Revisiting the Federal Writers’ Project—the Nation’s First Self-Portrait

WPA Poster advertising American Guide Week.

WPA Poster advertising American Guide Week.
Courtesy, LOC

From 1935 to 1943 the WPA Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) employed around 10,000 people across the country to “hold a mirror up to America.” The FWP’s best known work is a collection of city and state guidebooks— the WPA Guides. Lesser known are the FWP’s interview recordings of everyday Americans living through the hardships of the Great Depression. The People’s Recorder, a national podcast, explores the people and legacy of the FWP in the voices of those who were there.

My own connection to the FWP reaches back nearly 30 years to when a friend loaned me a dog-eared reprint of the 1938 WPA Guide to New Orleans. I was fascinated by the guide’s commentaries on the Crescent City’s social history. For example, using the guide at the St. Louis Cemetery, I learned about local funeral rites, the effect of a yellow-fever epidemic on gravediggers’ wages and the connection between the cemetery’s centuries-old stone benches and modern patio furniture.

The Federal Writers’ Project Guide to 1930s New Orleans

I searched out more WPA guides and, with filmmakers Andrea Kalin and James Mirabello at Spark Media, dug into the stories and interviews. That inspired “Soul of a People: Writing America’s Story,” an award-winning documentary about the FWP and life in America the 1930s.

In 2020 we decided to use podcasting as a way to dive deeper into the FWP. The first season of The People’s Recorder, launched in 2024, employs the recorded voices of FWP writers, editors and historians documenting life in the Jim Crow South, the cultures along the Gulf Coast, indigenous history in the Midwest and the Dust Bowl migration.

Author Zora Neale Hurston at New York Times Book Fair, 1937.

Author Zora Neale Hurston at New York Times Book Fair, 1937
Courtesy, Digital

The first episode features vintage archival recordings of President Franklin Roosevelt; FWP author Studs Terkel, who as a young man in the 1930s found himself “broke, just like everyone else;” and author Zora Neale Hurston describing how she learned songs from Black residents of rural Florida while on assignment for the FWP. “I just get in a crowd of people if they’re singing, and I listen as best I can and I start joining in,” she explains. “Then I keep on until I learn all the verses.”

The FWP was a relief program for the unemployed, yet several who got their start working for FWP went on to national renown, including National Book

America Writes

America Writes
The American Guides remain the Federal Writers’ Project’s best-known undertaking. Courtesy, LOC Prints and Photographs Division

Award winners Nelson Algren and Ralph Ellison, National Poet Laureates Gwendolyn Brooks and Conrad Aiken and Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow.  

“The project changed how we as a country looked at history itself,” says the podcast’s host Chris Haley. “The FWP did groundbreaking work, digging for stories that were on the verge of being erased forever, like the accounts of elderly African Americans who had been enslaved.”

"Recording Minnesota in Word and Picture," 1937
The FWP recorded the life stories of more than 10,000 men and women from a variety of regions, occupations and ethnic groups. Courtesy, Minnesota Historical Society.

Each month, the podcast features voices of those who were part of the FWP. Future episodes will continue to call on a new generation of FWP scholars—many who convened at last year at the Library of Congress symposium,“Rewriting America: Reconsidering the Federal Writers’ Project 80 Years Later,” celebrating the FWP’s legacy and continued influence.

The People’s Recorder is produced by Spark Media, with support from NEH and the state humanities councils of Florida, Virginia, Wisconsin, Nebraska and California. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Start listening here.

David A. Taylor is the author of Soul of a People and other books, and lead writer and a producer of The People’s Recorder. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Smithsonian and Discover. He teaches at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Washington, DC.

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.

WPA Music Collector Sidney Robertson Discovers California Gold

Courtesy, Sidney Robertson Cowell Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

From 1938 to 1940, Sidney Robertson directed and carried out a remarkable ethnomusicological survey—the WPA California Folk Music Project. Born in San Francisco in 1903, Sidney had grown up in a privileged home punctuated by high cultural activities and training that included yearly trips to Europe in her teens. She played the piano and taught music at the Peninsula School for Creative Education in Menlo Park during the mid-1920s where she became aware of the enlivening effects that folk tunes and folk dance had on her young students. In the early 1930s, Sidney became disillusioned with her “self-indulgent” life among progressive artists and intellectuals on the West Coast. She wished to engage in socially useful work as the Depression worsened. She traveled East in 1935, eventually making contact with Charles Seeger, musicologist, professor and composer, who was then the head of the “Music Unit” in the Special Skills Division of the Resettlement Administration. Joining his RA staff, she learned how to make recordings, traveling widely on her own collecting folk music.

In 1937, at age 34, Sidney returned to her native California and sought support for continuing to collect the folk music that fascinated her. By working with the WPA’s Northern California office in San Francisco and nurturing contacts at the Library of Congress and through her New Deal connections, Sidney conceived and planned the contours of an ambitious project to document the diverse musical culture in the state.

WPA California Folk Music Project staff at work in UC-Berkeley office on Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, California, 1938
Courtesy, Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress supplied Sidney with 12-inch blank acetate discs for recording and became the central repository of the materials she collected (currently at the Library’s American Folklife Center in Washington, DC). The University of California, Berkeley provided supplies and office space on campus for the twenty staff Robertson handpicked from the California relief rolls, as required by the WPA. The UC Berkeley Music Library holds an array of materials from the Project, including photographs of the musicians, sketches and technical drawings of many of the musical instruments and documentation predominantly researched by WPA staff.

Sidney was eager to hire unemployed individuals who would be helpful to her in her research while she was seeking out performers and recording them. She was able to engage professional photographers, draftsmen and researchers seeking work, plus a variety of others who could assist her in making connections with the cultural groups whose music she would collect. From October 1938 through early 1940, Sidney recorded 35 hours of music from over 180 performers, two thirds from European and Middle Eastern cultural backgrounds and the remaining third from English-language performers.

Mr. Franks playing an English guitar, Manuel Lemos and Alberto Mendes playing Portuguese songs on violas d’arame. Richmond, California, 1939
Part of California Folk Music Project. Courtesy, Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center.

In an article penned for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1938, Sidney highlighted California’s rich cultural diversity and history—its Native heritage, early Spanish and Portuguese arrivals, well before many English speakers had settled there. She wrote: “the inroads of settlers drawn by the discovery of gold contributed strains from the five continents and the seven seas . . . How can we believe that these successive waves of hard-working citizens contributed nothing to California beyond the work of their hands? What traditions came with them? What were they thinking and feeling? . . . Their songs will tell us, if we can find them.”

Blueprint, Portuguese viola, W.P.A.
California Folk Music Project collection. Courtesy, Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center.

Sidney considered her recordings to be representative of a cross-section of the very diverse and lively music that was actively being performed in California, whether generated by speakers of English, recent immigrants or migrants who had arrived from elsewhere in the US during the Depression. Much of what she documented in California had received no attention before. Consistently, she sought to counteract the anti-foreign sentiment of the times, determined to demonstrate the state’s rich and varied cultural make-up by focusing on the performance of traditional music.

New Deal initiatives, such as the WPA California Folk Music Project and the activities of the RA’s Music Unit, served to validate the musical traditions of exemplary, yet so often, unsung Americans in radical ways. They also preserved the creative artistry of those they recorded for future generations.

Learn more about the WPA California Folk Music Project, with links to recordings, photographs, drawings and sketches and much more.

WATCH the Living New Deal webinar, “Folk Music and the New Deal: Collecting the Hidden Soundtracks of the Great Depression,” featuring Sheryl Koskowitz and Catherine Kerst.

Catherine Hiebert Kerst, former Folklife Specialist and Archivist in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, is author of the forthcoming book, California Gold, Sidney Robertson and the WPA California Folk Music Project (UC Press, April 2024).

Historian Victoria Wolcott Wins New Deal Book Award

Dr. Victoria Wolcott, winner of the 2022 New Deal Book Award.

Dr. Victoria Wolcott
Photo by Yves-Richard Blanc

Victoria W. Wolcott, professor of History at the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences, has been named the winner of the Living New Deal’s annual New Deal Book Award for 2022. Her book, Living in the Future: Utopianism and the Long Civil Rights Movement, (University of Chicago Press, 2022), explores the New Deal’s influence on the Civil Rights Movement.

Dr. Wolcott has published on a wide range of topics related to civil rights and social and racial justice. Her award-winning book examines how the emergence of experimental interracial communities in mid-20th-century America helped shape the views of civil rights leaders.

Living in the Future: Utopianism and the Long Civil Rights Movement, was unanimously chosen among eleven works nominated for this year’s award.  A review committee of New Deal historians, chaired by Eric Rauchway, distinguished professor of History at the University of California, Davis, and author of Why the New Deal Matters, praised Wolcott’s book as “a profound and engaging study of interracial cooperative communities that experimented with new ways of life in the years of the Depression and New Deal. Their vision of new and better ways to live laid the foundations for the postwar Civil Rights movement.”

The Living New Deal launched the annual New Deal Book Award in 2021 to recognize and encourage nonfiction authorship about the New Deal, (1933-1942), an era defined by FDR’s presidency, the Great Depression and the nation’s entry into World War II.  The $1,000 award will be presented to Dr. Wolcott on June 24, 2023 at the Annual Roosevelt Reading Festival, held at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York.

Richard Walker, director of the Living New Deal, expressed appreciation to all the nominees and the review committee. “It is immensely satisfying to see the high-quality scholarship being done on the New Deal, the significance of which still calls out to us ninety years later.”

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

The Forgotten Coup of 1933

Bonus Army

In 1932 WWI veterans laid siege to the U.S. Capitol demanding their service bonuses. Wealthy businessmen plotted to mobilize the disaffected soldiers and overthrow the newly elected FDR. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

That the American press largely ignored an attempt to forcibly overthrow President Franklin Roosevelt only months after his inauguration in 1933 seems less extraordinary in light of the right-wing media’s current efforts to dismiss a far more alarming—and televised—coup attempt on January 6, 2021.

Jonathan M. Katz resurrects that earlier effort in his just-released book Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire. Author Sally Denton also did so in 2012 with her book The Plots Against the President: FDR, A Nation in Crisis, And the Rise of the American Right.

A week following the 2021 attack on the Capitol, Denton explicitly linked the two conspiracies. “The nation has never been at a potential brink as it was then—up until, I think, now,” she said. She reiterated her fears in an op-ed in the Post on the first anniversary of the attempted overthrow of the presidential election.

Smedley Butler

Smedley Butler
Retired Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler asserted that wealthy businessmen were plotting to create a fascist veterans’ organization with Butler as its leader and use it in a coup d’état to overthrow Roosevelt. In a 1935 video clip, Smedley Butler describes the foiled “fascist plot.” (1.22 minutes) 

The plot against FDR might well have succeeded had Retired Major General Smedley Butler not blown the whistle on it. The revered former Marine claimed that a representative of some of the nation’s wealthiest men had approached him to lead an army of half a million veterans against the president and install a dictator in his place. It resembled a game plan inspired by European fascists admired by those same men.

A Congressional committee took testimony from Butler, who fingered such titans as J.P. Morgan, Jr., Irénée du Pont and others as the plot’s financial backers, calling them “the royal family of financiers.” FDR echoed Butler when accepting his party’s nomination at Madison Square Garden on June 27, 1936, branding his foes “economic royalists” to wild applause and going so far as to assert, “they are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.” Thanks to Butler, FDR had good cause to know the lengths to which they would go, though few others did.  

On the campaign trail in 1932

On the campaign trail in 1932
FDR with daughter Anna and Mrs. Roosevelt. He defeated incumbent President Herbert Hoover in a landslide. Courtesy, Wikipedia Commons.

Roosevelt’s friend Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr. confirmed that hatred in his tell-all autobiography Farewell to Fifth Avenue, in which he revealed that both of President Hoover’s Treasury Secretaries—Andrew Mellon and Ogden Mills—had privately tipped off leading members of their caste to the probability that the U.S. would go off the gold standard, giving them adequate time to move their assets to Swiss bank accounts while immeasurably worsening the Great Depression just before Roosevelt’s inauguration. Three months later, when the new President began the process by which the U.S. left the gold standard, they apparently moved more decisively against him.

The Business Plot, or “Wall Street Putsch,” today remains largely unknown and is seldom mentioned in Roosevelt biographies, perhaps because the nation’s major newspapers—whose owners largely opposed FDR—mocked it, if they mentioned it at all.

In its report, the Congressional committee charged with the investigation said it “had received evidence that certain people had made an attempt to establish a fascist organization in this country,” but deleted the names of the people Butler had given it. The incensed Butler observed, “Like most committees, it has slaughtered the little and allowed the big to escape. The big shots weren’t even called to testify.” Without those names and further investigation, the report and plot sank into obscurity—until a violent mob stormed the Capitol 88 years later. 

It Can’t Happen Here

It Can’t Happen Here
Published in 1935, the height of fascism in Europe, Lewis’s book portrays the rise of totalitarian rule in the U.S. with the help of a ruthless paramilitary force. It was adapted into a play in 1936.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Wikipedia.

A 2007 radio documentary by BBC4 suggests that the plot is so little known because Roosevelt did not charge the conspirators with treason in exchange for a pledge by them not to oppose his New Deal policies. Whether that is true or Roosevelt simply felt that such a spectacular trial would even further divide the country at a time of crisis will probably never be known. That such a conspiracy happened, let alone was all but erased from public memory, seems far more conceivable after the events of January 6—not to mention Republicans’ attempt to block to any such investigation today.

The attack on the U.S. Capitol—not to mention the four years that preceded it—dealt a heavy blow to the American exceptionalism that Sinclair Lewis lampooned in his 1936 play, It Can’t Happen Here. “It” very nearly did in 2021, and may yet still.

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 Bridges, Not Walls
by Harvey Smith

Birdseye View, 1936

Birdseye View, 1936
The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge under construction
Photo Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Last November, following the election of Donald Trump, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution declaring the City’s commitment to values of multiculturalism and tolerance.

RESOLVED, That no matter the threats…,San Francisco will remain a Sanctuary City; we will not turn our back on the men and women from other countries who help make this city great, and who represent over one third of our population. This is the Golden Gate—we build bridges, not walls.

In that spirit, the Living New Deal will host “Building Bridges, Not Walls” two concurrent exhibitions featuring art and performance celebrating the role of immigrants in building the Bay Area’s bridges, and the unity these iconic structures represent.

Bridge workers on catwalk

Bridge workers on catwalk
San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge
Photo Credit: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, both completed during the Great Depression, were designed by immigrants: Ralph Modjeski, a Polish immigrant, was chief engineer on the Bay Bridge. Leon Moisseiff, a Latvian immigrant, was the lead designer of the Golden Gate Bridge. Both bridges had been largely constructed by the children of immigrants, including legendary ironworker Al Zampa, whose parents came from Italy. Zampa was one of the first workers to survive a fall from the Golden Gate Bridge, making him a charter member of the Half Way to Hell Club, a fraternity of men who had fallen and landed in the bridge’s safety nets. Thirty-five men died working on the Bay and Golden Gate bridges.

A starting point for the exhibit is the twenty steel rivets that the Living New Deal obtained when the original Bay Bridge, which opened in 1936, was dismantled, having been replaced by a new eastern span.

Miss Berkeley, International Queen, and Miss Oakland hold a chain barrier to the bridge at the opening ceremony.

Miss Berkeley, International Queen and Miss Oakland
Opening of San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, 1936
Photo Credit: Courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

The themes of immigrants, diversity, and internationalism are symbolized by the bridges, that connect the Bay Area’s diverse communities and give the region its common identity.

In July, “Building Bridges, Not Walls,” a celebration of these bridges and the people who built them, will open at the History Center at San Francisco Main Library. A companion exhibit featuring Bay Area artists, photographers, and poets will be held at the historic Canessa Gallery in San Francisco’s North Beach.

For more information:  Harvey Smith [email protected]

Bridge worker Alfred Zampa

Bridge worker Alfred Zampa
Golden Gate Bridge 50th Anniversary
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Harvey Smith is an advisor to the Living New Deal.