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 State Guiles: Harvard’s Houghton Library

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

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In 1937, the entrance to Harvard’s rare books collection was housed in one room in Widener Library. The Guide has this mystifying description of the collection:

“The Treasure Room, reached from the southwest corner of the entrance hall, is allotted to such rare books as […] the various editions of the ‘Imitatio Christi,’ issues of ‘the Compleat Angler,’ and the George Herbert Collection given by George Herbert Palmer […]”

(Massachusetts Guide, p.196)

But don’t be put off. Now housed in its own building, the Houghton Library, Harvard’s collection of rare books is outstanding and the building itself is a gem. The extensive library contains true treasures. Harvard was named as a result of the gift of books. When Massachusetts resident, John Harvard died, he left 780 pounds and his 400 volume Iibrary to the school which honored him by changing its name from New College to Harvard.

All but one of the volumes of John Harvard’s books were lost in a fire in 1764, but the college continued its tradition of acquiring books. Houghton now contains such such rarities as a Gutenberg Bible, the papers of John Keats and Emily Dickinson, a extensive collection of early

19th century daguerreotypes, the original manuscripts of St. Augustine and St. Jerome, and a 6th Century trove of Egyptian papyri written in Greek and comprising the complete works of Homer, Plato and Thucydides.

The interior of the building itself is particularly beautiful. Harvard students and professors use a reading room for research on the original texts and the public is welcome to visit the library’s book-lined sitting rooms and special exhibits. On the day that I visited, I saw an enchanting exhibit focusing on hand-painted maps in fantasy literature. For book lovers, treasures and pleasures abound.

August, 2021

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