Photographs of the Historical American Buildings Survey

Life Initiates Art: The WPA and American Culture
by Grace Agnew

The stock market crash in 1929 ushered in the bleakest financial decade in U.S. history. Millions of Americans started each day with no prospects for a future, without funds to pay for food or housing. By the early 1930s, the unemployment rate was a national crisis with no ready solution at hand.

President Franklin Roosevelt responded to the crisis with a series of programs to put the able-bodied unemployed to work, including the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Civil Works Administration (CWA). In 1934, these "alphabet" relief programs were replaced with an umbrella program, the WPA, or Works Progress Administration.

The WPA was distinguished from earlier programs by its inclusion of unemployed writers, teachers, librarians and artists. Federal Project Number One of the WPA, known as "Federal One," was designed to document American art and culture, and also to produce original works of art. One ambitious goal of Federal One was to celebrate and legitimize American art, to equate homegrown art--folk art, murals, theater and music--with the best that Europe had to offer.A further goal was to integrate art and culture into the daily life of small-town America, a trend that has continued to the present through programs such as the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

Federal One projects included the Federal Art Project (FAP), which commissioned paintings and public murals. An important project of the FAP was the Index of American Design, which documented the country's "usable past" through approximately 18,000 photographic records of American art, painting, sculpture, handicrafts and folk art. (1) The FAP also created community art centers and sponsored art education in schools.

The Federal Music Project (FMP) provided gainful employment for one of the most depressed occupations in the 1930s--the professional musician. Music was a luxury that few could indulge. Music programs were the first and the easiest "extra" that schools could cut. As many as 15,000 musicians found work with the FMP, forming orchestras and bands to provide public concerts, replenishing music programs in schools and collecting and recording folk music. (2)

The Federal Theatre Project (FTP) was the most controversial project, in part because FTP theater groups competed directly against commercial theaters struggling to survive. In addition, the commercial theater was heavily unionized, which made recruitment for FTP projects difficult. The emphasis in FTP productions on social issues was seen by many as "leftist," which led to an investigation of the project by the House Committee to Investigate Un-American activities. (3)

Probably the most successful Federal One program was the Federal Writers' Project, an ambitious and far-reaching documentary project, described in the Raleigh News and Observer thus: "in 1935, the United States of America sat itself down, took its pen in hand, and started to write a book." (4). The main project of the FWP was the creation of tour guides to all 48 states. These tour guides were intended to encourage and support a brave new breed of American--the motoring tourist. Produced locally but approved at the federal level, the guides were intended to document the culture and the spirit of each state as well as to encourage motor tourism, and thus to bring an influx of tourist dollars to each state. With their emphasis on the motorist, the guides were intended to promote modernity, a forward-looking emphasis on building the future not bemoaning the present.

The guides have been criticized as providing a sanitized and uniform veneer to each state--propaganda disguised as documentary. They were also criticized for focusing on white, predominantly male, tourists at a time when facilities were strictly segregated, and the touring facilities for African Americans--motels, restaurants and entertainment--were very limited with no encouragement to expand.

Despite criticisms, the FWP Guides Series offers an unprecedented snapshot, state by state, of the United States in the 1930s. Its ambitious goal, according to Lewis Mumford, was nothing less than "the first attempt, on a comprehensive scale, to make the country itself worthily known to Americans." (5). As Stephen Vincent Benet observed, "They call it the American Guide Series. But it is the states themselves, talking." (6)

Other projects of the FWP included documenting the life stories of Americans who would otherwise have lived their lives in total obscurity, such as tenant farmers and unemployed Americans. The FWP attempted to make sense of a senseless time through the words of those living through it. In addition, the lives of former slaves were documented through personal interviews. The FWP largely invented oral history in the United States, a genre that exists as both document and art, much as the photographs that emerged from projects such as the Historic American Buildings Survey. The Historical Records Survey (HRS) was created to conduct a national records survey. Unemployed white-collar workers, including clerks, teachers and librarians, inventoried and cataloged state and county records. Other records, such as church records, manuscript collections, bibliographies of history and literature, presidential papers, and congressional votes were compiled, analyzed and documented. Besides preserving the raw stuff of history, the HRS promoted the archiving of records and artifacts at the national, state and local levels.

Other projects of the time also documented the nation's past and culture under separate mandate from Congress, such as the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), administered by the National Park Service within the Department of the Interior. HABS was mandated by the Historic Sites Act of 1935 to document historic structures and to make these documents available to the American public. Its mission, which continues today, is defined thus: "to properly record these structures in order to better understand what they tell us of the past, and to insure their recognition by future generations. This is achieved through measured drawings, written histories, and large-format photographs." (7)

The WPA eventually employed approximately one third of the nation's ten million unemployed, providing occupation for its workers and purchasing power for the local economy. The program was not without controversy or detractors. Critics viewed the program as "make work" and as providing employment based frequently on political patronage rather than need or ability. The most serious complaint, first raised in a 1938 expose in Kentucky, was that WPA workers were being blackmailed by the threat of unemployment into supporting democratic candidates favored by Roosevelt. Roosevelt, frustrated by the slow recovery of the American economy, had pushed for increases in New Deal programs. His efforts had been largely overturned by the Supreme Court. He attempted to change the makeup of the Supreme Court, with a plan to expand the court to as many as 15 members. Congress, including many fellow Democrats, reacted strongly in opposition. Allegations that Roosevelt and his supporters were using the WPA to punish Democrats who opposed Roosevelt led, in 1938, to passage of a bill to ban political use of the WPA. (8)

In 1939, the Works Progress Administration changed its name to Works Projects Administration. The WPA continued its work to bring Americans together through the celebration of a common culture and also to physically bind the country together during a troubled time through the construction of roads, bridges and parks. In the early 1940s, as the economy began to recover, WPA efforts turned to support for pre-war activities, including war bond posters and propaganda. The WPA was disbanded in 1943, at which point it had provided employment to approximately 8.5 million workers. (9)

The legacy of the WPA is long-lasting. WPA murals, sculpture and other artwork led to a tradition of art in public spaces that continue to grace libraries, airports, and municipal buildings. Widespread standards and practices for preserving historical records in national, state and local archives emerged from the Historical Records Survey. Perhaps the greatest artistic legacy, however, was the respect and tribute shown to America's authentic heritage--folk art, folk music, even life itself, in the documenting of the lives of ordinary, otherwise faceless Americans.

The practical legacy of the WPA will perhaps never be adequately measured. In 1938, Harry Hopkins, the Works Progress Administrator, looking back at the results of the first four years, noted "I cannot help but feel satisfaction and pride in the contributions to better life and better living that it has made. I think about the fact that it has employed jobless teachers who made it possible for one million illiterate grown people in this country to read and write. It has built, with the sinews of men who had no jobs, enough farm-to-market roads to reach about five times around the world." (10)


(1) National Gallery of Art. Index of American Design.

(2) Bing, Margaret. A Brief Overview of the WPA.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Bold, Christine. The WPA Guides: Mapping America. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999. p. 19.

(5) Bold, Christine. The WPA Guides. p. 7

(6) Bold, Christine. The WPA Guides. p. 3.

(7) National Park Service. Historic American Buildings Survey.

(8) Schultz, Jeffrey D. Presidential Scandals. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2000, pp. 307-309.

(9) "Work Projects Administration" in Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. 6th ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

(10) Hopkins, Harry L. "America's Economic Problem Number 1", for Release to Morning Papers, Saturday, August 6, 1938. in New Deal Network.

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