Skip to Content

53 Vintage Images from the Index of American Design – Reviving Forgotten Masterpieces

Inside: Free downloadable vintage American folk art from the Index of American Design, all in the Public Domain.

During the Great Depression, the United States saw economic hardship and an unexpected blossoming of culture and art. In 1936 an ambitious project known as the “Index of American Design” took flight as part of the Federal Art Project under the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

The Index of American Design aimed to document and preserve the rich tapestry of American folk art and traditional crafts and provide employment opportunities for artists struggling during the Depression.

Enlisting the help of over 1000 artists nationwide, the Index set about meticulously documenting a wide array of objects that embodied America’s cultural heritage. These included items from domestic life, traditional wear, toys, tools, and a vast range of folk art. Detailed watercolour illustrations capture these items.

From humble quilts stitched together by the firelight to elaborately carved furniture made by skilled craftspeople. The Index was not just an archive of objects. It celebrated the American spirit, a testament to the nation’s artistry and ingenuity.

Whether you’re an art enthusiast, a history buff, or simply curious, there’s something in the Index for you.

Illustrations From The Index of American Design 1936

The following is s small sample of the beautiful American folk art illustrations featured in the index. All the prints are in the Public Domain.

To download them click on the title above the illustration. A higher-resolution image will open in a new tab on your browser. You can then save or print that watercolour.

Celebrating Simplicity – The Beauty of Everyday Life

Illustrations of household kitchen artefacts include vases, crockery, and antique silverware.

Print 1: Glass Vase

Watercolor, graphite, and gouache painting of a yellow coloured glass vase by Janet Riza.

Glass vase by Janet Riza  Index of American Design

Print 2: Sugar Bowl

Green covered glass sugar bowl painting by William McAuley.

Covered glass sugar bowl paintng William McAuley

Print 3: Butter Mould

Wooden butter moulds, often bell-shaped, were specially designed to contain a pound of butter. The butter would adapt its shape. And the intricate carving within the mould imprints a unique pattern onto the butter’s surface.

Beyond their practical use, these butter moulds were seen as artistic expression for the farmers and craftsmen who made them. The designs etched into these moulds were varied and often depicted themes from rural life. Wheat sheaves, pineapples, and thistles were common motifs, as were cows, flowers, and birds.

Butter mould from American Index of Design 1936

Print 4: String Bowl

Index of American Design watercolour of a ball of string in a glass dome dispenser by Paul Poffinbarger.

Ball of string in a glass dome dispenser American Folk Art Image

Print 5: Pitcher

Pottery pitcher with a simple bird motif by John Tarantino.

West Troy Pottery, based in 19th century New York, was renowned for its durable, everyday stoneware items. Characterized by distinctive cobalt blue decorations and functional designs, their pieces were widely used in homes and businesses. Though the company is no longer active, its products have become valuable collectables.

Pottery pitcher _ Index of American Design

Print 6: Soup Ladle

A pair of silver soup ladles by John R. Towers.

silver soup ladle from the Index of American Design 1936

Everyday Artistry: Household Tools in the Index of American Design

Illustrations of household tools. From sewing machines and lanterns to flycatchers, these renderings provided insights into the practicalities of American life in 1936. Each device, integral to daily tasks, reflects the ingenuity of the era when hands-on skills and durability were paramount.

Print 7: Sewing Machine

Hand cranked sewing machine 1936.

On the site there are many patent art prints for everyday tools including a sewing machine.

1936 hand cranked sewing machines

Print 8: Fly Catcher

I’ve never seen a contraption like this one and I’m not sure how it works but I’m intrigued.

Fly catcher Index of American design

Print 9: Washboard

A washboard is a tool designed for hand washing clothing. Clothes are soaked in hot soapy water in a washtub, then squeezed against the ridged surface of the washboard. This forces the cleansing fluid through the cloth to carry away dirt. 

watercolour illustration of a washboard

Print 10: Fire Bucket

A lovely colourful watercolour of a vintage fire bucket by Carl Buergerniss.

watercolour painting of a fire bucket

Print 11: Fluting Iron

A fluting iron was used to press clothing, specifically those with pleats. The machine is iron, with brass rollers and a wooden handle.

A watercolour of a fluting iron

Print 12: Scissors

Scissors Index of American Design Print

Print 13: Coffee Grinder

Manual burr grinders are turned by hand, rotating one grinding surface against the other. Coffee mills have a handle, providing leverage for the many turns required to grind enough coffee for a cup. The ground coffee is collected in a container drawer of the mill.

Coffee Grinder Index of American Design

Blooming Past: Garden Designs in the Index of American Design

Watercolour paintings of garden designs are featured in the Index of American Design. This unique collection takes us back to the 1930s, offering insights into grand estate gardens and humble homegrown patches.

These illustrations celebrate diverse gardening styles, from formal, European-inspired layouts to rustic, free-form cottage gardens. Additionally, they highlight garden architecture and ornamentation, revealing the blend of aesthetic and practical purposes in historical gardening.

Print 14: P. Stuyvesant Estate

P. Stuyvesant Estate “Petersfield”

The Stuyvesant family was a prominent and influential family in early New York history.

P. Stuyvesant Estate from Index of American Design

Print 15: Hayes and Thompson Estate

A watercolour garden illustration from the Index by George Stonehill and Gilbert Sackerman and William Merklin.

Hayes & Thompson Estate

Print 16: Ketteltas Estate

Another watercolour design print of a prominent New York garden.

Ketteltas Estate New York

Print 17: Depeyster Estate and Garden

One of three watercolour estate and garden illustrations in the Index of American Design painted by Helen Miller.

Depeyster Estate and Garden Helen Miller

Print 18: Rutgers Estate and Garden

Painting by Helen Miller.

Rutgers Estate An Garden American Index

Print 19: Sperry Garden

Sperry’s Vauxhall Gardens by George Stonehill.

Sperry Gardens

Print 20: Ranelagh Gardens

Ranelagh Gardens

Print 21: J. Dyckman Estate

Another New York estate named after one of the original Dutch settlers Jan Dyckman.

J. Dyckman estate

Print 22: Whitehall Estate and Gardens

Whitehall Estate and Gardens

Stitched Stories: Quilt Patterns in American Folk Art

Vibrant and varied quilt designs are showcased in the Index. Quilting, a cherished tradition passed down through generations, holds a unique place in American history. Each quilt is more than just a warm bedcover—it’s a piece of art, a story told through the fabric, and a testament to the skill and creativity of its maker.

In the Index, you’ll discover myriad quilting styles, reflecting the diverse cultural influences that have shaped American folk art. From classic patchwork designs to intricate applique work, these quilts illustrate this beloved craft’s evolving trends and regional variations.

Print 23: Pink Flower Quilt

Watercolour painting of an American quilt design, with pink flowers and a scalloped pink border.

Pink Flower American Folk Art Quilt Design

Print 24: Autograph Quilt

Autograph quilt design of acorn and oak leaves.

Autograph quilt index of American Folk Art

Print 25: Quilt Pattern Square

It looks like this quilt pattern square is used as a pot holder.

Quilt Pattern Square American Folk Art Design

Print 26: Patchwork & Applique Quilt

Appliqué is a sewing technique in which pieces or patches of fabric in different shapes and patterns are sewn or stuck onto a larger piece to form a picture or pattern.

Patchwork and applique quilt American Folk Art

Print 27: Coverlet Quilt Design

An American folk quilt design in a tulip flower pattern.

Coverlet Applique Quilt design

Print 28: Crazy Quilt

Crazy quilts are random patchworked designs of irregularly shaped fabric pieces rather than the geometric constraint of regular quilting. They are a great way to use up scraps of leftover fabric.

Crazy quilt American flolk art

Playful Past: Toys in the Index of American Design

An exploration of antique toys featured in the Index of American Design. These toys, from handcrafted dolls and intricately designed dollhouses to wooden soldiers, glimpse past childhoods and cultural values.

Beyond entertainment, these artefacts served as educational tools, offering insights into societal norms and everyday life in their era.

Check out this collection of vintage board games on Picture Box Blue.

Print 29: Toy Warship

A pull along toy warship with sailors.

Toy warship from the Index of American Design

Print 30: Toy Bank – Trick Pony

Toy Bank Trick pony American Folk Art

Print 31: Toy Theatre

A toy theatre with automatic dancers.

Toy theatre with Automatic dancers

Print 32: A Doll

Antique American doll

Print 33: Sitting Doll

sitting doll

Fabric of Time: Vintage Clothing in the Index of American Design

The collection of vintage clothing prints. From handmade pioneer attire to Victorian gowns and early 20th-century fashion. Whether through intricate embellishments or uniform styles, these garments also express personal identity and social roles.

Print 34: Silk Gown

Ladies peach silk gown with rose motif from the index of American design.

Ladies vintage silk Gown American Index

Print 35: Suspenders

American folk art cross-stitch decorated pair of suspenders.

American Folk Art Suspenders

Print 36: Boys Suit

A formal boys suit in black with brocade.

Boys suit from the Index of American Design

Print 37: Moccasin

The moccasin is a soft leather shoe of many indigenous people of North America. But hunters, traders, and European settlers also wore them. With the beading and embroidery, this looks like a traditional American folk shoe of the indigenous people.

Native American moccasin

Print 38: Waistcoat

Men’s striped waistcoat with buttons.

Waistcoat American Design

Print 39: Fireman’s Hat

Fireman's Hat Index of American Design

Adorned Structures: Architectural Ornaments in the Index

These embellishments, from intricate colonial carvings to Art Deco motifs, reflect their era’s architectural trends and artistic tastes.

Whether hand-carved or mass-produced, each piece adds unique character to the buildings they grace. Uncover the aesthetics and craftsmanship of American architectural history in this captivating collection.

Check out the other architectural and ornament designs on the site: Owen Jones Grammar of Ornament, Abert Racinet L’ornement Polychrome and the Brighton Pavilion designs.

Print 40: Chandelier

An ornate crystal glass bead chandelier from the Index of American Design.

Chandelier crystal glass beads

Print 41: Iron Doorway

Wrought and Cast Iron Doorway.

Wrought and Cast Iron Doorway

Print 42: Cast Iron Pillar

Cast iron pillar

Print 43: Colonnade

A colonnade is a row of evenly spaced columns supporting a roof, an entablature, or arches.

Colonnade Index of American Design

Print 44: Mantle Carving

A wooden carved mantle ornament of a dog.

Historic Keepsakes: Trinkets and Ornaments

This collection of prints highlights a range of household items, from clocks to whimsical figurines, reflecting the creativity of artisans across different periods in American history. Beyond mere decoration, these pieces provide insights into trade, aesthetics, and everyday life of their time.

Print 45: American Shelf Clock

Antique American shelf clock

Print 46: Ornament Wax Fruit

Ornament of wax fruit under a glass dome.

Ornament wax fruit under glass ornament

Print 47: Christmas Tree Doll

Print 48: German Prince Charles Spaniel

German Prince Charles Spaniel

Functional Elegance: Furniture in the Index of American Design

American furniture in the Index, from the simple robustness of colonial pieces to the ornate designs of the Victorian era and the sleek lines of mid-century modern styles, each piece provides a window into its era’s lifestyle, taste, and craft.

Print 49: China Cupboard

China cupboard American Design

Print 50: Side Chair

A simple wooden side chair with a leather sling seat.

wooden side chair

Print 51: Shaker Desk

Shaker furniture, created by the religious sect known as the Shakers, is admired for its simplicity, functionality, and excellent craftsmanship.

Minimalistic in design, it avoids decoration, emphasizing clean lines and utility instead. Shaker furniture is commonly crafted from cherry, maple, and pine wood. Its designs, focused on lightweight and multi-use characteristics, makes it still popular today.

Shaker desk from Index of American design

Print 52: Piano


Print 53: Grandfather Clock

Grandfather clock

Conclusion & Other Cultural Collections

I hope you enjoyed this snippet of watercolour illustrations from the vast Index of American Design collection. Each item, from the smallest household trinket to the most elaborate architectural ornament, is a piece of the larger mosaic that forms our collective past.

This collection is a testament to the ingenuity and skill of generations of artisans, craftsmen, and everyday Americans. It showcases how style, function, and craft have evolved, vividly depicting the ordinary.

If you want to print out any of these paintings at home, check out this post on printing on watercolour paper.

A fun use for these vintage images would be in a DIY shadow box, Joseph Cornell style.

Related Posts

Other vintage print collections on the site that focus on culture and aspects of every day from the past to check out include:

53 Public Domain prints from Index of American Design pin

If you fancy, you can Buy Me A Coffee Here.