Clippers and Quilts: Living New Deal Book Award Winners for 2023

The Living New Deal has named two co-winners of the annual New Deal Book Award, which recognizes outstanding nonfiction works about U.S. history in the New Deal era (1933-1942), a period spanning the depths of the Great Depression through the nation’s entry into World War II. 

This year’s book award is shared by Brooke L. Blower, Associate Professor at Boston University specializing U.S. History and political culture, for Americans in a World at War: Intimate Histories from the Crash of Pan Am’s Yankee Clipper, (Oxford University Press) and Janneken Smucker, professor of History at West Chester University of Pennsylvania specializing in digital and public history and material culture, for A New Deal for Quilts (International Quilt Museum, University of Nebraska Press).

The co-winners will be honored at a ceremony on June 22 at the Roosevelt Reading Festival at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum at Hyde Park, NY. Each will receive a $1,000 prize.

In Americans in a World at War: Intimate Histories from the Crash of Pan Am’s Yankee Clipper, Blower tells the story of the New Deal and World War II through the lens of the 1943 crash of Pan American Airway’s flying boat, the Yankee Clipper. Tracing the biographies of the Clipper’s passengers—Broadway stars, savvy entrepreneurs, swashbuckling pilots and skilled diplomats in the 1930s and early 1940s, Blower illustrates the important role that noncombatants played in the war, despite the U.S.’s isolationism in the decade prior to Pearl Harbor. Grounded in archival research, the book tells a riveting tale, bringing readers along for the ride on the Yankee Clipper.

A New Deal for Quilts by Janneken Smucker (International Quilt Museum, University of Nebraska Press) offers a fresh perspective on how policies designed to combat the Great Depression shaped the daily lives of ordinary Americans—especially women—and how, in turn, domestic practices, such as quilting, influenced those very policies. Smucker explores how quilts became tangled up with ideas and myths about America’s past even as they became central to a variety of New Deal work-relief programs. She introduces us to government photographers, oral historians and artists who documented quilts as vital historical artifacts, and the thorny interplay between federal agencies, politicians and the public. Smucker’s expertise, combined with the book’s many striking photographs from the 1930s and color images of the quilts themselves make this an exceptional contribution to the study of the New Deal.

Author Derek Leebaert took second place for his book Unlikely Heroes: Franklin Roosevelt, His Four Lieutenants and the World They Made (St. Martin’s Publishing Group).

New Deal Book Award winners are chosen by a distinguished Review Committee. The award was established in 2021 to encourage scholarship and authorship about the New Deal. Nominations come from publishers, librarians, historians and the author’s colleagues. Seventeen books were nominated for 2023.

“The range of books is impressive,” said Kimberley Johnson, professor of Metropolitan Studies at New York University and Chair of the Living New Deal’s 2023 Review Committee. “I think we all were happy to see such an interesting variety of ways to think about the New Deal.”

Richard Walker, director of the Living New Deal, expressed appreciation to all participants, adding that, “It is immensely satisfying to see so much high-quality scholarship being done on the New Deal, revealing new dimensions of its contributions that still call out to us ninety years later.”

Past winners are Scott Borchert, author of Republic of Detours, How the new Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) about the Federal Writers’ Project; and Victoria W. Wolcott for Living in the Future: Utopianism and the Long Civil Rights Movement, (University of Chicago Press), which explores the New Deal’s influence on the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.

Read the Committee’s full reviews of the 2023 winning books.

Read the synopses of the 17 books nominated for the 2023 award.

Quilts Embody the New Deal, Practically and Symbolically

Grandmother from Oklahoma with grandson, working on quilt.
California, Kern County, 1936. Photo: Dorothea Lange, Farm Security Administration, Courtesy, Library of Congress.

During the Great Depression, quiltmaking was a popular activity among Americans. Every smalltown and big city newspaper published a quilt pattern column; over 25,000 Americans entered quilts in the massive Sears Century of Progress quilt contest in hopes of winning a Grand Prize of $1,200; and WPA sewing rooms produced hundreds of thousands of quilts to distribute to Americans in need. 

American quiltmaking as we know it was predominantly a result of the Industrial Revolution, though few colonial and 19th-century women recycled worn textiles into quilts. By the 1930s, however, quilts loomed large in the American imagination as a salvage craft connoting the American spirit of fortitude and making do. Both the federal government and grassroots quiltmakers understood quilts’ simultaneous symbolic and practical potential.

Ella Martin, We Do Our Part, 1933, Montcalm, West Virginia

Ella Martin, We Do Our Part, 1933, Montcalm, West Virginia
Courtesy, West Virginia Department of Archives and History

Symbolically, quilts represented the American spirit of making something out of nothing. Farm Security Administration photographers understood this symbolism and frequently posed women at work on quilts or showcased quilts in use in migrant families’ precarious temporary living conditions. Quiltmakers also recognized the potential of quilts to communicate their political perspectives and loyalties. Dozens of original quilts featuring the National Recovery Act blue eagle—several sent to the White House as thank you gifts to the Roosevelts—served as means of signaling support for this early New Deal initiative.

Mary Gasperik, detail, Road to Recovery, 1939
Courtesy,  the grandchildren of Mary Gasperik.

Similarly, a group of African American women married to TVA workers produced modernist quilts celebrating Black contributions to this major infrastructure project. And women like Fannie Shaw from Texas and Mary Gasperik from Chicago stitched their hopes and dreams for recovering from the Depression into their original quilts.

Practically, quiltmaking provided work. WPA Sewing Rooms were the largest federal New Deal employer of women; to be eligible for these coveted jobs, women could not have a father or husband able to work. Women like Octa Self of Nashville, whose husband left her to raise their five children on her own, earned a modest living supervising the quilt project at one of the local sewing rooms.

Quilt Makers
Mrs. Lizzie Chambers and Mrs. Mary Collier piecing quilts while Mrs. Octa Self, forelady of the quilting project directs the pattern they are to follow. 1936. Records of the Work Projects Administration, National Archives, (69-MP-3-21-550).

In such workshops, women gained new skills, benefited from the moral support of the fellow workers and produced quilts and other goods that New Deal projects distributed on a massive scale to struggling Americans.

At Farm Security Administration Migratory Labor Camps on the West Coast, women’s mutual aid clubs made quilts for newly arriving families. Federally employed home economists supervised many of these quilting projects, earning a wage themselves while imparting sewing and other household management skills to women who were desperate to keep their families afloat. Other women made quilts to sell at curb markets run by the federal government’s Agricultural Extension Service which provided guidance to rural Americans in agricultural and household tasks.

Basket of Tulips, from Pennsylvania Museum Extension Project, c. 1939
Courtesy, Shippensburg University Library Special Collections

Out-of-work artists also used both the practical and symbolic aspects of quilts. As part of the Index of American Design, a program of the Federal Art Project, the government hired artists to create watercolor renderings of over 700 quilts, a fraction of the 18,000 paintings made to document American decorative, folk and commercial art, in hopes of creating a widely distributed portfolio of American design. Pennsylvania’s WPA Museum Extension Project even silkscreened quilt patterns based on historical quilts.

In these ways—both symbolic and practical—New Deal federal programs aimed to harness and celebrate the fortitude of quiltmaking, while providing unemployed Americans with paychecks.

Janneken Smucker, professor of History at West Chester University outside Philadelphia, specializes in digital and public history and material culture. Her 2023 book, A New Deal for Quilts (International Quilt Museum with University of Nebraska Press) explores the ways Depression-era programs drew on quilts and quiltmaking as part of government relief and public relations efforts, and how the quilts themselves conveyed Americans' hopes and dreams for recovery. Watch Dr. Smucker’s webinar, A Living New Deal for Quilts.