is a famous Mother Goose nursery rhyme (however, the fictitious boy apparently dates back to the 1700s). The rhyme goes like this: "Little Jack Horner sat in the corner, eating a Christmas pie; He put in his thumb and pulled out a plumb, and said "What a good boy am I!." Photo courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library.


  1. Wow! Thank you!! I've been fruitlessly trying to get either my sister who lives in the Portland Maine area or niece who works at the childrens hospital to try and locate where the mural is or was ever since I saw that brief mention in the book. Its frustrating when your family members don't quite share your enthusiasm about history.

    1. Cool, let me know if you find it.