Saturday, June 18, 2016

When the NRA Blue Eagle Flew High

Today when anyone mentions the NRA, the natural reaction is to think about guns.  In the early 1930s, the initials meant something entirely different to Americans.  That NRA — the National Recovery Act — was an attempt by the Administration of President Franklin Roosevelt to get the U.S. economy working again during the the Great Depression. 

When Congress passed the legislation on June 16, 1933 — 83 years ago this month — many thought its proposed stimulation of industry and recuperation of consumer purchasing power were the keys to economic recovery.  But an image was needed to represent this NRA and thus was born one of the most iconic symbols of American history — The Blue Eagle.  

Enter Charles Toucey Coiner, an artist and advertising director for the Philadelphia-based N.W. Ayer & Son advertising agency.  When the Administrator of the National Recovery Act (NRA) was dissatisfied with designs presented by Ayer, Coiner, shown left, himself designed the Blue Eagle symbol that is closely associated with the NRA.  It became a very popular icon of a hope for a country in the midst of a massive economic crisis.  The symbol was displayed by industries and businesses who had accepted the NRA codes of operation that attempted to boost the economy while protecting rights of workers.
As always, cartoonists had a field day depicting the colorful avian.  The November 1934 Vanity Fair magazine featured a cover depicting Roosevelt as a chef serving up a blue avian on a platter.  The eagle even seems happy about being someone’s dinner.

A more serious cartoon showed Uncle Sam looking at a manufacturing district labeled “all industry” with the NRA eagle perched on his arm.  The caption read “The Hunter’s Falcon,”  suggesting that the bird would swoop down on even those companies unwilling to cooperate.

The country seemed to go through an NRA craze.  Note the triplets wearing jaunty hats and belted dresses whose mother has sewed the appropriate letters on their skirts.  Of course, if the lass at the left had moved to the right side, the letters would have read “RAN,”  making even less sense.

Older girls also celebrated the NRA and its eagle.  Here are three genuine bathing beauties who have been able to transfer a pale eagle within their summer tans.  The slogan of the NRA was “We do our part.”  In this case the ladies have offered up a body part.   One hopes they avoided a sunburn.

In San Francisco, several thousand school kids turned out in a ballpark to create the outline of the world’s largest NRA Eagle.  Some wore blue.  It was all part of a  national effort to create enthusiasm for a program that sometimes worked and more often did not.
Of course an icon would not be an icon without a song about it.  Abdiel Phillips and Bessie Davies were happy to oblige with a ditty they entitled simply “NRA Song.”  Bill Cox wrote a country-style song he called “NRA Blues.”  It was aimed at the workers against the bosses and included these lines:

The rich men's all on easy street, 
Sweet thing, sweet thing. 
The rich men's all on easy street, 
And the poor man can't get enough to eat.
Sweet thing, yes baby mine.

When you all join the NRA, 
Sweet thing, sweet thing. 
When you all join the NRA, 
We'll all feel happy and all feel gay. 
Sweet thing, yes baby mine.

I've got the blues, 
I've got them NRA blues.
Lord, I got them NRA blues.

As shown above, glass is always a good touch in memorializing a icon.  This one looks hand-blown and carries a shield with two eagle heads, in a carafe type bottle that is, of course, blue.

By joining the NRA, one merited a button  The one shown here presented the blue eagle on a red background and white letters.  The obvious message: “red, white and blue” patriotism.  Businesses who accepted the NRA “codes of conduct” could put an appropriate sign in the front window of their establishments.   The President’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, was photographed with a handful of nails, presumably helping a woman nail up the blue eagle.
For all this hoopla, the National Recovery Act, while popular with workers, found some of the two million businesses who carried the blue eagle did not really follow the regulations it entailed.  During its brief life, the NRA did not achieve its goals of reemployment and recovery and too often failed to take action against recalcitrant businesses displaying the blue eagle.  In 1936 this attempt at a “guided economy” was struck down as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.  The blue eagle would fly no more — its legacy the many objects and images that remind us of that short but highly unusual era in American history.

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