Federal Project Number One (Federal One) (1935)

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Federal Project Number One was initiated in August and September 1935 as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and lasted through June 1939, when the WPA was reorganized [1]. It was an effort to provide job opportunities to unemployed actors, stagehands, musicians, writers, historians, clerical workers, and others who were not well-suited for more typical WPA manual labor (road construction, bridge repair, sewing, etc.). Thousands of artists and educated workers were employed by Federal One over its lifetime.

Federal One would ultimately include the Federal Theater Project, Federal Writers’ Project, Federal Music Project, Federal Art Project, and Historical Records Survey. Each of these programs had their own unique administrative histories. The lives of all but the Federal Theater Project extended beyond the term of Federal One. (See summaries of each program for more information).

Federal One was also different from other WPA projects in that it did not require funds from local sponsors. New Deal policymakers did not believe local communities would devote funds to work projects related to the arts, so they decided that Federal One would be a “single Nation-wide project…with WPA sponsorship.” Still, it was hoped that Federal One would demonstrate the benefit of such projects [2]. After the termination of Federal One, local contributions were required for art and history projects.

Considering the views that some have towards the arts (e.g., not “real work,” not economically useful, not appropriate for government work, and a medium for subversive ideas), it is unsurprising that Federal One was under constant attack. Fortunately for those Americans working under the Federal One program (as well as WPA projects related to research, science, libraries, education, and so on), they had a devoted and combative advocate in the head administrator, Harry Hopkins. In response to charges that many art and white collar projects were little more than boondoggles, Hopkins replied, “Hell! They’ve got to eat just like other people” and “They are damn good projects—excellent projects…You know some people make fun of people who speak a foreign language, and dumb people criticize something they do not understand…” [3].

Ultimately, it was not charges of boondoggling that brought down Federal One, but rather the concern of conservatives in Congress that the project was a haven for communists (especially with respect to the Federal Theatre Project) and, for southerner representatives, a “dangerous” promotion of racial mixing [4]. With the Emergency Relief Act of 1939, an antagonistic Congress “forbade the spending of Federal funds for the operation of theater projects and directed that no funds be spent after August 31, 1939 for the operation of any project sponsored solely by the WPA” [5].

In the end, New Deal policymakers were correct in believing that Federal One would persuade local communities that art and history-type work projects had great value. After Federal One was terminated, local communities began sponsoring their own music, art, writing, and history projects, with WPA funding assistance [6]. The legacy of Federal One was thousands of paintings, sculptures, publications, scripts, compositions and more, many of transcendent value and great beauty.

Sources: (1) “69.5.1 Administrative records of Federal Project No. 1,” National Archives and Records Administration, https://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/069.html#69.5.1, accessed May 24, 2015, and “The WPA Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939; Legislative Basis for the Federal Theatre Project,” Library of Congress, https://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fedtp/ftwpa.html, accessed May 24, 2015. (2) Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946, pp. 63 and 122. (3) June Hopkins, Harry Hopkins: Sudden Hero, Brash Reformer, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999, p. 190. (4) See, e.g., Susan Quinn, Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times, New York: Walker and Company, 2008, pp. 276-280. (5) See note 2 at p. 63. (6) Ibid.

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