“Cotton The World Over," an expansive oil on canvas mural, covers one wall in the lobby of the historic Bambeg United States Post Office on Heritage Highway just a block east of the center of town.
Painted by Dorothea Mierisch of New York in 1939 as one of the New Deal projects, the mural attracts the attention of not only regular local patrons but is also a point of interest for visitors to the town.
Bamberg Postmaster Linda McMichael said people passing through town have stopped to take pictures of the mural.
“They ask questions about it, and we have a plaque that gives the history and information about it,” McMichael said. “They comment on how beautiful and fascinating it is.”
Just last year, a group of seniors who were taking a road trip around South Carolina called to ask about coming to see the mural on a Saturday, she said. The lobby of the post office remains open 24/7, allowing entrance and a view of the art any time.
The mural was commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture (later known as The Section of Fine Arts).
"Off the Wall: New Deal Post Office Murals" by Patricia Raynor notes that the murals were often mistaken for Works Progress Administration (WPA) art.
According to Raynor, "Post office murals were actually executed by artists working for the Section of Fine Arts. Commonly known as 'the Section,' it was established in 1934 and administered by the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department. Headed by Edward Bruce, a former lawyer, businessman and artist, the Section’s main function was to select art of high quality to decorate public buildings if the funding was available. By providing decoration in public buildings, the art was made accessible to all people.”
The Bamberg Post Office, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, opened in 1938. The mural, restored in 1999, depicts a large world map showing both ancient and modern cotton trade routes, along with picturesque, stylized scenes from various cotton-producing areas.
Just a glance at the colorful mural hardly does it justice, and a lengthy look reveals many finer points that might otherwise be missed.
The growing and transportation of cotton during the 1930s is illustrated as it flourished in the United States and other major cotton-producing areas around the world. Trade routes across the globe are illustrated. The right side shows a 14th century caravan carrying cotton from India to Europe. The left side of the mural shows an American cotton gin of the 1930s. The mural reflects the importance of agriculture on a worldwide and local level in the early 20th century.
Around the border of the mural are the names of 12 individuals who are credited with inventions related to the textile and cotton industry, including Eli Whitney, John Kay, John Wyatt, Lewis Paul, Thomas Highs, James Hargreaves, Richard Arkwright, Samuel Crompton, James Watt, Edmund Cartwright, Samuel Slater and H. Holmes. Each of these men was instrumental in inventing, adapting or improving such mechanisms as the cotton gin, flying shuttle, roller spinner and spinning jenny, or in developments that helped facilitate the processing of raw cotton into textile products.
The South Carolina Department of Archives and History notes that only 12 of the original 16 murals or reliefs commissioned in South Carolina in the 1930s and 1940s - most of which were placed in post offices or other government buildings - still remain. The locations of some of the other murals include the U.S. Post Office in Greer, the U.S. Courthouse in Aiken and Clemson University's Harden Hall.
- Sources: "The History of Bamberg County, South Carolina" compiled by the late Margaret Spann Lawrence and edited by Betty Jane Miller, in conjection with Historic Society of Bamberg County President Nancy Foster and The Times and Democrat archives.