WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.

Travels with the American Guide Series, A WPA Federal Writers’ Project: Rhode Island – Federal Hill in Providence


The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.  

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.  

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. In this series, I will be posting photo essays and articles based upon tours recommended in the guides.

Fern L. Nesson

The Rhode Island Guide contains a section on ethnic groups entitled ”Foreign Born.” But it notes that 75% of those termed foreign-born are, in fact, American citizens born of immigrant parents. The Italians are the largest group. In 1936, 19% of the state’s population were of Italian descent, exactly the same percentage that pertains today.

The Guide describes the Italian population in detail:

“The Italians make up about 19 per cent of the total foreign-born group. Though some Italians came to Rhode Island in the latter halfof the nineteenth century, the ‘big immigration’ took place between 1900 and 1915. The great majority of these newcomers were of the peasant class. On their arrival they were perplexed by radical differences in language, customs, and environment. Added to these difficulties was the pressing necessity of earning a livelihood. At first the majority worked as unskilled laborers, while some became street vendors and small shop keepers. In more recent years the migration to this country has included a larger number of professional men and others who were able to establish themselves economically immediately upon arrival. The Italians have come largely from the provinces of Frosinone, Naples, Campobasso, and Palermo; only a few are natives of northern Italy. 

The Italians tend to settle solidly in particular sections of a new country or city, forming ‘colonies.’ Several such Italian districts are located in Providence and its vicinity on Federal Hill, around Charles Street and Hartford Avenue, and in Thornton and Manton. The Italians now living in Providence, 53,000 in number, would form a good-sized city. 

Though most of these people are still classed as unskilled workers, an increase in the number engaged in skilled occupations is evident. The trades practiced by most Italians are barbering, tailoring, shopkeeping (especially in food and produce), shoe-repairing, music, and bricklaying. Providence has several jewelry factories, a large artificial-flower shop, two lumber companies, macaroni factories, and many soda-water and ice-cream plants, all established by Italians. The skilled or learned professions in which they are found include medicine, law, and dentistry. 

A particularly colorful custom which the Italians have brought to Rhode Island is the celebration of feast days, such as those of the Blessed Virgin and of the patron saints of various provinces and towns in Italy. The celebrations are partly religious and partly secular. There is usually a High Mass, followed by a procession, then dinner, and afternoon music. 

A typical Italian feast is that in honor of Santa Maria di Prata, which originated in the Italian town of Prata Sannita, in the province of Caserta. The festival begins with a High Mass at Saint Rocco’s Church in Thornton, after which the priest delivers a sermon on the life of the saint, whose statue is believed by the devout to have saved many people from harm in a storm at Caserta in 1688. Following this is a parade. Young girls, dressed as angels, march from the church to the rear of the Thornton School, where a girl-angel is swung from the top of the school to place a crown on the head of the portable statue of the patron saint. Bombs are set off as the coronation takes place. After the coronation, the parade continues through the streets of Thornton, and flowers are dropped on the moving statue from an airplane. The customary evening attractions are band concerts and a display of fireworks, but the latter has recently been outlawed by the city.”

Rhode Island Guide p. 98-100. 

The festival of Santa Maria di Prata is no longer held at St. Rocco’s, but Federal Hill hasn’t changed at all. Still the epicenter of Italian culture in Rhode Island, the Guide’s description fits it exactly today.

The Federal Hill section of Providence maintains an Old World atmosphere. The shopkeepers fill their windows with piles of hard cheeses, fresh and dried sausages, bottles of olive oil, and small casks of almonds, dried cherries (used in making wine), and chestnuts, pistachios, and other nuts. 

On Atwells Avenue, the neighborhood’s main street, Italian restaurants, outdoor cafés, coffee and bakeries abound, bookended by well-stocked Italian gourmet stores. Fresh ricotta and mozzarella, prosciutto and salamis, dark-roast coffee beans, artisanal oils and balsamic vinegars are for sale alongside espresso machines and Italian pottery. It’s in Providence in 2021, but it could just as well be 1936 or even 1900 in Naples.  

September, 2021