Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) (1935)

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(renamed WPA Writers’ Program, 1939)

The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), developed in July and August of 1935, became one of the five programs of Federal Project Number One under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) [1]. The inspiration for the program came from a writing project that had been completed by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA): a Connecticut guide book that “proved so successful that the [writers’ program] was expanded to national proportions by the WPA” [2].

The FWP provided work and paychecks “for some 6,686 writers, editors, art critics, researchers, and historians” [3]. These workers produced more than 1,700 publications, including full-length books, magazine articles, local histories, folklore, health pamphlets, science books for children, oral histories from former slaves [4]. The FWP’s best remembered accomplishment was the creation of guide books for all 48 states, plus the District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.) and the territories of Alaska and Puerto Rico. The guide books contain histories, places of interest, touring information, and maps. The FWP also created guidebooks for several cities, including New York and San Francisco. These “WPA Guides” have been reprinted many times [5].

While the FWP was frequently criticized by conservatives for being left-leaning, populated with communist sympathizers, and a boondoggle, it was fiercely defended by others. One such was poet and author W.H. Auden, who claimed that the FWP was “one of the noblest and most absurd undertakings ever attempted by a state” [6]. Another was the superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, who wrote: “It gives me much pleasure to sponsor ‘A Guide to the United States Naval Academy.’ This book fills a long felt want in providing the public with authentic information and attractive pictures of the Academy. I feel that its publication at this time is most fortunate” [7]. Many of the FWP’s writers went on to successful careers and much of its work is still being utilized by researchers today.

When Congress terminated Federal Project Number One in 1939, the Federal Writers’ Project was renamed the Federal Writers’ Program and had to seek local sponsors willing to contribute funds towards the continuation of the program. They did, and the FWP lasted for the remainder of the WPA’s existence (until 1943) [8].

Henry Alsberg directed the FWP while it was part of Federal Project Number One. With the dissolution of the latter, John D. Newsom became the new director [9].


(1) See, e.g., “Federal Writers’ Project (FWP),” Roosevelt Institute, https://www.rooseveltinstitute.org/new-roosevelt/federal-writers-project-fwp, accessed May 29, 2015. (2) Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946, p. 65. (3) Sheila D. Collins and Naomi Rosenblum, “The Democratization of Culture.” In Sheila D. Collins and Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg (ed.), When Government Helped: Learning from the Successes and Failures of the New Deal, New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 212. (4) See, e.g., Evan K. Powell, WPA Writers’ Publications: A complete bibliographic check list and price guide of items, major and minor, of the Federal Writers’ Project and Program, self-published, circa. 1976 (Mr. Powell was a book collector and dealer in Palm Beach, Florida, whose work contributed to the WPA book collection at the Broward County Library’s Bienes Museum of the Modern Book – see, https://www.broward.org/library/bienes/lii10202.htm). (5) For a list of the state guides, see “The American Guide Series,” United States Senate, https://www.senate.gov/reference/resources/pdf/WPAStateGuides.pdf, accessed May 29, 2015. (6) “The Federal Writers’ Project,” Indiana University Libraries, https://www.indiana.edu/~libsalc/newdeal/FWP.html, accessed May 29, 2015. (7) Work Projects Administration, A Guide to the United States Naval Academy, New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1941, p. 6. (8) Nick Taylor,American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA; When FDR Put the Nation to Work, New York: Bantam Books, 2008 (p. 437, 2009 paperback edition), and “WPA Federal Writers’ Project in Minnesota, 1935–1943,” MNOPEDIA, Minnesota Historical Society, https://www.mnopedia.org/thing/wpa-federal-writers-project-minnesota-1935-1943, accessed May 29, 2015. (9) See Taylor, note 8.

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