October 2022

The Fireside—News and Views from The Living New Deal


FDR Hope Memorial, Roosevelt Island, New York

FDR Hope Memorial, Roosevelt Island, NY
Photo by Susan Ives.

FDR was 39 years old when he was stricken with polio in 1921. Back then, people with disabilities were considered weak and unemployable. FDR’s opponents sought to exploit his inability to walk as a political vulnerability. He was rarely seen or photographed using a wheelchair. Yet, many believe that FDR’s disability shaped him as a person and as president. He made conquering polio a national cause. By his own indomitable spirit and his advancement of federal policies, FDR helped to dismantle the societal barriers that, more than disability itself, can limit one’s ability to achieve. READ MORE

In this Issue:

A New Deal for the Blind

The description for this 1938 photograph reads, “The blind man is listening to one of the “talking book” records in his home, selected and mailed by a WPA library project worker. A talking book “not only talks and reads, but can present complete dramas with full Broadway casts, chirrup bird songs and calls of wildlife, and in other ways take full advantage of the fact that it is written in sound.” Courtesy, NARA.

Over fifty years before the Americans with Disabilities Act, the New Deal undertook the first major federal effort to aid citizens with physical and mental challenges. Between 1933 and 1943, mainly through the Works Progress Administration (WPA), thousands of New Deal works projects were directed at expanding, improving and staffing disabled services around the country. Facilities for the disabled were among the most elegant public works built in that era.

The New Deal was an especially transformative period for blind Americans. On June 20, 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Randolph-Sheppard Act, providing economic opportunities and services for the visually impaired. The legislation gave those qualified priority over other vendors to operate concessions, so-called “vending facilities,” on federal properties, including on military bases.

Joseph Clunk, the first blind civil servant in the federal government, was appointed in 1937 to administer the Randolph-Sheppard Act and serve as a “special agent for the blind.” Courtesy American Printing House for the Blind, sites.aph.org.

The passage of the Randolph-Sheppard Act also motivated legislatures in nearly every state to craft similar laws, referred to as ‘mini-Randolph-Sheppard Acts.” These federal and state initiatives today provide economic opportunities to more than 2,500 individuals.

The first blind civil servant, Joseph Clunk, (1895-1975), was hired a year later. Working in the federal Office of Education, Clunk’s main duty was to administer the new law. It seems he held this role until at least 1949, when he became Managing Director of the Philadelphia Association for the Blind.

The WPA provided employment and training of blind workers in Atlanta, Georgia, in the production of goods like brooms, baskets and rugs, some of which were distributed to low-income Americans. Courtesy, NARA.

Many blind Americans found employment in the WPA, where they received instruction in various occupations. The WPA photograph collection at the National Archives reveals many such projects implemented to help the blind become more self-supporting. For example, WPA workers transcribed books into Braille using Braille writers, a machine similar to a typewriter, and recorded “talking books,” precursors to today’s audio books. WPA workers installed labels in Braille at the garden at the Indiana State School for the Blind in Indianapolis. The Public Works Administration (PWA) also provided funding for special education facilities, such as the elementary school on the campus of the Romney School for the Deaf and Blind in Romney, Virginia, one of several such facilities still in use today.

A WPA Braille Map at the Perkins Institute for the Blind, Watertown, Massachusetts, 1936. Courtesy, NARA.

President Roosevelt was not a dispassionate observer of these efforts. In a 1935 telephone call he congratulated the American Foundation for the Blind on the dedication of its new Administration Building in New York, saying he was proud of his association with Helen Keller, whom he would later make chairman of a federal committee to promote goods made by the blind. Keller, blind and deaf since childhood, worked for the foundation for more than forty years.

Blind adults in Atlanta, Georgia learn to read and write Braille. Courtesy, NARA.

FDR also said he considered it “a privilege to have a part in aiding the betterment of conditions for those who have been handicapped by lack of vision and, when I say lack of vision, I mean it in the purely physical sense, because people who are blind certainly have a splendid vision in every other way.”

Brent McKee is a Living New Deal Research Associate (the first, in fact!) and a core member of the LND team. He lives in West Virginia.

Remembrance: Ruth Gottstein. Ying Lee.

Ruth Gottstein, 1922-2022
A lifelong activist and champion of New Deal art, Ruth Gottstein, daughter of New Deal artist Bernard Zakheim, died on August 30 at age 100. Ruth vividly recalled accompanying her father, a founder of the San Francisco Artists and Writers Union, which lobbied for a federally funded arts program during the Great Depression, to the San Francisco General Strike of 1934. Among Zakheim’s controversial murals, “The Library,” a fresco at San Francisco’s Coit Tower, portrays Ruth as a young girl wearing a sailor suit.
Ruth and her late sister, Masha, advocated for the restoration of the long-neglected Coit Tower murals, produced under the Public Works Administration in 1934. Ruth and her son, Adam, recently saved Zakheim frescoes at the UCSF medical school from demolition. Ruth established Volcano Press, publishing 57 books between 1962 and 2017, many on women’s health and feminism.

Ying Lee, 1932-2022

Activist Ying Lee, an early member of the Living New Deal, died on September 10 at age 90. In her autobiography, “Ying Lee: From Shanghai to Berkeley,” Ying recounted her upbringing as a first-generation Chinese immigrant. Ying taught at Berkeley High for more than two decades and became Berkeley’s first Asian American city council member (1973-78), fighting for rent control and greater diversity on the Council. She worked for Representative Ron Dellums, opposed the Vietnam War and later became active in Grandmothers Against War, in protest of the Iraq War. Ying remained a voice for social and racial justice through her final years.

“She was indomitable presence around Berkeley for decades, active in every good cause,” said Richard Walker, director of the Living New Deal.  “She will be missed.”

New Dealish: The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937

Courtesy, Smithsonian National Postal Museum

The federal government began taxing marijuana in 1937 after Harry Anslinger, commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, testified to a Congressional committee that smoking marijuana “produces in it users insanity, criminality and death.” H.R. 6385, The Marihuana Tax Act, regulated the importation, cultivation, possession and/or distribution of cannabis and placed a tax on its sale. Moses Baca and Samuel Caldwell, arrested in Denver for possession and dealing, respectively, were the first in the nation to be convicted for failure pay the tax. During WWII, the US Department of Agriculture and the Army urged farmers to grow hemp for fiber and issued tax stamps to sellers to limit access to the drug. States sold their own tax stamps, some of which are highly sought after by stamp collectors. In 1969 in Timothy Leary v. United States, part of the Marihuana Tax Act was ruled unconstitutional as a violation of the Fifth Amendment, since a person seeking the tax stamp would have to self incriminate. In response, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1971, which repealed the 1937 drug tax. Marijuana today is treated as an illegal substance under federal law, but illegal drugs are no longer taxable.
With thanks to Roger Catlin, Smithsonian Magazine.
View the trailer of the 1936 film, Reefer Madness (1:30 minutes)

Susan Ives is communications director for the Living New Deal and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.

Favorite New Deal Site: An Outhouse for the Ages

Tell Us About Your Favorite New Deal Site

Send us a first-person story of 100 (or so) words describing the site and why you chose it. Submissions will appear in future issues of The Fireside! Be sure to include a photo (with photo credit). Send to [email protected]. Thanks!

An Outhouse for the Ages

Guernsey State Park, Wyoming | Photo by Pete Tannen

After reading about the “Million Dollar Privy” in Guernsey State Park, I had to see it for myself. The park surrounds the Guernsey Reservoir on the North Platte River in southeast Wyoming and is part of an extensive National Historic Landmark District for its design history and construction. The CCC labored at the park from 1934-1937. Its work includes hiking trails, campgrounds and stone buildings considered some of the best CCC structures in the West. My favorite is a massive stone outhouse that received its nickname because it took a long time to build and cost a lot of money…for an outhouse. Stone buttresses outside look like they could withstand a major tornado and huge timbers frame the stalls inside.
— Pete Tannen, San Francisco