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Lesson Plan Oral History and Social History

This lesson presents social history content and topics through the voices of ordinary people. It draws on primary sources from the collection, American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.

Using excerpts from the collection, students study social history topics through interviews that recount the lives of ordinary Americans. Based on these excerpts and further research in the collections, students develop their own research questions. They then plan and conduct oral history interviews with members of their communities.


Students will be able to:

  • Define social history and formulate questions about social history topics.
  • Analyze, interpret, and conduct research using oral histories.
  • Use oral history interview techniques to gather information about social history.
  • Interpret recent changes social life in the United States using existing oral histories and by conducting original oral history interviews.

Time Required

One to two weeks

Lesson Preparation

If computer time or printer access is limited, you may wish to print out these primary sources in advance:

Primary Source Set A: Working Women in the 1930s

I Ain't No Midwife

NOTE: This is an excerpt. The full text version of I Ain't No Midwife is in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.

... {excerpt begins}

March 14, May 29, 1939

Mary Willingham (Negro)
140 Cohen Street
Athens, Georgia
Practical Nurse


... "The most I ever got in one week was $14 and that was on a nursin' job. I'll never forgit what the man said that hired me after my $14-a-week patient got to where she didn't need me no mo'. He didn't offer me but $10 a week, and I didn't want to take $4 lose than I had been gittin' and I told him so. 'Mamie,' he said, 'I don't make much myself, but whatever I promise to pay you you'llt git it and you won't have to wait for it.' When I goes on a job I gives my whole time, night and day, 'cept for 4 hours a day rest period, that any doctor'll tell you a nurse has gotta have if she is to stay on the job and be able to do what the patient needs her to do. Now you knows $10 a week ain't nothin' to pay for day and night services, and white folks wouldn't think of expectin' white nurses to work for such a little bit, and them white nurses does a heap less than me.

"On my last job I didn't git to take no 4 hours off ever' day, for the patient told me she couldn't stay by herself a'tall. I was on that job day and night two weeks without no extra pay for over-time. These days, nursin' jobs is so hard to git that I'se home more'n I'se off nursin'. I never had but three jobs of nursin' all of last year; at one I stayed two weeks, three weeks at the second, and I was on night duty six months straight at the last place. Them first two places paid me $10 a week, and I got a dollar a night for the night duty.

"Ellen - that's my baby gal - got as far as the eighth grade in school. She works just any place she can git a job. Most of her work's been cookin' and maidin', for that's all she knows how to do. Whenever a colored girl tries to git into some other sort of work they's allus asked, 'What 'spe'unce is you had?' If the new work is dif'rent from what they's been doin', they don't git it. How's they gwine to git 'spe'unce if nobody gives 'em a chanst? Answer me that!"

... "My gal ain't able to pay for that {training}," Mamie answered. "Her baby goes to the WPA nursery school, and that's a big help when I'se off nursin' and that baby's ma's off huntin' work. She 'most allus gits around three dollars a week when she's got work, and I reckon she might work for less if anybody would hire her. But now ain't it a shame for folks to have to work for less then it takes for 'em to live on.

... {excerpt ends}


  • What kind of work did Mary Willingham do? How would you describe her working conditions? How do you think this kind of work has changed since the 1930s?
  • What concerns did Mary have about her daughter Ellen? Based on what you know about the Great Depression and conditions for African-Americans in the South, do you think her concerns were justified? Why or why not?
  • What evidence can you find that Mary thought race affected her work? How does this evidence influence your analysis of this document?

Go to the complete interview from which this excerpt was taken.

Packinghouse workers

NOTE: This is an excerpt. The full text version of Packinghouse Workers is in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.

{excerpt begins}

Packinghouse worker
Marge Paca, 24 years old
Irish, married to a Pole union member

Betty Burke

June 15, 1939

Text of Interview

The meat specialties, that is about the coldest place in the yards. That's where they prepare medicinal extracts from meats, for hospitals, I guess. Anyway, they have a room there that's 60 degrees below zero. Nobody is supposed to stay there longer than 3 minutes, but some of the men go in there for 15 minutes at a time.

I used to have to pack the brains in cans. They would be frozen stiff and my nails would lift right up off my fingers handling them. It's always wet there and very, very cold. I had to wear two and three pairs of woolen stockings, 2 pairs of underwear, a couple of woolen skirts and all the sweaters I had, and on top of that I had to wear a white uniform. My own. But I couldn't stand it there, it was so cold. It's easy to get pneumonia in a place like that.

In cleaning brains you have to keep your hands in ice cold water and pick out the blood clots. They have the most sickening odor. Cleaning tripe, though, that's the limit. Rotten, yellow stuff, all decayed, it just stank like hell! I did that for a few weeks.

Then I worked in the sausage department. In the domestic sausage. We'd have to do the pork sausages in the cooler. Sometimes we wouldn't be told what kind of sausage we'd have to work on and then when we'd come to work they'd say 'pork for you' and we'd have to throw any dirty old rags we could pick up around our shoulders and go to work in that icebox. If they had any sense or consideration for the girls they could let them know ahead of time so that girls could come prepared with enough clothes.

In summer sausage, they stuff very big sausages there. That's very heavy work. A stick of sausage weighs 200 pounds, five or six sausages on a stick. They have women doing that. It's a strong man's job and no woman should be doing that work. The young girls just can't, so they have the older ladies, and it's a crime to see the way they struggle with it. On that job I lost 27 pounds in three months. That was enough for me. It's a strain on your heart, too. Women got ruptured. They pick the strongest women, big husky ones, you should see the muscles on them, but they can't keep it up. It's horses' labor.

In chipped beef the work in much easier. You can make better money, too, but the rate has to be topped, and it's very, very fast work.

... {excerpt ends}


  • What kind of work did Marge Paca do? How would you describe her working conditions? How do you think this kind of work has changed since the 1930s?
  • What did Marge think about forcing women to work in the summer sausage department? Do you agree with her views? Why or why not?
  • Marge says that in the chipped beef department, "the rate has to be topped." This means that workers were paid more money if they could produce more than a certain amount per hour. What would be the advantages of being paid according to what was produced, rather than strictly by the hour? What would be the disadvantages?

Go to the complete interview from which this excerpt was taken.

Italian Feed

NOTE: This is an excerpt. The full text version of Italian Feed is in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.

{excerpt begins}

Mari Tomasi

Recorded in Writers' Section Files

DATE: SEP 21 1940


... "I'm getting a dinner ready for a party of twelve people. All from Montpelier. Not Italians. Italians know how to make their own Italian dinners. These are Americans. In the winter I get about two orders a week for good-sized dinner parties. In the summer, not so many. They like to get out then in their cars and stop at different places to eat."

... "After Pietro died I had to figure a way to live. I said to myself: I have the house - small as it is, it's mine and all paid for. I have a little insurance money, but there are four children. I got to make that money stretch. So I began taking orders for dinners. And sometimes if the neighbors were sick - but not sick enough for real nurses- I took care of them.

... "I like to work like this-- here in the house. I know where every pan is hung, where every spice is kept. Sometimes my customers want me to cook in their own homes. Well, I do not refuse, but I charge them more."

Melicenda said, "I don't bother to fix the table pretty. I figure my customers come here to eat, not to look at my table. Oh, I fix the food fancy so it will look good to the eyes, too. And I give them plenty. That's what they pay for.

"I charge them $1.25 each. That isn't too much. First I serve them a big platter of stuffed celery, thin slices of salami and mortadella, ripe olives, and pickles. Then the ravioli with a rich tomato sauce. If they want spaghetti, too," the woman shrugged resigned shoulders, "Well, I give them the spaghetti as well. The little Italian rolls are good with ravioli. I don't make them myself. I buy them from the Italian baker down the street. Just before it's time to serve the dinner, I sprinkle them with milk and put them in the oven for a few minutes to heat them. Dessert, no. I never serve dessert. The ravioli are so rich that I make them a dish that will cut the richness. I give them a salad of lettuce, endive, tomato, onion, celery, mixed with vinegar and olive oil. I use the wine vinegar. It gives a better taste to the salad. With the dollar and a quarter dinner I serve just one glass of red wine. If they want more they got to pay for it.

"Tonight my customers will get here at seven o'clock. They won't leave until eleven.


Melicenda smiled. "Well, any time you want a good Italian feed, call me up. My name is in the telephone book. Just call Melicenda Bartoletti."

...{excerpt ends}


  • What kind of work did Melicenda Bartoletti do? How would you describe her working conditions? How do you think this kind of work has changed since the 1930s?
  • Melicenda describes why she likes working in her own home. What might be some other advantages of working at home? What might be some disadvantages?
  • What do you think Melicenda means when she refers to her customers as Americans, not Italians? Do you think this distinction is significant? Why or why not? Who, if anyone, might make such a distinction today?

Go to the complete interview from which this excerpt was taken.

Miss Henrietta C. Dozier

NOTE: This is an excerpt. The full text version of Miss Henrietta C. Dozier is in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.

{excerpt begins}

March 1, 1939.
Miss Henrietta C. Dozier
415 Peninsular Life Bldg
Jacksonville, Florida.

Rose Shepherd, Writer.


... "How did I happen to take up architecture - an unusual occupation for a woman? Well, even in my childhood I wanted to study architecture, and have drawn plans since I was seven. In fact, when I was just a little tot I used to draft patterns for doll dresses for my own and the neighbor children's dolls. So it seemed the natural thing when I reached the age to decide what my life work was to be, to select architecture as a vocation.

... "I served an apprenticeship of one year in an architect's office in Atlanta, then attended Pratt Institute for two years, afterwards enrolling at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Boston, taking the full four years' course and graduating in 1899 with a B. S. degree in architecture.

... "In Jacksonville, the Federal Reserve Bank Building, southwest corner of Church and Hogan Streets, on which I was associate architect, is one of which I am always very proud. This building completed in 1924 is one on which the 'shifting sands of time' have had no effect, for its foundations are firmly anchored on a clay bed which extends two and one-half feet below the deepest footings. On account of the mean 13-ft. above water level of Jacksonville, it is sometimes a difficult engineering problem to secure firm foundations for large buildings and skyscrapers, but the Federal Reserve Bank is well built and soundly constructed and, I am happy to say, after its constant use all of these years, with heavy installations of gratings, shelving, massive safes with heavy combination doors, there is not a crack in the entire building.

... "I have always had to compete with men, yes. In submitting designs, plans, bids, I have never asked any consideration at any time because I happened to be a woman; I put all my cards on the table in fair and honest competition, and ask only consideration on the same basis.

For the most part I have been treated fairly. I remember one instance when designs were asked for the State and County Building in Atlanta, I went to the county officials, in the confidence of youth - it was in 1904 - but I knew what splendid training I had received, and stated brashly I would like to have this job.

"They said, 'We are sorry, Miss Dozier , but we cannot give it to you because you are not a voter.'

"Well, that was a new argument and was my first experience with officials' playing of politics with the tax-payers' money.

... "Then in 1925 the Women's Club of Jacksonville, of which I had been a member for a number of years, transferred their old clubhouse at 18 East Duval Street to the City of Jacksonville and purchased a location on the St. Johns riverfront at 861 Riverside.

"I submitted my designs, asking for consideration on account of my membership in the club. The job was given to a man, whose wife was a member also, and who I learned had bought a considerable quantity of the bonds then being offered to finance the new building.

"Again it was my great pleasure to go before the board of this organization, and give them my personal opinion of such 'political bargaining.' It is needless to say, I withdrew my membership, as it has never been my policy to belong to any organization engaged in unfair dealings. Were their faces red? I'll say they were!

"On the whole, I have had only courtesy and consideration in my competition with men in my work. During my thirteen and one-half years in Atlanta, I dealt with the same contractors and subcontractors most of the time, and had the greatest cooperation possible.

"There was one instance of a crazy plumber in Atlanta that maybe caused me a gray hair or two. He was working on a residence building, and when I went on the job as a matter of routine inspection early one morning, I noticed he had roughed in the plumbing all wrong. I called his attention to it, as a matter of course, and without any warning at all, he picked up a 2 by 4 and came at me, saying: 'God A'mighty never intended a man to be bossed by a woman!' I thought my time had come as he advanced toward me with the heavy board in his right hand, which he was wielding as a most formidable shillalah. Just in the nick of time, the contractor appeared on the scene and grabbed him, having a rather hard time to subdue him and get the club away from him. He had been crazy all the time ....

... "I believe from my own experience and with a woman's general reputation of condensing space and utilizing corners fro wall spaces and furniture settings instead of blocking them up with windows, foors, and closets, it gives me the very best ideas for commodious and comfortable homes....

... {excerpt ends}


  • What kind of work did Henrietta Dozier do? How would you describe her working conditions? How do you think this kind of work has changed since the 1930s?
  • Why was Henrietta proud of the Federal Reserve Bank Building? Do you think architects today would have the same reasons for pride in their work? Why or why not?
  • What problems arose for Henrietta because she was a woman in an unusual profession? What was particularly unfair about her exclusion from a job because she was not a voter? (Remember, it was 1904.) Do you think a woman architect today would experience any of the problems Henrietta faced? Why or why not?

Go to the complete interview from which this excerpt was taken.

Primary Source Set B: Dancing as a Form of Recreation, 1890s-1930s

Charles Cole

NOTE: This is an excerpt. The full text version of Charles Cole is in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.

... {excerpt begins}

Circumstances of Interview

NAME OF WORKER Frederick [W. Kaul?] ADDRESS Hastings, Nebr.

DATE Jan. 27, 1939 SUBJECT Folklore "Square Dances"

1. Name and address of informant Charles Cole [Hotel?], [Doniphan?], Nebr.

2. Date and time of interview Wednesday p.m., Jan. 18

3. Place of interview Home of Mrs. [Harger?], 410 West 4th, Hastings, Nebr.

4. Name and address of person, if any, who put you in touch with informant Mrs. Harger, 410 West 4th St., Hastings, Nebr.

5. Name and address of person if any, accompanying you None

6. Description of room, house, surroundings, etc. I later visited Mr. Cole's home and found it to be a frame building of 5 rooms, a farm home equipped with electricity. Furnishings were modern and well cared for.

FORM B Personal History of Informant

NAME OF WORKER Frederick W. Kaul ADDRESS Hastings, Nebr.

DATE Jan. 27, 1939 SUBJECT Folklore "Square Dances"

NAME AND ADDRESS OF INFORMANT Mr. Charles Cole, Rt. 1, Doniphan, Nebr.

1. Ancestry - English Descent

2. Place and date of birth - Doniphan, Nebr., June 6th, 1890

3. Family - Three children and mother - Wife dead

4. Place lived in, with dates - Doniphan 1890 to 1920. Santa Anna, Calif. 1920 to 1925. Has since resided at Doniphan

5. Education, with dates - Doniphan Public School --9th grade

6. Occupations and accomplishments, with dates - Farming and Stock Feeder. At present is a Road Contractor.

7. Special skills and interests -Farming and calling for Dances.

8. Community and religious activities - Member of Odd Follow Lodge, Mason, Woodman of the World. Is a Protestant.

9. Description of informant - Height 5 ft 9 inches. Weight 202. Dark hair, blue eyes and has a pleasing personality.

10. Other points gained in interview - Possibility of further interviews

FORM C Text of Interview (Unedited)

NAME OF WORKER Frederick W. Kaul ADDRESS Hastings, Nebr.

DATE Jan. 27, 1939 SUBJECT Folklore "Square Dances"

NAME AND ADDRESS OF INFORMANT Charles Cole, Rt.1, Doniphan, Nebr.


"My earliest recollection of dancing was when my folks took me along to the numerous 'Barn Dances' and I can distinctly remember many nights when I would beg to go home as I was not the least bit interested in them and the planks which served as seats seemed to be extraordinarly hard.

It was not until I joined the Odd Fellow's Lodge in California that I had any desire to participate but since dancing-and particularly square dancing-was the major part of their social entertainment at that time I decided to take some lessons. I can remember with horror the first night I ventured on a public floor. My feet seemed to become clubs and for some reason or other I was always in the wrong place. Months of careful observation and practice-in more remote places-soon dispelled my fears and after a few successful attempts I was really bitten by the dance bug.

It was during my observation period that I became fascinated in the art of calling and I began to listen and learn the different phrases used. Later this turned out to be a profitable lesson as I was soon called upon to manage dances in surrounding towns and to call for quadrilles or square dances.

... {excerpt ends}


  • What was Charles Cole's first memory of dancing? What does this tell you about who took part in dances in the 1890s?
  • Have you ever had an experience similar to the "horror" Charles experienced on his first night of dancing? Do you think this is an experience that all generations have? Why or why not?
  • What do you think Charles meant by "I hope the younger generation enjoys themselves with their fantastic goings on"? Describe a situation today in which a person who is 40 years old might say the same thing.

Go to the complete interview from which this excerpt was taken.

Mrs. Charley Huyck

NOTE: This is an excerpt. The full text version of Mrs. Charley Huyck is in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.

... {excerpt begins}

FORM B Personal History of Informant

NAME OF WORKER Harold J. Moss ADDRESS 6934 Francis, Lincoln

DATE January 24, 1939 SUBJECT American Folklore Stuff

NAME AND ADDRESS OF INFORMANT Mrs. Charley Huyck, Route 1, Lincoln

1. Ancestry English-German

2. Place and date of birth Delmar, Iowa, Oct. 20, 1875

3. Family Fathers name, "[W. G.?] Seidell. No children, mother living, father dead. Two brothers, one sister, husband living, 1 adopted boy at home.

4. Places lived with dates

Delmar, Iowa-1875 to 1880. Rokeby, Nebr.-1880 to 1900 {Begin deleted text}????{End deleted text} Lincoln, Nebr.-1900 to date.

5. Education, with dates

Rokeby, Nebraska, 1881 to 1889.

6. Occupations and accomplishments, with dates Farm work in field,1888 to 1900; musician, 1885 to date; home work, 1885 to date; plays piano, mandolin and guitar. Dance caller. Played with her father for dances, public affairs, parties, etc. for 50 years.

7. Special skills and interests

Music, entertainment, farm field and home work, a great home lover.

8. Community and religious activities Christian church, Lincoln (east) Sunday school, very active member. Played for years for community affairs, church, schools, etc.

9. Description of informant Energetic, spontaneous, outdoor girl type, almost suggestive of "tom boy" girlhood.

10. Other points gained in interview Fine regular features, white hair, youthful pink complexion, seems in action and appearance to be twenty years younger then her age. Average height, good body proportions, congenial and has good personlity. Seems to fairly radiate health. Has helped raise several children though none of her own and the mother instinct is very marked.

... For 50 years and more, I have played at dances all around .... I started playing when I was so young I used to play with dolls at home. This was about 1888.

We played in many a fine home in Lincoln for their private dances. These were held in the attic or on the third floor of those big houses. Square dances, polka waltzes, schottisches and lancers were the popular dances. We used to haul a parlor organ in the spring wagon as most places had no organ or piano at that time.

... It was the custom to have a big dance in the hayloft whenever a new barn was built. This was a way of dedicating a new barn and they were big affairs. The hayloft would be lighted with ... lanterns ... or hanging lamps and these were pretty gay occasions.

Everybody would climb up the loft ladder, even if they had to crawl over a few horses or cows to get to it. The crowd was always full of life and they sure could dance. There was no snobbery and everyone was friendly, no 'cliquety' people who would keep to themselves.

The square dance was a very democratic gathering and people dancing in sets were accustomed to mingle with the others rather than just pair off.

Men and boys came dressed in overalls, swallow tail coats, peg-top pants, or tight fitting pants, derby hats; caps, and some wore an assortment which was a sight in itself. The women and girls, wore bustles, some hoop skirts, tight fitting basques and hair ornaments.

... The young folks and the old folks mingled freely together. There wasn't the distinction there is today. They were'nt cliquety at all. I think the older people are responsible for the way they do now. These young people wouldn't keep to themselves so much if they were encouraged by the older ones to all mix in the same crowd.

Often when the sets were on the floor dancing both young and old, even some of the granddaddies who were not in any of the sets would get out to the side and dance a lively 'hoe down' or clog.

I have played at dances where five or six small children would be sleeping on a pile of the dancers' coats and wraps in a corner of the hall.

...{excerpt ends}


  • What are some of the dance traditions that Mrs. Huyck described? Can you think of similar dance traditions thatare practiced today?
  • What do you think Mrs. Huyck meant when she said "the square dance was a very democratic gathering"? Is dancing today a democratic event? Why or why not?
  • Describe how old and young alike took part in square dances. Did Mrs. Huyck indicate that dancing changed from the 1890s to the 1939? What did Mrs. Huyck mean when she said that young people "wouldn't keep to themselves" if they were encouraged by adults to "mix in the same crowd"? Do you agree?

Go to the complete interview from which this excerpt was taken.

Old Time Dance Calls

NOTE: This is an excerpt. The full text version of Old Time Dance Calls is in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.

{begin excerpt}

Form B

Personal History of Informant

Federal Writers' Project

Works Progress Administration


Name of worker - A. C. Sherbert Date 12/27/38

Address - Project Office, 614 SW Eleventh Ave., Portland, Oregon.

Subject - Old Time Dance Calls.

Name and address of informant - George Duffy,
5605 SE 71st Avenue, Portland, Oregon.

Information obtained should supply the following facts:

1. Ancestry

2. Place and date of birth

3. Family

4. Places lived in, with dates

5. Education, with dates

6. Occupations and accomplishments with dates

7. Special skills and interests

8. Community and religious activities

9. Description of informant

10. Other points gained in interview

1. Bernard and Mary Duffy, born in County Louth[,?] Ireland.

2. Peoria, Illinois, January 27, 1875.

3. Three girls and two boys living - oldest son killed in France with A. E. F.

4. Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, California, Washington, Oregon - Dates not remembered. (Boomer printer.)

5. High School in Marysville, Mo., graduated 1890. Attended business college following high school - Northwest Business College of Missouri, Marysville, Mo.

6. Printers editor and publisher. Operated newspaper in Nebraska 1900 to 1906. Superintendent of printing plants in various places at various times. Managed show poster plant in Spokane, Washington at one time.

7. Experienced public speaker, fraternal [organizer?], dance -hall manager. Was state organizer in Colorado for Security Benefit Association.

8. None.

9. Medium height, chunky build, graying dark hair thin at top. Pleasing personality and presence, engaging smile.

10. - - -

Form C

Text of Interview (Unedited)

Federal Writers' Project

Works Progress Administration


Name of worker - A. C. Sherbert Date 12/27/38

Address - Project Office, 614 SW Eleventh Avenue, Portland, Oregon

Subject - Old Time dance Calls

Name and address of informant - George Duffy, 5605 SE 71st Ave[.,?] City.


I have been an enthusiastic follower of the dance , ball-room dancing I mean, since I was a boy of fifteen, and that's a good many years ago. As might be supposed, I have seen a great many changes in dance technique, dance forms, and dance -ball conduct during the past half century.

In early days dancing was not the commercialized proposition that it is today. It was not a business in any sense of the word. Dancing was purely a neighborhood social event with profit no consideration and was indulged in by mostly all classes of people, excepting the followers of one or two religious groups that thought it sinful to dance.

As with all things people enjoy doing, it was discovered that money could be raised by charging admission to the dance . First to benefit were charitable causes, church purposes, (yes, church purposes) and other community needs. From there it was a short step to commercialization and the public dance hall was the result.

... I have decided that folks want to dance for the same reason that folks want to listen to music, read poetry, or witness or engage in other forms of emotional expression. Dancing is rhythmic just like poetry or music and has the further attraction of stimulating physical activity, mingling the sexes, and sociability. Then there is usually excitement and fun at a dance , and this fact, too, makes an evening of dancing more then ordinarily attractive to all persons who are not too definitely anti-social.

... I may be wrong, but I do not believe the dance of today is of any great social importance. Automobiles and moving pictures have supplanted the community dance as a means of bringing young folks together, in my opinion. In other words, I truly think all dancing could today be abolished and the social world would move along quite as well without it. Such may not be said of the old time dance . The dance - especially the country dance - was an almost indispensable institution in those days.

Perhaps I can give you a short description of a typical farm dance of the eighties or nineties[.?]

The dance is to celebrate a barn raising and is to be held at a farm some fifteen or sixteen miles from Sally's home. No distance at all these days in a streamlined coupe, but in those days it was quite a distance.

... Arriving at the dance later than many, they {Sally and her boyfriend} find a long line of horses and buggies tied to fence rails and hitching racks. The shrill tones of a rapidly bowed fiddle and the lusty commands of the "caller" break the soft silence of the surrounding countryside. Thin fingers of mellow lantern-light filter through chinks and knot-holes of the new barn in which the dance is being held. Our farm boy and his Sally enter the barn and are greeted by cheery nods of welcome and recognition all around. A quadrille is in progress. ... The music here consists of the best available neighborhood fiddler assisted by another neighbor who can "chord" on the [melodson?] - without benefit of notes. Correct time is maintained by the thumping of the fiddler's boot on the hard floor, by the gyrations of his shoulders as he scrapes his fiddle, and by the vigorous nodding of his head in proper tempo. The fiddler's boot thumping in augmented in volume by the [concerted?] foot tapping of small boys who sit on the benches that line the dance floor.

The fiddler and dance caller were colorful and picturesque individuals who, if they excelled in their abilities, were not without considerable repute and importance in their respective neighborhoods. A colorful fiddler knew how to draw attention to himself and to liven the proceedings by clowning a bit as he fiddled. Some fiddlers could toss their fiddles into the air or flip them upside down without losing a beat. Others made a specialty of waving their fiddles backward over their heads while playing just to prove their complete mastery of the instrument. The callers more usually were glib fellows of likeable personality and strong of lung.

... Let us watch the dance for a moment. The couples mingle, moving back and forth in response to the directions of the caller. The movements, for the most part, require no gentlemen to come in closer proximity to a lady dancer than to hold her hand momentarily as they bow, turn, and [promenade?]. Should it become necessary in the dance for a man to place his hand at a lady's waist, he would find her so completely [corseted?] with whalebone and [steel?], and so cumbersomely swathed in clothing, that any sensual stimulation resulting from the contact must have been purely psychological.

Quite different today in any modern dance hall. The modern dance requires no concentration as in listening to a caller's commands. The modern dance seems to consist chiefly of walking around to music, and if you choose not to walk you may stand virtually in one spot, shifting the body's weight from one foot to the other in time to music. The modern miss steps out onto the dance floor clad in a few ounces of wispy material under which she wears a thin, elastic garment so constructed as to reveal every curve and contour of her body. Her partner grasps her in as close an embrace as the none-too-vigilant eyes of the dance -hall management will permit. In the average dance -hall, decorum is maintained by supervision rather than by the individual's desire to behave decorously. Young persons attend present-day dances and frequently dance the entire evening with one partner, leaving the dance at its conclusion without having widened the number of their acquaintances by a single person. In the days of the square dance , a newcomer to the community mingled and danced with all, and when the evening's dancing ended he found himself no longer a stranger. That is why I say ball-room dancing today seems to me to be of slight social significance.

... {end excerpt}

Questions for Discussion:

  • Why does George Duffy think people like to dance? Do you agree? Why or why not?
  • What difference did George describe between dancing in the 1890s and dancing in the 1930s, when the interview took place? What changes in society might these changes reflect?
  • Why did George think dancing in the 1930s was "of slight social significance"? Does dancing today help a newcomer meet members of the community, as it did in the 1890s? If not, what social event do you think fills such a function today?

Go to the complete interview from which this excerpt was taken.

Primary Source Set C: Americans and the Automobile

Roy A. Morse

NOTE: This is an excerpt. The full text version of Roy A. Morse is in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.

... {excerpt begins}


Date and time of interview Oct. 19-20, 1938


I went to town one Saturday and automobiles were a curiosity in those days so one of the first things I heard when I arrived, was that my neighbor had bought a new automobile, so I goes to the garage and sure enough there was Andy-- my nearest neighbor in a new car, ... so I determined not to be outdone by my neighbors and especially Andy, I goes over to another garage to buy a car ... and as Andy had gotten a Ford I wanted some other kind, so he sold me a car and we got on the train to go get the car.

We arrived in Kearney and had a few hours to wait before going to Omaha so decided to look around a little, maybe we could get a car like I wanted there and save the time going into Omaha for it. We went to the dealer who had the agency for the [car?] I had planned to buy and of course he didn't have one in stock but he had a second hand car that I could buy for less money and it looked all right so I bought it and we drove it home. I arrived home about 9:30 p.m. a proud owner of a new car.

In a few days I could not stand the pressure any longer, so had to take the [car?] to North Platte to show my brother-in-law. I tried to get my wife to go along, but she was too smart for me and stayed home, so I went to ... [?] ... town ... and got the man who sold me the car to go with me. When we started it was in the spring of the year and the roads on the Platte Valley were none too good then, but we got there about dark that night. ([11hrs.?] 80 miles) We stayed the next day and got up early the next morning and ... started home. We had hardly gotten ... started when it began to rain. We worked and drove all day without dinner or [supper?] and we run out of gas near Brady and stopped at a farm house and stayed all night.

Next morning we persuaded the farmer to take his team and take us to town for gasoline and we started again and when night overtook us ...[?] ... we ... were five miles west of Lexington and the car would not run so we walked to Lexington and he got on the train and went home and I stayed all night and hired a guy to go out and ... pull me into the garage. He proceeded to try and find what the trouble was, well I don't think now as I look back that the mechanic knew any more about a car than I did, but he was three days finding the trouble and when he found it he had to order the parts from the [factory?] and that would take five or six days to get the parts and about two days to put repair parts in car, so that meant a week before I could get the [car?] to go home, so I rode the train home and in about ten days my wife drove the team and wagon and took me to Lexington and after the car.

They had the job done with a bill of [$57.00?] against me when we arrived, so I paid for the repairs and started out for home everything went fine until I got within about a mile from home, and it quit again just like it done before so I had to wait until my wife came alone with a team and wagon to take me home.

Within a few weeks I had the car taken apart and hired a mechanic from my dealers garage in town to get needed parts and help me put it together again that time it only cost me $27. I drove the car a few days after that over to see my neighbor Andy, and it broke down again in the same manner, he looked at the car and I told him how it had done the same thing twice before and what it had cost me and you should of seen him laugh. He says "Get into my car with [me?], we are going to town. He went into the garage and bought a little gaget for 45, took it home and put it on the magneto and I never had a minutes trouble with that car after that and I still believe that all the other expense I put on that car was unnecessary if the mechanics had known their stuff.

... {excerpt ends}


  • Why did Roy Morse buy a car? Do you think people still buy cars for that reason? What does that sugest to you about human nature?
  • Describe the problems Roy had with his car. Have you ever had a similar experience with a new technology?
  • How do you think owning a car changed Roy's life? Give evidence to support your answer.

Go to the complete interview from which this excerpt was taken.

Yankee Innkeeper

NOTE: This is an excerpt. The full text version of Yankee Innkeeper is in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.

... {excerpt begins}

Mr. Robert E. Gould, for twenty-three years host of the Newport House, Newport, N. H.

It can't be denied that the hotel business has been changed a lot by automobiles, by the tourist rooms and the cabins following in their smoke and fishing for their business. They've got a lot of it, no doubt ... scattered it around in little pieces.

Some kinds of business, on which hotels used to depend, have almost gone ... permanently, probably. But hotel men aren't taking the threat of this competion lying down; they're hunting new ways of making hotels pay, and finding them. Some of these ways are stop-gaps, to bridge us over this period of low income. For we expect ... yes, that's the word..that, after people have bad their fling with cabins and their like, they will be coming back to hotels again.

Cabins are a new thing. They're one of the `anythings' that the American public will try ... once. Already there are many people who tell me they don't like them after they have tried them. They say that in these tourist rooms and cabins they miss the little conveniences-the various gadgets- which hotels provide. They miss the cozy little nooks, with desks, for writing letters, or sending post cards, or places for doing a lot of things ... travellers ... travelers .... like to do. They're more for hotels than ever.

They like the sociability of the lobby, the dining room, the chance to make new acquaintances. They like the feel of the crowd around them. I suppose there are some who like to sleep out in the woods; whose tastes are satisfied by the presence of the cold, fresh dew, and the little woods-pussies with white backs.

... Take so simple a thing as hot water. People like plenty of hot water...running from a tap in their rooms, not a measly cupful or two ... but hot water to luxuriate in. The item of hot water is important to the travelling public ... right where and when you want it. Ask the cabin keepers about hot water ... they can't supply it ... not as people prefer it.

If we hotel men can stick out this period of people fooling around with cabins, we're going to get a lot of our old trade back.

But there's one class of our old trade we'll never get back ... one that hotels depended on considerably ... the old-time drummer ... salesman, to you. Some hotels depended on it more than others, but it was important everywhere.

The Hotel Moody, over at Claremont ... probably seventy per cent of their trade was of that class. Some hotels had even more perhaps as high as ninety per cent.... Here at Newport drummers represented about ... thirty per cent of our business; seventy per cent was non-commercial---tourists, and visitors for various purposes. But that thirty per cent was important.

Drummers used to come out from the commercial houses in Boston, New York, even from more distant points. They came by train, and lived in the hotels while on the road. They used to stay out the entire week, going in home, Friday or Saturday. If they came from far points they might be out for weeks ... even months.

But since they have taken to automobiles some go back and forth every night ... home. They don't come in from distant places any more. It is the practice of the commercial houses to locate a representative near enough their trade to go back and forth every day. The swifter automobiles are made, and the smoother and straighter the roads, the farther a salesman can reach out, the fewer salesmen are required to cover the territory.


  • How does Robert Gould think the automobile affected hotels?
  • What did Robert predict for the future of hotels? Based on what you know, was his prediction accurate or inaccurate? What other transportation technologies have affected hotels since the 1930s?
  • According to Robert, what occupation was especially affected by automobiles? Besides cutting into hotels' business, how would the change in this occupation affect people's lives?

Go to the complete interview from which this excerpt was taken.

Dunnel #13

This is an excerpt. The full text version of Dunnell #13 is in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Projuct, 1936-1940.

... {excerpt begins}








"Young people these days ain't what they used ter be," said Mr. Dunnell, dealing himself a hand of his favorite solitaire from a worn pack of grimy cards. "When I was young we used to walk. We'd think nothing of an eight or ten mile walk. Although, if we were going that far we generally managed to get hold of a horse. But for walking up the street, and walking down the street, or over to the post office, we never asked anybody to drive us. Even if a team was all hitched up and waiting we wouldn't take it. It would have been right in the way, and might have interfered with what we'd want to do after we got to the place.

I'm not sure but the reason we have so many corner loafers and drug store cowboys is on account of the ... automobiles. Young people like to go places and do things. If they are allowed to drive an automobile, why those that haven't any car envy them. They think the young person with the automobile could drive to San Francisco if he wanted to. They forget that his old man buys the gas and keeps a good check up on what's used. That the young feller ain't got no money of his own. And that the drug store is about as far as he dare go. And that about all the fun he gets out of life is standing on the drug store steps, and making believe to a bunch of other fellers in the same fix as himself, that he's been everywhere and seen everything, so that he don't feel like driving no more.

Once in a while he hooks somebody that ain't got a car to put up money for the gas and oil. But the chances are that the feller paying wants to go to a liquor place where he can show off to the feller with the automobile. By himself, or with the friends held have if none of their fathers had automobiles, held never go near a liquor place. He'd rather have a nice cream sody, or some candy. But just because he ain't never been taught to use his legs to get places - and I don't suppose it does any good for any one family to try to fix it - he ends up in a booze joint.

The young feller that ain't got a car has a tough time, too. He hears the crowd talking about how sick they are of driving around. He ain't never been nowhere. But like all young fellers he's managed to learn how to drive a car. Not being anything but a kid, he listens to the talk, and next thing you know, he's 'borrered' somebody's car.

I ain't got no use for 'Goop' Sauter. He's got a nice mother that he's meaner than dirt to at times. But I don't see how he got into jail. And where his car stealing habit come from. 'Course, there must be something wrong in his top story, or he never would leave cars that he's stole where he does. They point right towards him. I guess, though, it's got so that no body could have a car stole 'round this section without 'Goop' getting the blame for it. They've guessed right too many times now. But he never tries to sell the cars. He never hurts 'em none. He just takes 'em for the ride.

... I tell yer, the damned automobiles complicates things all up. ...And, as for the young people, it's fixing 'em so they can't walk, and I vum, I expect to live to see the day when babies is born with no legs at all, but wheels where their legs is supposed to be! It'll happen, too, unless something is done about it.

...{excerpt ends}


  • How did young people get around when G.O. Dunnell was young?
  • What does G.O. Dunnell mean when he says "Young people these days ain't what they used to be"? Why does he blame the car? Do you agree with this thinking?
  • Why does Dunnell tell the story of "Goop" Sauter? Do you think the story supports his idea that the car causes trouble among young people?

Go to the complete interview from which this excerpt was taken.


This is an excerpt. The full text version of Transportation is in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.

... {excerpt begins}

TITLE Connecticut Cleckmaker

WRITER Francis Denovan

DATE 1/5/39

Thomaston, Connecticut


... "I had a lot of fun on that old bicycle . Guess I told you about some of the trips I took didn't I? When I got through with that bike I sat down and figured up my mileage, and I found out that I'd been clear around the world, if I'd gone in a straight line.

"Yessir, I'd been over twenty-five thousand miles. Went over three hundred and sixty-five miles one week. Never did a century run, though I could've, easy as not. Some fellers used to see how many of them they could run up. A great trip was up to Springfield and back. That's fifty miles each way. You were supposed to make it same day, of course.

"I got out the shop one day at four o'clock. At twenty-six minutes after, I was down in Dexter's drug store in Waterbury, drinkin' a sody. How's that for scorchin'?

"Lots of fellers used to try to make Plymouth hill, that used to be an awful steep hill before the new bridge went in.

..."Great times, great times, on the bicycles. Then the automobiles come along. Of course it was a long time before everybody got to ownin' them too. Most any one could have a bicycle. I remember when they was seventy five of them over in the sheds by the Marine shop every day.

"But automobiles was a different proposition. Jack Coates used to have a job testin' em for the Pope Hartford Company. He used to ride 'em all over the state. They'd tell him how many miles to go and they didn't care where he went. He'd just rig up an old seat on the chassis and start out, no windshield or nothin', and come back when he got the mileage made up.

"That's how I got my first and fastest auto ride. I was goin' to Springfield and I was hikin' along over towards Terryville to get the trolley and Jack come along and I flagged him. I was late. I says, 'Jack, can we make the trolley,' and he says, 'Sure,' and how we did fly. We made it all right.

"The different cars they used to be. I used to keep a list of 'em. There was the Pope Hartford, and the Stevens Duryea, and the Locomobile, and the Peerless and the National, and the Saxon, and the Metz--I can't remember them all.

"Billy Gilbert, that used to live next to me here, he had a Stanley Steamer. He was an engineer. He's out in Californy now. Spent all his life on the railroads and he swore by steam. Wouldn't have a gasoline engine.

"After he moved to Californy he wrote me a letter. Said there was a big hill out there beyond San Francisco nine miles long. Said ten tow cars was kept busy on that hill all the time. But that steamer of his just ate it up.

"You'd ought to be able to remember when they used Plymouth Hill for testin' cars. It was quite a trick for a car to go over there in high. Good many of 'em would start off in high, then shift to second, then low, then they'd get stuck. But it's a damn poor car that won't go over in high these days. Man wouldn't buy a car that wouldn't make it in high.

"Well, I got to go down town, but I ain't goin' to give you no lift today. I'm not goin' to take the car out, I feel as though the walk will do me good. So you just wait till I put the cat out and fix my fires and we'll walk down together."


  • What forms of transportation did Mr. Botsford use before he had a car? What were his feelings about these forms of transportation?
  • What evidence can you find that Mr. Botsford likes or does not like automobiles?
  • What evidence can you find that cars are different today than they were in Mr. Botsford's time? How might these changes be important to people's lives?

Go to the complete interview from which this excerpt was taken.

Lesson Procedure

I. Introduction to Social History

  1. Ask students to write down topics they think of when they hear the word "history."
  2. Poll the class to see how many students wrote down topics such as presidents, wars, explorers, government activities, famous people, or famous inventions. Find out how many students suggested topics such as family life, recreation, work, clothing, and school.
  3. Point out that different kinds of historians look at different topics within history. While many history textbooks deal with political and military history, historians also study the lives and activities of everyday people. Everyday lives and activities are the subject matter of social history, which students will explore in this lesson. Here are examples of questions social historians might research:
    • What kind of food does this family usually eat? How do they get their food?
    • What kinds of natural resources are available where this family lives? How do these resources influence the types of food, shelter, and clothing available?
    • Does every child in the family attend school? Why or why not?
    • Can every member of the family read and write? Why or why not? What kinds of books are available to the family?
    • How important is religion to the family's life?
    • What work does each member of the family do?
    • Does the family own property? Why or why not?
    • Which family members can vote? Which family members do vote?
    • What transportation does the family use to get around?
    • What games do children play? What do adults do for relaxation?
    • What family activities might be considered an art or craft today?

II. Oral History and the Federal Writers' Project

In preparation review (or have your students review) the special presentation American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.

American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 contains audio recordings of actors reading from oral history interviews.

See How to View for information about using these recordings.

III. Analyzing Oral Histories

  1. Students analyze the oral histories, recording their thoughts on the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Before the students begin, select questions from the teacher's guide Analyzing Oral Histories to focus and prompt analysis and discussion. If computer time is limited, you may wish to print out, duplicate, and distribute copies of the primary sources for each group:

    Primary Source Set A: Working Women in the 1930s

    Primary Source Set B: Dancing as a Form of Recreation, 1890s-1930s

    Primary Source Set C: Americans and the Automobile

  2. Assign each group three primary sources to read and analyze. Allow about 30 minutes for reading and analysis. Groups that finish early can read additional excerpts.
  3. As they finish their analysis, remind groups to generate three research questions related to the primary sources they have reviewed.
    Each group will choose a social history topic as the focus for their upcoming oral history interviews. Groups may choose to pursue additional questions about dancing, cars, or women's work from this section of the lesson, or they can choose another topic to research. Alternatively, the class may choose to research one topic, with small groups each choosing a different aspect of the topic.
  4. If necessary, assign as homework the generation of research topic ideas by each student.
  5. Conclude this section by compiling a class list of the research questions student groups have identified for further study.

IV. Background Research for Oral History Interviews

  1. To begin this section, post the class list of research questions on the chalkboard. Let student groups meet for about 10 minutes to review the social history topic they wish to pursue. You may wish to approve the research topics before groups proceed with their background research.
  2. Remind students that, after their background research, they will conduct oral history interviews of their own to gather information on their research topic.
  3. While the American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 collection is rich in information on a wide range of social history topics, the online search process can frustrate students. Searches often turn up as many irrelevant as relevant documents. Help students use detailed search words to narrow their results.
  4. Students are asked to find just two or three documents relevant to their research topic. They should be able to accomplish this task in one class period.

V. Guidelines for Oral History Interviews

  1. You may need to identify interview subjects for your students. Some ideas for identifying interview subjects include:
    • Recruit community residents to come to your classroom.
    • Arrange a field trip to a local senior center for a student interview day.
    • Prepare a list of names and telephone numbers of community residents willing to be interviewed.
    Begin this section by explaining the method you have selected for identifying interview subjects for oral history interviews. Establish the due date for completion of interviews and for class presentations on research results. Tell students that they will be expected to report on both their interview results and how those results influence their answers to the research questions they posed.
  2. Students should be accompanied by an adult for face-to-face interviews. (Interview subjects sometimes talk above a young interviewer's head to an adult. Adults may want to sit to the side to keep the focus on the student interviewer. Students can go in pairs. One student can take notes, and the other can ask questions. Taking notes is helpful if the interviewer asks questions not on the original list.
  3. Before interviews begin, you may wish to review and approve the list of ten interview questions each group will generate. Role play an interview for the class using questions from one of the groups.
  4. You will want to review interview manners with students before they meet with interview subjects.
  5. More advanced students may be interested in the story of Charles Todd, a graduate student who decided to do field research for the Library of Congress to earn money for his summer vacation in California. The results of his work have become Voices from the Dust Bowl: The Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, 1940-1941.
  6. On the due date for group presentations, allow time for each group to describe their interview and research results. Then conduct a general class discussion to summarize the experience of the interviews and what students learned about their social history research topics. The following questions may be useful:
    • What was the most surprising piece of information your interviews generated? Why was it surprising?
    • What types of interview questions led to relevant, interesting answers? What types of interview questions were less effective?
    • Was it hard to keep interview subjects on the topic? What strategies worked to pull the person back to the focus of the interview?
    • What good follow-up questions did you ask?
    • What might have made the interview more productive?
    • Did you question the accuracy of the information the interview subject provided? Why?
    • What other sources might you check to see if the interview subject provided accurate information?
    • Based on your interviews and those you read in the American Life Histories collection, what changes have occurred in the lives of everyday Americans over the last 100 years? How significant do you think these changes are?
    • Do your oral history interviews or Federal Writers' Project interviews show areas of everyday life that have changed little over the last 100 years? Why do you think this is true?
    • Through the interviews, what information did you gather about causes of change in everyday life? For example, were changes in work related to changes in technology? to society's ideas about the role of women?


  1. Encourage students to search the online collection, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Color Photographs, for visual sources related to automobiles, dancing, women's work, or topics they pursued in their own oral histories. The following questions may help students select and analyze the photographs:
    • Do the photographs support the results of your oral history interviews and background research? If so, how?
    • Do the photographs refute the social history conclusions you made in this lesson? If so, how?
    • Do the photographs provide evidence of changes over time? Why or why not?
  2. Students can host an open house for their interviewees during which they present their displays.

Lesson Evaluation

  1. Ask each student to write a brief essay on one of the following topics:
    • What was the most significant change in the lives of everyday Americans identified by your research? What evidence did you find of this change? What other sources might you consult to confirm the significance of this change?
    • Why do you think oral history is a useful tool for understanding the past? What are oral history's strengths? What are its limitations?
  2. Students can work in their groups to create museum displays on their social history topics. Displays should:
    • illustrate significant changes in the lives of everyday Americans identified by the group's research;
    • provide evidence in support of those changes (such as excerpts from class interviews and the American Life Histories collection, artifacts, and information from other sources).