December 2020

The Fireside—News and Views from The Living New Deal

A Happier New Year

On Christmas Eve for ten years running, the President and Mrs. Roosevelt hosted an annual party at the White House for staff and their families. Police, cooks, maids, butlers and office employees all were invited. The First Couple would hand out small tokens of appreciation for their hard work. In 1934, they gave out autographed copies of the president’s book, On Our Way. Between 1935 and 1939, the gifts were pewter letter openers, mail organizers, and paperweights. In 1940, staff were given silver key chains featuring a Scottish terrier, in honor of Fala, the new “First Dog” (who reportedly had his own Christmas stocking). After the party, the Roosevelts and their guests would head outside for the lighting of the National Christmas Tree. In 1943, during some of the darkest days of World War II, FDR delivered a heartening Christmas Eve Fireside Chat. “We may look forward into the future with real, substantial confidence that, however great the cost, ‘peace on earth, good will toward men’ can be and will be realized and insured.” Read more at the White House Historical Association’s website.

In this Issue:

A Light Went On: New Deal Rural Electrification Act

Girl in front of family home described as "representative" of the "poorer" houses in the area.

Girl in front of family home described as "representative" of the "poorer" houses in the area.
Union County, Tennessee
Photo Credit: Norris Report (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1940)

The cities were electrified; rural areas were not. A light went on when Nebraska Senator George Norris had an idea: Rural homes across the country should have greater access to electricity. Rural Americans weren’t being given a fair chance, Norris said. They were “growing old prematurely; dying before their time; conscious of the great gap between their lives and the lives of those whom the accident of birth or choice placed in towns and cities.”

Morris needed to have President Franklin D. Roosevelt understand that truth. By 1930, nearly 90 percent of urban homes had electricity; only ten percent of farms did. The high cost of bringing electricity to rural areas left rural residents to languish under the flickering lights of candles, gas lamps, oil lanterns. Electricity would revolutionize their lives.

“Electricity for All”

“Electricity for All”
TVA Pamphlet, Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1934
Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Roosevelt heard Morris’s call for change. As part of the New Deal, FDR signed the Rural Electrification Act (REA) on May 20, 1936, providing federal loans for the installation of electrical systems in rural areas. It was three years after Roosevelt had signed the TVA Act, establishing the Tennessee Valley Authority to address the Valley’s need for energy and economic development by creating a public corporation.

The REA established the Rural Electrification Administration, which provided thousands of much-needed jobs. Crews, including teams of electricians, travelled nationwide stringing thousands of miles of wire.

Many believed privately owned power companies were charging too much for power, did not employ fair operating practices, and were subject to abuse by the utility holding companies that owned them. By 1939, 288,000 households had electricity provided by hundreds of rural electric cooperatives. Most of these electric coops received loans from the REA.

Workers on Pole (1938)

Workers on Pole (1938)
Installing electrical wires. San Joaquin Valley, California.
Photo Credit: Dorothea Lange, Courtesy Library of Congress

Just as Norris thought it would, impoverished regions of America became more productive and more prosperous. REA funding and the work of the newly formed cooperatives transformed rural life. In 1942, half of US farms had electricity. By 1950, 87 percent of farms had electrical service. By the mid-50s most all of them did.

The Rural Electrification Administration still exists today as the Rural Utilities Service, under the US Department of Agriculture. Nearly 900 rural electrical coops are still in operation, providing service coast to coast.

New challenges for rural Americans have arisen, however. Many today are living in digital darkness—10 times more likely to lack broadband internet access than their urban counterparts.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a New Deal agency established in 1934, estimates that today a quarter of rural Americans and a third on tribal lands do not have access to broadband internet, defined as download speeds of at least 25 megabytes a second. Fewer than 2 percent of urban dwellers have this same problem. A 2018 analysis by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association noted that 13.4 million people lack adequate high-speed internet service.

“Our lines” Poster

“Our lines” Poster
Rural Electrification Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture
Photo Credit: Lester Beall, Courtesy Library of Congress

“Light” Poster

“Light” Poster
A farmhouse with light beaming from its windows
Photo Credit: Lester Beall, Courtesy Library of Congress


REA Coop (1942)

REA Coop (1942)
Members of the U.S. Rural Electrification Administration (REA) cooperative in Hayti, Missouri.
Photo Credit: Photographer: Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy Library of Congress

As it was in the early 1930s, the issue is cost. Stringing fiber optic cable costs about $20,000 per mile. There are many miles to cover in rural America and not a lot of customers populating those miles. The estimated cost hovers at $40 billion. Federal action is required. President-elect Biden has pledged to spend $20 billion on digital infrastructure.

Senator George Norris would be pleased if the federal government did more on this front. Rural Americans deserve a fair chance. Lacking broadband isn’t just an inconvenience—not being able to watch Netflix or shop Amazon. Studies have proven lack of access to broadband internet is a major hindrance to employment, health, civic engagement and education—particularly in light of COVID and the need for online learning. A better life should only be a mouse click away.

REA Poster

REA Poster
Courtesy National Museum of American History
Photo Credit: Smithsonian Institution

Meters (1942)

Meters (1942)
Checking electric meters at the U.S. Rural Electrification Administration (REA) cooperative headquarters in Hayti, Missouri.
Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy Library of Congress

Jonathan Shipley is a freelance writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. He's written for such publications as the Los Angeles Times, National Parks Magazine, and Seattle Magazine.

The Case for New Deal Art

“Women’s Contributions to American Progress,” Harriet Tubman and Harriet Beecher Stowe appear in a mural panel by Edward Millman.
Lucy Flower Technical High School for Girls, Chicago, Illinois

President Roosevelt and his circle believed in the value of the public realm and public service, so they made government investment in public goods such as parks, schools and civic buildings a pillar of the New Deal. Along with its immense building programs, the New Deal brought a level of government support for public art never seen before-–or since. This is reason enough to celebrate the legacy of New Deal art.

The Treasury Section of Fine Arts and the Federal Arts Project of the WPA are the best-known programs, but there were others: The Public Works of Art Project of the Civil Works Administration, the Art and Culture Projects of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and the Treasury Relief Arts Project. Together they produced tens of thousands of artworks, most of which still adorn public places and brighten the lives of Americans to this day.

“Espirito Santo Grant, Old Cuba Road” by William Henderson
In 1938, Henderson completed the six WPA murals begun by Gerald Cassidy for the US Courthouse in Santa Fe, New Mexico

New Deal art programs employed thousands of unemployed artists during the Great Depression, establishing careers and sometimes literally saving lives. Some of America’s greatest artists worked under the New Deal, such as early 20th century giants like Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton and Maynard Dixon. Followers of the famous Mexican artists Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros, like Bernard Zakheim, Victor Arnautoff and George Biddle, produced inspirational murals. Postwar Abstractionists Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Phillip Guston and Lee Krasner came out of the New Deal, as did a host of artists of color such as Sargent Johnson, David Park, Charles Davis, James Auchiah, Gerald Nailor, Jo Mora, Lusi Arenal, Dong Kingman and Isamu Noguchi.

“Ohio” Mural by WPA artist Paul Meltsner displays the social realism popular during the New Deal.
Bellevue, Ohio Post Office

New Deal artists were not just diverse and prolific, they had wide license to exercise their inspiration and talents. As a result, the quality of New Deal art deserves respect for its aesthetic brilliance and originality. A recurrent thread of celebration of American life runs through much of public art of the era, but New Deal artists frequently infused their works with social commentary and criticism. Because people today understandably question art that includes dishonorable people and practices from America’s past, hasty judgement of New Deal murals frequently miss their qualities and subtleties.

"Scenes of Indian Life" by Allan Cafran Houser, 1949
Native American artist Allan Houser and other Indian artists were invited by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts to paint murals at the Department of Interior Building in Washington, DC.

Full appreciation of New Deal art can also be impeded by the dominant painting styles of the time, Social Realism and American Scene, which have long been out of fashion. Social Realism has often come under attack for its celebration of manual (and masculine) labor and resemblance to Soviet art, while American Scene painting is dismissed for being nostalgic and vernacular. Only recently has art of the New Deal-era enjoyed a revival in the art world.

New Deal art is all around us yet too often poorly maintained, unmarked or inaccessible to the public. A growing number of these artworks are jeopardized when the buildings that house them are torn down or renovated. Our society needs to value and protect the New Deal’s legacy of public-spirited art. Furthermore, we sorely need a new New Deal to support struggling artists of today so that they may create diverse and inspiring imagery for the future.

The Living New Deal offers recommendations to communities and institutions dealing with challenges to New Deal artworks.

Mural Panel, “From Slavery to Reconstruction,” 1934. Aaron Douglas, an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, painted “Aspects of Negro Life,” a four-panel mural, for the Public Works of Art Project.
Shomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.
“Cotton Pickers,” Linden, Texas Post Office mural, 1939
Russian-born artist Victor Arnautoff trained with Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and taught at Stanford. New Deal murals portraying Native Americans and enslaved people can be considered controversial today, but are often misconstrued.
Richard A Walker is the director of the Living New Deal.