Winter 2014

Thanks to a growing team of volunteers sending us their New Deal discoveries,  the forgotten legacy of the New Deal is coming to light. Little known stories like those you’ll find here reveal a few of the many ways the New Deal touched people’s lives—creating jobs, teaching trades, building homes, restoring the environment, bringing art and literacy to Americans everywhere. A new generation is catching on to what the New Deal built when the country was broke and is beginning to ask “Why not now?”  Why indeed.

We’re grateful for your interest and support.

In this Issue:

WPA Posters Inspire A New Generation

Grand Canyon poster by Matt Brass

Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon poster by Matt Brass
Photo Credit: Matt Brass

Inspired by the New Deal arts programs, Creative Action Network (CAN), an online community of mission-driven artists, announced a crowdsource campaign to create a new collection of “See America” posters celebrating America’s national parks.  Within a few weeks about two hundred poster designs hit their inbox, with new submissions arriving daily.

“With today’s digital tools, individual artists have the power to create and share their work as never before. That’s why now is the time to pick up where the New Deal left off, and harness America’s creative energy,” says Max Slavkin, CAN’s co-founder.

During the 1930s the WPA’s Federal Art Project put thousands of unemployed artists to work. FAP poster divisions opened in 48 states, churning out posters promoting art, theater, safety, education, health, and travel. Early on, the posters were hand-painted and produced in small quantities. But in 1938, a poster campaign to encourage visitation to the national parks was launched in Berkeley, California, using new silkscreen techniques that enabled full-color posters to be printed in bulk. The posters, which sold for about twelve cents a piece, were distributed to Chambers of Commerce in towns surrounding the parks. In the 1940s the remainders were sent to the parks. Few original posters survive, but quality reproductions abound:

Luis Prado, Craters of the Moon poster

Craters of the Moon
Luis Prado, Craters of the Moon poster
Photo Credit: Luis Prado

Seventy-five years after the national park posters first appeared, CAN, in partnership with the National Parks and Conservation Association and Posters for the People, revived the “See America” campaign using social media. In January, a collection of the new posters was shown in San Francisco and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York. More exhibitions are in the works. The “See America” designs are for sale, with forty percent of proceeds going to the artists.

Here’s one of the WPA posters that appeared on “The Living Dead” (see comment below):

Save Your Eyes WPA Poster




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

Indians at the Post Office

Indian Bear Dance, by Boris Deutsch, adorns the post office in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

Indian Bear Dance
Indian Bear Dance, by Boris Deutsch, adorns the post office in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service

As communities around the nation protest the dismantling of the U.S. Postal Service and the sell off of historic post offices—some containing New Deal art works—the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian and National Post Office Museum have jointly debuted an online exhibition of post office art depicting Native Americans: Indians at the Post Office: “Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals.”

A research team pouring over photos of the roughly 1,600 post office murals that were sponsored by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts in the 1930s found that about a quarter of them depicted Indians. From these, the team selected two-dozen murals that it organized into categories including Treaties, Encounter, Conflict, Evangelization, Indian Lifeways, and The Myth of Extinction.

Two Eagle Dancers, 1936 by Stephen Mopope a Kiowa Indian, is one of 16 WPA murals commissioned for the Anadarko, Oklahoma Post Office.

Two Eagle Dancers
Two Eagle Dancers, 1936 by Stephen Mopope a Kiowa Indian, is one of 16 WPA murals commissioned for the Anadarko, Oklahoma Post Office.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service

An essay accompanies each mural detailing its locale, the circumstance of its creation, subject matter, tribal details, artist biography, and more. Largely thanks to papers collected and oral histories conducted by the Archives of American Art, the sometimes subversive intentions of the artists, not obvious to the casual viewer, can now be explained.

Like the lands over which Native Americans and immigrants fought, the team has staked out contested terrain: many New Deal painters hired to adorn the post offices visually reiterated mythologies congenial to those who had won and occupied the land.  But, as a Forward to the exhibition correctly states, the muralists often encountered political minefields, “Artists were constantly reminded by Treasury officials that the communities were their patrons, and they must go to great lengths to satisfy the desires of everyone involved in the project in order to save their commission. Needless to say, “everyone” did not include the Indians they so often depicted. With the exception of a few Native artists and others sympathetic to their forcible displacement, history was portrayed by the victors to legitimate their conquest.

Early Indian Life on Analostan Island is one of seven murals created by Auriel Bussemer in the Arlington, Virginia Post Office

Early Indian Life Analostan Island
Early Indian Life on Analostan Island is one of seven murals created by Auriel Bussemer in the Arlington, Virginia Post Office
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service

‘Indians at the Post Office” suggests other themes yet to be tackled in the continent-spanning gallery of public art created during the Great Depression by the Treasury Section. These could include themes such as local labor and economy, nature, technology, African-Americans, and above all, postal work and service. Since art encompasses fine architecture, such an exhibition should be staged at the National Building Museum only a few blocks from the National Postal Museum. It would provide Americans an opportunity to see what we paid for, and what we are now so rapidly losing.


Gray Brechin is a geographer and Project Scholar of the Living New Deal. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.

Building for the Birds

1938 Sacramento Migratory Waterfowl Refuge entrance

1938 Sacramento Migratory Waterfowl Refuge entrance
Sacramento, CA 1938

The Civilian Conservation Corps was envisioned as a peacetime army to put young men to work preserving the nation’s forests and wildlife. When Congress approved funding in 1934 to add eight million acres to the National Wildlife Refuge System, the CCC spread out across the country to build it.  In May 1937, two hundred CCC enrollees arrived in California to start construction of the Sacramento Migratory Waterfowl Refuge.

The goal was to provide habitat for migratory birds and wildlife on 10,700 acres of failed farmland in the Central Valley. The Bureau of Biological Survey—later renamed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—oversaw the work. As it was the Biological Survey’s second wildlife refuge, the CCC camp was named BS-2.

People Power

People Power
Men raise a telephone poll by hand.

Heavy equipment was in short supply that first summer and much of the work was done by pick and shovel. The men restored some ranch buildings for offices, and demolished others using the salvaged materials for camp repairs and project work. Mosquito bitten, sunburned, and dust-choked, the men worked year round constructing levees, dikes, and jetties; laying pipe; and clearing creeks, channels, and drains to create wetlands for the refuge. They planted rice and millet within the refuge in order to keep the waterfowl from feeding on nearby farmland.

In summer, CCC crews fought wildfires in the surrounding foothills and mountains. In bad winters, they helped sandbag against flooding in the small towns along the Sacramento River some ten miles east.

Snow Geese at the Sacramento Migratory Waterfowl Refuge

Snow Geese at the Sacramento Migratory Waterfowl Refuge
at the Sacramento Migratory Waterfowl Refuge

While few camp buildings survive, a 100-foot tower built as a fire lookout still stands today. Biologists likely used the tower when they tallied 36,000 ducks and 72,000 geese on the refuge in December 1937. In December 1938 more than a million birds were counted.

Today, the site of CCC camp BS-2 serves as the headquarters of the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex. The present pond system and many dikes and roadways are products of the summer of 1937. The refuge welcomes some 250 species of birds, hundreds of thousands of wintering waterfowl, and 75,000 visitors annually.

The headquarters area is eligible for designation as a National Historic District, but there’s currently no funding to preserve the structures to Historic District guidelines.

What the CCC Build at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge:
–    52 water control and road structures
–    1 diversion dam
–    1 combined bridge and dam
–    16 miles of refuge roads
–    10 miles of fence
–    Manager’s residence and garage
–    Labor patrolman’s cabin
–    Equipment storage shed
–    Service Building
–    Water tank
–    Lookout tower
–    Refuge office
–    Barn
–    Duck hospital
–    Grain bins
–    Flag pole
–    Miles of dikes
–    Numerous nesting and resting islands
–    Farmland producing feed for wildlife
–    Entrance and location signs

With thanks to Lora Haller, Visitor Services Manager at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.

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

Elvis Slept Here

Elvis PresleyThe federal government’s foray into urban redevelopment that began under the New Deal reshaped cities across America—with mixed success. The Public Works Administration (PWA) began clearing slums in many cities in 1934, but work was temporarily halted after a Supreme Court ruling in 1935 prevented the federal government from condemning private property for low-cost housing. That left the housing projects to local control.

Memphis, Tennessee was one of the first cities in the nation to pick up the banner of housing for its poor. It chose two rundown, crowded neighborhoods—uptown Memphis and Quimby Bayou—to site the first two of five public housing projects paid for with New Deal funds.

Public housing was subject to local segregation laws, and Lauderdale Courts, one of the first such housing projects in the nation, was for whites only. Constructed in 1938, Lauderdale Courts’ Colonial Revival-style apartment buildings were arranged around a common area and connected via bisecting walkways, a design feature meant to foster community relationships. But by mid-1990s Lauderdale Courts was deemed derelict. What ultimately saved it from the wrecking ball was unit #328—home to a teenaged Elvis Presley and his parents from 1949 until 1953.

Elvis Presley Apartment, Lauderdale CourtElvis fans forged partnerships with local preservationists, historians, and developers to save Lauderdale Courts and transform it into mixed-income housing.  After a $36 million rehab it reopened in July 2004 as Uptown Square, with 347 apartment homes. It is one of the few New Deal housing developments still in existence and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The office still bears the PWA plaque. Dixie Homes opened in 1938 for black families. It featured two-story apartment-style homes with balconies and a commons, meant to encourage community building. Dixie Homes was demolished in 2006. LeMoyne Gardens, constructed in 1941 for black families, was demolished in the 1990s despite having been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The fate of Memphis’s two other New Deal housing projects is still in play. Lamar Terrace, built in 1940 for whites, is undergoing redevelopment as University Place, mixed-income housing. The fate of William H. Foote Homes, constructed for blacks in 1940, is in Limbo. The City had planned to raze it and redevelop the area for mixed-income housing. But a grassroots organization in the Vance neighborhood, opposed the plan, which it said would disperse longtime residents.

Recently, the group convinced the City to put the demolition on hold in order to consider the community’s own proposal, which calls for renovation, not removal, of these homes. The group is holding fast to the original New Deal vision of fostering relationships within a community.

Susan is a Professor of Social Work at the University of Mississippi and is particularly focused on murals and other New Deal sites in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. Susan writes a regular column for a Mississippi historic preservation blog under the pen name Suzassippi.

Books: The WPA American Guide Series Makes a Comeback

WPA Guide to California, 1939

WPA Guide to California

In another sign that America is waking up to the rich legacy left to us by the WPA, the American Guide Series— out of print since the 1940s—is being reissued as quality paperbacks, which are selling well. Over the last decade, university presses and other publishers have rediscovered the value of these well-researched, vividly written and wide-ranging guidebooks. Though the books are now 70 years old, “they are no more obsolete than any other great works of American literature,” says David Kipen, who wrote introductions to the recently reprinted WPA guides to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego.

The guidebooks are probably the best-known publications of the WPA’s Federal Writers Project. Like other WPA arts projects, the American Guide Series had multiple goals. It employed out-of-work writers, fostered a sense of local pride, and promoted much-needed tourism. While the federal government paid the salaries of some 6,000 writers of the series, each state was responsible for printing and distributing the books.

The guides more or less followed a standard format—covering the geology, history, industry, agriculture, government, and natural resources of each of the 48 states and the District of Columbia. Major cities, large towns, and characteristic regions were discussed in detail, and sometimes embellished with cultural trivia and regionalist charm  Readers could find out, for example, that Mays Landing, New Jersey is the national capital of nudism; that Nevadans like to eat at lunch counters; and that the favorite names for Tennessee coon dogs are Drum, Ring, Gum, and Rip.

WPA Guide to New York City

WPA Guide to New York City

The guidebooks were so popular that the series expanded to cover 27 individual cities; fifteen regions, such as the Berkshire Hills and Monterey Peninsula. Many of the guides had annotated “motor tours” and some were exclusively dedicated to destinations, such as “Ghost towns of Colorado,” and “The Ocean Highway: New Brunswick, New Jersey to Jacksonville, Florida.”

One of the most interesting of American Guide Series is “Washington City and Capital.” Originally published in 1937, it is replete with fascinating history and lore, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt questioned its utility as a guidebook because it weighs four pounds. A condensed, more portable size was subsequently published.

Like the murals the WPA commissioned for government buildings, these books assured Americans that their local sights and activities were part of a great American story worthy of being captured in print or paint.

The American Guide Series died out with the rest of the New Deal in the early 1940s, but the books became sought-after collectors’ items and are still used by travelers and valued by history buffs. Indeed these guidebooks remain useful and entertaining. They offer, in Kipen’s words, “a keepsake of all that’s lost, a Baedeker to how much survives, and an example of what writers and America once did for each other, and might again.”

Barbara Bernstein founded the online New Deal Art Registry and is now the Public Art Specialist at the Living New Deal Project.

Books: Down Cut Shin Creek,
The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky

by Kathi Appelt and Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer
Harper Collins, 58 pages

Cover, "Down Cut Shin Creek, The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky"

Cover, “Down Cut Shin Creek, The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky”

Building the roads, bridges, and other infrastructure that became the hallmark of the WPA was considered “men’s work.” But by 1935, with millions of women heading households and on relief, the WPA sought jobs for them, too. Young women were hired as traveling librarians, bringing free library services to thousands of Americans for the first time.

Rural communities had few roads so the librarians had to be resourceful. Depending on the terrain, they frequently made their rounds on foot, riding horseback, or by boat. The story of these intrepid young women comes alive with historic photos in this small book, which will delight young and adult readers alike.

According to Down Cut Shin Creek, The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky, “The Kentucky pack horse librarians were tough. They had to be in order to travel atop horses and mules over the rockiest terrain, through all kinds of weather, carrying books and magazines up and down creek beds named Hell-for-Sartin, Troublesome, and Cut Shin because of their treacherous natures.”

Delivering Library Books by Pack Horse

Delivering Library Books by Pack Horse

Kentucky was particularly hard hit during the Great Depression. With the coalmines closed, families were often hungry and cut off from the wider world. The pack horse librarians that made their way to remote one-room schoolhouses and ramshackle cabins became a lifeline in ways not foreseen by WPA administrators. Beyond the books and magazines they carried in their saddlebags, the women were called upon to carry messages between the isolated mountain families, send for doctors and midwives, and deliver medicine. They looked in on shut-ins and read aloud to those unable to read.

By 1943 with the New Deal largely de-funded, nearly a thousand pack horse librarians had reached more than a million and a half Kentuckians.

Pack Horse Librarians, Mounted

Pack Horse Librarians, Mounted

Carl D. Perkins was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in Knott County, Kentucky during the 1930s.  In 1956, as a member of Congress, he introduced legislation authorizing the first federal funding for permanent public libraries. The bill specifically provided funds for bookmobiles. Perkins credited his support for public libraries to the pack horse librarians of Kentucky.

With thanks to Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer and Angelia R. Pulley.

Read excerpts from Down Cut Shin Creek, The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky.


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