Post office murals were created during the Great Depression to provide relief for artists and to bring art to the people. In 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated the Public Works of Art Project, which paid 3,700 artists to decorate public buildings nationwide. In Texas forty artists participated in PWAP, which lasted six months before its funding ran out in the spring of 1934. A more permanent program soon followed. Called the Section of Painting and Sculpture, later the Section of Fine Arts, it was responsible for the creation of the post office murals. Between 1934 and 1943 about ninety-seven murals were installed in sixty-six post offices and federal buildings throughout Texas. As of the 1990s, eight of those murals had been destroyed or lost.
Mural artists were directly inspired by the great mural tradition of Mexico, which was led by Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and others during the 1920s. Several Texas muralists met Rivera in Mexico and worked under him briefly. Their most common medium was oil on canvas, and the murals were usually glued to the wall. However, several murals were executed in buon fresco, or painting on wet plaster, such as Howard Cook's sixteen-panel historical epic, "San Antonio's Importance in Texas History," in the foyer of the San Antonio federal building. John Ward Lockwood's mural for Hamilton, entitled "Texas Rangers in Camp," was painted on the dry wall, a technique known as fresco secco. Other murals are relief sculptures executed in wood (Waco), cast stone, (Bryan, Houston [lost]), or plaster (Electra). Post office murals capture the flavor of Texas through its most prominent symbols. Themes include regional history and early settlement. For example, the arrival of the conquistadors in West Texas is a mural theme in the Canyon, El Paso, and Amarillo post offices. Pioneer settlers appear in the murals of Mart, Big Spring, Brady, Wellington, and others. Included also are murals depicting various industries that characterize Texas, such as ranching (Fredericksberg, Amarillo); agriculture (Elgin, Farmersville, Longview); oil operations (Kilgore, Graham); and lumber manufacturing (Jasper, Trinity). In addition, folk heroes such as Sam Bass (Fort Worth) and the Texas Rangers (Fort Worth, Smithville, Hamilton); the cowboy (Odessa, Cooper); and the American Indian (Quanah, Caldwell, Seymour) are represented. The mural program helped many young Texas artists to survive during the lean depression years. It also helped some of them gain national recognition, including Jerry Bywaters, Otis M. Dozier, Alexandre Hogue, Thomas M. Stell, Jr., Tom Lea, and Julius Woeltz. Unlike other public-supported art efforts of the period, whose primary objective was to provide relief, the primary goal of the Section of Fine Arts was to secure high-quality artwork and to support American culture. Post office murals were part of an art renaissance called the American Scene, which rejected European-influenced art in favor of an art based on American themes. It was characterized by its close examination of everyday life in America. The acquisition of murals was an important event for many communities; the artworks also represented many people's first direct encounter with original art and artists.
The present condition of Texas post office murals varies. While a number have been restored, several have been damaged, destroyed, or painted over during remodeling. The fate of others is unknown. Many of those that remain are endangered for various reasons, including deterioration, neglect, and damage resulting from attempts to peel them off the wall and relocate them. Texas murals painted under PWAP appeared in public buildings across the state; many of these artworks have been destroyed, however, and information on the location of those that survive is scarce. Some post office murals are the responsibility of the General Services Administration, which maintains federal buildings. Other murals are overseen by the U.S. Postal Service, which has been responsible for the restoration of several of them. However, partly due to lack of federal funding, the issue of preservation has been left largely to historical organizations, museums, and community groups, several of which have had their post office murals restored in situ. A few Texas communities have gained custody or ownership of abandoned post offices with murals and have used the buildings as museums or as municipal offices. The murals, however, remain federal property. In 1975 an agreement between the U.S. Postal Service and the Smithsonian Institution made provisions for the relocation of murals when a post office moves. Although critics' opinions vary regarding the esthetic merit of post office mural art, the value of the murals as vehicles for study of a unique period of American history and culture is generally accepted.