Today in History: April 8
Works Progress Administration
Seabrook Farm, Cannery Workers, Bridgeton, New Jersey,
John Collier, photographer, June 1942.
Voices from the Thirties
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940
On April 8, 1935, Congress approved the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935, the work relief bill that funded the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Created by President Franklin Roosevelt to relieve the economic hardship of the Great Depression, this national works program (renamed the Work Projects Administration beginning in 1939) employed more than 8.5 million people on 1.4 million public projects before it was disbanded in 1943. The WPA employed skilled and unskilled workers in a great variety of work projects—many of which were public works projects such as creating parks, and building roads and bridges, and schools and other public structures.
The Federal Writers' Project (FWP) was one of several projects within the WPA created to employ people with skills in the arts. Other arts projects included the Federal Art Project (FAP), the Federal Music Project, and the Federal Theater Project. When these projects were created, they were known collectively as Federal Project Number One—or more informally, “Federal One.”
During the Project's early years, FWP writers produced a series of state guidebooks that offer a flavorful sampling of life in the United States. Now considered classics of Americana, these guides remain the Federal Writers' Project's best-known undertaking. But, the Federal Writers' Project also left a hidden legacy. In the late 1930s, Federal Writers recorded the life stories of more than 10,000 men and women from a variety of regions, occupations, and ethnic groups for the FWP’s Folklore Project. Nearly 3,000 of these manuscripts are now available online as part of the American Memory collection American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.
For more on the Federal Writers' Project, view the special presentation Voices from the Thirties: Life Histories from the Federal Writers' Project, which includes stories and photographs of Americans during the Depression era. Search this collection for the names May Swenson, Ralph Ellison, and Nelson Algren to find interviews conducted by these famous writers. Or, select a state name to find interviews recorded in a region of your choice.
The WPA Federal Theatre Project employed out-of-work actors, musicians, vaudevillians, and theater technicians in performances of classical and modern plays, such as Orson Welles' production of Macbeth.
The Library’s collection includes production notebooks, playbills, posters, photographs, and stage and costume designs for three plays performed by the Federal Theatre acting units. Please note: Unlike most American Memory collections, this collection is not searchable by keyword.
Costume Design for Dr. Faustus, staged by Orson Welles, New York City, 1937.
The New Deal Stage: Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939
To learn more about the Library of Congress’ collections of WPA-era materials, consult the essay: “Amassing American Stuff: The Library of Congress and the Federal Arts Projects of the 1930s.”
Other collections of WPA materials include:
- Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 — a collection of digitized materials produced by the FWP which contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves.
- By the People, For the People: Posters from the WPA, 1936-1943 — 908 boldly colored and graphically diverse original posters produced from 1936 to 1943 as part of the Federal Art Project, a WPA relief project for visual artists. The collection’s striking silkscreen, lithograph, and woodcut posters were designed to publicize health and safety programs; cultural programs including art exhibitions, theatrical, and musical performances; travel and tourism; educational programs; and community activities in seventeen states and the District of Columbia.
For an overview of the types of posters included in the collection, browse a selection of representative images.
- Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937-1942
- Production notebooks, playbills, posters, photographs, and stage and costume designs for three plays performed by the Federal Theatre acting units may be viewed online in the American Memory collection, The New Deal Stage: Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939.
- To learn more about the Library of Congress Federal Theatre Project Collection, view the special presentation Four Illustrated Articles. One of these articles, "Posters for the People," tells the story of the WPA's Federal Art Project, which started an aesthetic revolution with its dynamic poster designs.
"Indian Art of the United States," exhibition poster, Pistchal, artist, New York.
"Posters for the People"
The New Deal Stage: Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939
- California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties is a multi-format ethnographic field collection that includes sound recordings, still photographs, drawings, and written documents from a variety of European ethnic and English- and Spanish-speaking communities in Northern California. The collection comprises 35 hours of folk music recorded in twelve languages representing numerous ethnic groups and 185 musicians. This elaborate New Deal project was organized and directed by folk music collector Sidney Robertson Cowell for the Northern California Work Projects Administration.
Additional American Memory collections with materials created by other work relief projects during the New Deal include:
- America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA and OWI, ca. 1935-1945 — The images in the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Collection are among the most famous documentary photographs ever produced. Created by a group of U.S. government photographers, the images show Americans in every part of the nation. In the early years, the project emphasized rural life and the negative impact of the Great Depression, farm mechanization, and the Dust Bowl. In later years, the photographers turned their attention to the mobilization effort for World War II.
- Built in America: Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record, 1933-Present — Records America's built environment in multi-format surveys comprising more than 350,000 measured drawings, large-format photographs, and written histories for more than 35,000 historic structures and sites dating from pre-Columbian times to the twentieth century.