The other day I wrote about Mark Kurlansky‘s lovely book “The Food of a Younger Land: a portrait of American food – before the national highway system. before chain restaurants, and before frozen food, when the nations’s food was seasonal, regional, and traditional- from the lost WPA files” .
The majority of the data that author Kurlansky used came from files of the Works Progress Administration program by the name of Federal Writers’ Project (FWP).
This was back in 1935 and the FWP was part of what is commonly known as The New Deal. That famous effort by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in which his administration worked to put some of 12 to 15 million unemployed Americans to work during The Great Depression.
Politics aside, all you have to do today is look around almost anywhere from Maine to California to see some evidence of the lasting legacies of this massive and successful effort by FDR. Bridges, roads, books, art, theater, parks, farms, forests and more.
But did you know that the WPA also left a HUGE and impressive legacy for us who love family history and genealogy? No? Until recently, neither did I. So …. read on!
First off, the records of the WPA at the Library of Congress make up some 409,000 items (1,634 containers, plus 1 oversize, 63 microfilm reels and total some 637.6 linear feet of material! That is a LOT of information we can use! This link lists the basics on these phenomenal holdings at the Library of Congress.
So, while a lot of the WPA work was physical infrastructure, a bunch of it was a whole lot more … from the perspective of family history and genealogy.
Let’s take a look at the subcategories of these WPA holdings and see why they can be HUGE for our needs.
First, we all like photographs, right? You bet! So how about 171,000 black and white negatives, 107,000 black and white prints, and 1,610 color transparencies of American life all over the country! The Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Materials holds these images and they were taken by an amazing array of excellent photographers.
Next up, there are the “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project 1936-1938”? This truly incredible set of holdings make up 17 volumes! It holds 2,300 first-person accounts and photographs of former slaves. An amazing set of first-person information that is second to none.
Like buildings? Then you might find the Historic American Buildings Survey of interest with its more than 350,000 measured drawings of historic buildings and more than 35,000 written summaries of historic buildings and sites! This initial work was done by 1,000 out-of-work architects and actually continues in a different form today under the National Parks Service.
Want more? Of course there is more! How about American Life Histories! 2,900 of them written by some 300 writers and covering families in 24 States! While I will warn you that often times pseudonyms are used, they offer an amazing view of American family life in the 1930’s and 1940’s. These essays run between 2,000 and 15,000 words, so you can imagine the wealth of information you might find here!
Did you know that some of the finest, historic information on the history of the Oneida Nation was kept by the WPA?
As David A. Taylor points out in his book, “Soul of a People”, in 1999 in a building in Madison, Wisconsin, a professor re-discovered boxes containing 167 steno notebooks from the 1930s that contained some of the most important history available on the Oneida Nation! Carol Cornelius, an Oneida historian said “It’s a vital connection to our early days” noting that without those notebooks there would be major gaps in the tribe’s history and served to revitalize an interest in the Oneida language.
Naturally, as you might expect, though, at the time this effort was not met with universal acceptance! Building roads, bridges, parks, and buildings might be one thing, but not everyone was so sure about the need to actually help writers, of all people and especially writers who were out to find the real America and not just one slice of accepted, mainstream, America!
But Harry Hopkins, the WPA director, recruited Henry Alsberg to head up the Writers’ Project. Henry had been a foreign correspondent, a playwright, the director of the Provincetown Theatre, and had organized humanitarian relief to Russia in the 1920’s.
I was not surprised to find that one of the most vocal critics was a Congressman! Congressman Martin Dies, from Texas. Not funny that he was chairman of a committee with the title ‘Committee Investigating Un-American Activities! As David Taylor points out again “The people working on the Writers’ Project were addressing the question of American values from a different vantage point. Each side held a different view of what exactly “American” meant. Leaders on each side branded the other’s tactics ‘un-American’. Guess somethings never change.
The Federal Writers’ Project actually started out with the goal of a set of guidebooks to the states, cities, and regions of America. This series met with a success that was greater than anyone ever imagined. Huge demand and very popular! I have been told that the series was over 130 volumes, with some volumes reaching over 1,000 pages!
In just one interview with one individual, I noted that a Mr. Lou Bartula, who was a Polish immigrant to Bremend, Texas listed his parents, who were the first Poles to settle there. He then goes on to add the surnames of the next 50 families who joined the community! What a great find for someone that would be!
So these WPA items can be wonderful resources!
I am awaiting copies of the American Guides to Minnesota, the Minnesota Arrowhead, and Ohio.
I’ll let everyone know what I find!
Onward To Our Past,