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: Cambridge, Massachusetts During the American Revolution

 Fern L. Nesson, April, 2020

An Introduction: On The Road With the WPA’s American Guide Series

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.

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. I will continue posting a series of articles based upon tours recommended in the guides. See my past travel series essays here.

Cambridge and the American Revolution

         Cambridge, Massachusetts played a significant role in the American Revolution and the Massachusetts State Guide gives it due credit. The locations of several important scenes of revolutionary activity have been preserved intact for almost 250 years.

        On April 18, 1775, the American militiamen got word of a British plan to march upon their armory in Concord. The Guide describes the result:

      “Clashes between the soldiers and patriots … in the winter of 1775 served to hurry the process by which the colonists were arming themselves, drilling their militia and forming groups of Minutemen who were ready to swing into action against the British at a moment’s notice. On April 19, 1775, the opportunity came. General Gage had resolved to send a detachment of troops to Concord  to … [capture the weapons]  accumulated there by the colonists. The march began on the night of April 18, but the patriots were prepared for such a step and immediately dispatched two riders to warn their countrymen.

        Paul Revere was captured before he could reach Concord; [but] William Dawes succeeded in spreading the alarm.”  (p.42)

         Although the Guide neglects to mention it, Dawes rode directly through the Cambridge Common on his way west. Cambridge takes great pride in remembering his ride. The location is set off as a small park and marked with brass hoofprints to indicate the Dawes’s path. Every year, a rider on horseback dressed as Dawes recreates his ride each on Patriots Day, a cherished Massachusetts State holiday.

         After the battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, British troops retreated back to Boston and blockaded its port of Boston. War became inevitable and the Americans recruited George Washington, a hero of the French and Indian Wars, to assume command of the American troops. He did so under an elm tree on the Cambridge Common on July 3, 1775. The exact spot is marked with a monument and three cannons captured from the British at Fort Ticonderoga. A successor to the famous “Washington Elm” referred to in the Guide has been planted in its spot on the Common. 

     Washington remained in Cambridge for almost a year, training the troops and directing the Battle of Bunker Hill. His headquarters were located on Brattle Street in the luxurious house of Major John Vassal, a wealthy Tory who fled Cambridge for England in 1774. The Guide  describes the house in detail and it looks exactly the same today:

      “The house is  a three-story square yellow clapboarded mansion with white Ionic pilasters, a white roof-rail and yellow brick chimneys capped with ornamental hoods. Side piazzas, east and west, overlook wide lawns and in front of the house a formal park runs down almost to the Charles River.” (p. 192-3)                                                                     

         The laconic mention by the Guide that  “[Washington’s] study and the grounds [are] open Sat. 2-4)” understates the potential for an interesting visit. In fact, the National Park Service historical tours are fascinating and the formal garden at the rear is beautiful in all seasons. The garden was specifically designed with Washington in mind with heritage plantings and  a lay-out similar to Mount Vernon. The house and gardens are not to be missed!

        Many places can claim that “George Washington slept here” but few can match the Vassal house, where Washington lived for a year. One charming detail from the Guide:

“After George Washington made the house his headquarters in July 1775, Martha Washington joined him in December and on the sixth of January they celebrated their wedding anniversary here.” (p. 193)                                                                                                            

        Of equal interest to the house is Christ Church and its graveyard. The church was attended by the Washingtons when they lived here and the graveyard contains the graves of the Cambridge men who died in the Revolutionary War. One monument references the Cambridge men who died at Lexington and were buried there. Another memorializes the black soldiers who fought and died alongside their white fellow colonists. The graveyard is set opposite the main entrance to Harvard College, but despite the bustle of passers-by, it is tranquil, tree-shaded and lovely. Together with the the traces of Washington and Dawes, it forms a moving monument to our country’s founding and to the enduring power of American revolutionary ideals.

        In 1776, Washington and his troops moved elsewhere and civilian life in Cambridge resumed. The rest, as they say, is history.

New Deal Maps

Check out our latest map and guide to the work of the New Deal in Washington, D.C. It includes 500 New Deal sites in the District alone, highlighting 34 notable sites, and includes an inset map of the area around the National Mall which can be used for self-guided walking tours.

Take a look at our previous guides, equally comprehensive, covering key New Deal sites in San Francisco and New York City.