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Collection Federal Theatre Project, 1935 to 1939

WPA Publications in the Library Collections

Because of its close connection to the federal arts projects of the 1930s-as participant, sponsor, and repository-the Library of Congress has the most comprehensive collection anywhere of publications produced by the WPA and related agencies. In addition to thousands of printed items, the collection includes as many mimeographed items that were cataloged and bound; they are listed in the Library's various catalogs and available through the general reading rooms. This collection of course includes the American Guide Series, the famous state guidebooks that critic Alfred Kazin called a "contemporary epic" and a symbol of the "reawakened American sense of its own history."

Historic American Buildings Survey

The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) was established in 1933 to aid unemployed architects and produce a detailed record of early American architecture. Here three architects measure the dimensions of the Kentucky School for the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky, in March 1934. HABS/HAER Collections, Prints and Photographs Division.

The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) is the largest and most important architectural collection in the Library's Prints and Photographs Division. It began in 1933 as a work relief project under the Civil Works Administration. Its purposes, according to Leicester B. Holland, chief of the Fine Arts Division, were "to aid unemployed architects and draftsmen and at the same time to produce a detailed record of such early American architecture as was in immediate danger of destruction." Based in part on the precedent of the Pictorial Archives of Early American Architecture, a Library of Congress collection initiated by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation in 1930, HABS received a more permanent status in 1934 under a tripartite agreement signed by the National Park Service, the American Institute of Architects, and the Library of Congress. It continued after that date with funds from the Works Progress Administration, was discontinued during World War II, and then resumed in a new and expanded form in 1957. Today the collection contains over forty-three thousand photographs, and fifty thousand pages of historical and architectural information. Over seventeen thousand structures are documented, including buildings in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Various portions of the collection are available in microfilm, printed form, and microfiche.

The front entrance of the Francis Scott Key House (now demolished) in Washington, D.C., was drawn for the Historic American Buildings Survey, first sketched in a field notebook and then on the finished sheet as a permanent measured drawing. HABS/HAER Collections, Prints and Photographs Division.

A collection of architectural photographs, essays, correspondence, and working papers produced by the Art and Architecture Project of the Federal Writers' Project, came to the Library of Congress in 1940. Containing over ten thousand items, it includes architectural photographs from South Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, and other states, drafts for a proposed "Outline of Architecture in the United States," and typescripts of biographies of "noted American architects."

Ex-Slave Narrative Collection

This collection of transcribed interviews with former slaves is one of the best known research collections in the Library of Congress. The interviewing was begun in 1934 in the Ohio River Valley by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and then extended to other areas between 1936 and 1938 by the Federal Writers' Project.

From the beginning the project was closely associated with the Library because John A. Lomax, the chief organizer and the first national WPA adviser on folklore, was also the honorary curator of the Library's Archive of American Folksong (established in 1927). Lomax and his interviewers canvassed no fewer than seventeen states. When the Library of Congress project was established in 1939, their transcripts and related research files came to the Library. Lomax's successor as folklore consultant to the writers' project, Benjamin A. Botkin, became chief editor in the writers' unit in the Library of Congress Project and saw to it that the narratives were edited, indexed, and added to the collections. By no means all of the ex-slave narratives came to the Library of Congress. Many from Virginia and Georgia, for example, are in repositories in those states.

The Library of Congress's edited collection of over two thousand narratives, which has been microfilmed and published in several editions, is in the Manuscript Division, along with auxiliary research materials. Many anthologies containing selections from this remarkable and early oral history effort have been published, the first by the Federal Writers' Project itself as Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery (1945), edited by Benjamin A. Botkin.

Folklore and Social-Ethnic Studies

A HABS photograph of the main street of Weaverville, California, March 10, 1934. HABS/HAER Collections, Prints and Photographs Division.

According to Benjamin A. Botkin, no fewer than nine branches of the WPA were involved in collecting American folklore. The WPA collection in the Library's Manuscript Division consists largely of research files, correspondence, and publications from the Federal Writer's Project, divided into three principal groups: traditional folklore (myths, legends, stories, rhymes, and so on), life histories (first and third person narratives about daily living), and social-ethnic studies. Ann Bank's book First-Person America (1980) is based on eighty of the life-history narratives among the 150,000 pages of transcripts in the life-history series.The writers' project started in 1936 primarily to gather material for the state guides, but after 1938 it placed greater emphasis on urban and ethnic studies. Correspondence, studies, field notes, and compilations such as "Bundle of Troubles and Other Tarheel Tales" and a lexicon of trade slang and jargon (with entries for everything from Aero-Manufacturing Workers' slang to Television Workers' jargon) are found in this collection.

A photograph by Roger Sturtevant of a Russian chapel at Fort Ross, Sonoma County, California, taken for the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1934. Such photographs have been used to restore and repair this and other buildings after fire damage or other destruction. HABS/HAER Collections, Prints and Photographs Division.

The Archive of Folk Song supported the sound-recording activities of the WPA folklore projects by providing equipment and assuming custody of completed discs. More than half of these discs were produced in 1939 by a special recording project conducted in the southern states under the sponsorship of the WPA's Joint Committee on Folk Art, headed by Herbert Halpert of the Federal Theatre Project. The extensive California field studies conducted by Sidney Robertson, largely in ethnic and migrant communities from 1938 to 1940, are documented by photographs, field notes, and 237 discs.

The Farm Security Administration Photographs Collection

This unparalleled photographic record of American life between 1935 and 1942, a project of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), is the best known and most heavily used collection in the Prints and Photographs Division. It consists of over 270,000 photographs that document rural conditions, life in urban communities, and the domestic side of the war effort, taken by a gifted team of photographers, headed by Roy E. Stryker, that included Carl Mydans, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, and Jack Delano. Their experience with new forms and techniques, in Stryker's opinion, did "for professional photography what the WPA Theatre was doing for the stage." In the past decade over a dozen major books based on the FSA collection have been published, along with a microfiche edition of selected photographs.

The circus come to Klamath Falls, Oregon. A July 1942 photograph by Russell Lee. Farm Security Administration Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.
The photographic project of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) resulted in an unparalleled record of American life between 1935 and 1942. Over 270,000 FSA photographs document life in urban communities, rural conditions, and the domestic side of the war effort. This photograph by Marjory Collins was taken in the composing room of the New York Times. Farm Security Administration Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.
J. H. Parhem, barber and notary public, at work in Centralhatchee, Georgia, April 1941. Photograph by Jack Delano. Farm Security Administration Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

In 1942 Stryker's unit became part of the Publications Bureau of the U.S. Office of War Information (OWI), an agency which Archibald MacLeish served as an assistant director while he also was Librarian of Congress. In September 1943, Stryker resigned, but on the first day of 1944, the Library of Congress assumed custody of the FSA photo archive and the rest of the OWI photo file. In the book In This Proud Land: America 1935-1943, Nancy Wood quotes Roy Stryker about what happened: "Toward the end, there was strong pressure from the government to destroy the entire file, negatives included. For a time it looked like everything would be lost. Then my old friend Archibald MacLeish appeared as head of the Library of Congress. I had always wanted the collection to go there and so it did."

An FSA photograph of Pittsburgh by Walker Evans, December 1935. Farm Security Administration Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.
A Japanese-American cleaning a cemetery before being evacuated under the U.S. Army War Emergency Act. San Juan Bautista, California, May 1942. Photograph by Russell Lee. Farm Security Administration Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

The Federal Theatre Project Collection

This painting of Gepetto by Robert Sheridan was for the Los Angeles production of Yasha Frank's stage version, first presented at the Beaux Arts Theatre in 1937. Library of Congress Federal Theatre Project Collection at George Mason University Libraries, Fairfax, Virginia.

The Federal Theatre Project was national in scope, regional in emphasis, and designed to build new audiences throughout America. This "People's Theatre" employed over twelve thousand people within its 150 administrative units and produced over twenty-seven hundred stage plays in less than four years. Its sudden termination by Congress on June 30, 1939, caused considerable confusion regarding its records, files, and products.

Between 1939 and 1946, most of the "product materials" generated by the theater project came to the Library of Congress and most of the administrative records were sent to the National Archives. The sudden end of the Library of Congress Project in 1941 meant that most of the Library's materials remained unprocessed, including the sizable (fifty-six file cabinets, forty-two packing crates) Vassar College Loan Collection of FTP materials, an endeavor headed by Hallie Flanagan both before and after her theater project career. With the exception of most of the music manuscripts and many posters, all added to the general collections of the Library of Congress, most of the Library's Federal Theatre Project material was sent to storage at Middle River, Maryland, in 1954. Ten years later this storage collection was placed on permanent deposit at George Mason University, where a Federal Theatre Project Research Center was established with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Library of Congress Collection at George Mason University includes over 5,000 play scripts, 2,500 radio scripts, 25,000 photographs, 350 scene designs, and 750 production notebooks, plus blueprints, posters, programs, and play reader's reports. In addition to organizing the material, the research center is conducting oral history interviews with persons formerly connected with the theater project. Many items from this collection are reproduced in Free, Adult, Uncensored: The Living History of the Federal Theatre Project (1978), edited by John O'Connor and Lorraine Brown.

The Library of Congress Music Division has a large collection of miscellaneous musical scores and orchestrations performed for Federal Theatre Project productions.

American Imprints Inventory

This photograph of the Washband-Twitchell House, built in Oxford, Connecticut, about 1767, was made as part of the Federal Writers' Project's census of old Connecticut buildings. The building was once an inn run by Joshua Washband, Jr. Architectural Collections, Prints and Photographs Division.

The American Imprints Inventory, a record of imprints from early American books, pamphlets, and broadsides, began operating as a Historical Records Survey project in 1937. It was directed by Douglas C. McMurtrie at the Chicago HRS office. Two products were expected: a file or union catalog of title slips representing the holdings of American libraries and a series of published checklists of state or city imprints within specific time periods. It was agreed in 1938 that the file eventually would come to the Library of Congress. Approximately fifteen million typed slips had been accumulated by March 1942 when work ceased and ownership of the file was formally transferred to the Library. "To protect this valuable file against any possible war damage," it was kept at the Wisconsin State Historical Society until February 1945, when it was finally shipped to Washington. By then forty-nine checklists of state publications had been published, all based on information in the massive file.

Changing a tire in Washington, D.C. Photograph taken in May 1942 by John Collier. Farm Security Administration Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

Graduate students from the library school at Catholic University were the file's major users at the Library of Congress, compiling forty imprint checklists which were added to the Library's collections. In 1957 the Library deposited all title slips for pre-1801 publications at the American Antiquarian Society at Worcester, Massachusetts. In 1970 Scarecrow Press, publisher of the Checklist of American Imprints, requested that the file be transferred to a nearby library. No longer able to provide adequate space for the 150 American Imprints Inventory file cabinets, the Library agreed, as long as the files would remain accessible to all researchers. Late in 1970 the American Imprints Inventory was placed on deposit at the Rutgers University Library, the Kilmer Area Library, Piscataway, New Jersey.

As part of the inventory, the texts of broadsides located in various American libraries were copied and filed chronologically by state. The estimated seventy-five thousand sheets containing this textual information are in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Documents of the First Fourteen Congresses

Beginning in 1940, Historical Records Survey workers assigned to the Library's Documents Division began to collect and organize a complete set of the printed documents of the first fourteen American Congresses (1789-1817). The documents were arranged according to the order of their listing in A.W. Greely's Public Documents of the First Fourteen Congresses (Washington, 1904). The Massachusetts HRS supplied the project with documents from the American Antiquarian Society that could not be located elsewhere; these documents were photostated and added to the collection. The project ceased when the Library of Congress Project was terminated, but since then it has been completed. The collection, numbering 20,532 pieces, is housed in the Library's Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The Los Angeles Stock Exchange on November 17, 1937, photographed by the Los Angeles Federal Writers' Project. Architectural Collections Prints and Photographs Division.
A photograph of the Old South Meeting House in Boston taken for a Federal Writers' Project guide. Architectural Collections, Prints and Photographs Division.

Unpublished WPA Materials

Work relief for unemployed writers was provided by the Federal Writers' Project, which concentrated on "describing America to Americans," as this poster explains. Work on the state guidebooks took priority, but WPA writers also collected regional and local folklore, recorded life histories of longtime residents, interviewed former slaves, and produced short stories and poems. Poster Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

The Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress contains numerous containers of unpublished manuscripts, transcripts, and research materials generated by the arts projects, primarily the Historical Records Survey and the Federal Writers' Project. Most of this material came to the Library of Congress in 1939 with the national editorial projects of the records survey and the writers' project, then remained behind after those efforts ended in August 1940.

The Historical Records Survey collection includes 131 containers of general administrative and project records, transcripts of county archives in Tennessee (27 containers), maritime records of the port of Philadelphia, 1766-1937, and registrations of deaths in the city of Philadelphia, 1803-60 (68 containers); Mormon diaries, journals, and biographical materials from Utah (14 containers); documents from Spanish archives relating to the history of North Carolina (3 containers); local records from Nashua, New Hampshire, 1627-1937; and records of the Matador Land and Cattle Company in Texas, 1885-1915.

The Federal Writers' Project portion of the collection, deposited at the Library in 1942, includes manuscripts that were approved for publication but remained unpublished for various reasons and copies of unedited material thought to be of potential research value. Two examples are materials for a book on eating customs called "America Eats," and 13 containers of materials for a history of grazing.

The location of the national writers' project editorial office at the Library of Congress between October 1939 and August 1940 meant that research materials for many of the titles in the American Guide series, including the guides for Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, and Texas, also came to the Library. This collection, arranged by state or city, includes correspondence, memoranda, notes, critical opinions, and so forth.

WPA Prints

Two hundred and twenty prints produced by WPA artists have been integrated into the fine print collection in the Prints and Photographs Division. Individual items are listed by artist in the fine prints card index and in the publication American Prints in the Library of Congress (Baltimore: Published for the Library of Congress by the Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970).

WPA Posters

Nearly a thousand silk-screened posters produced in the 1930s by various branches of the WPA are in the Prints and Photographs Division. Transferred to the Library in the 1940s, these posters were used to publicize Federal Theatre Project productions, exhibits, community activities, and health and educational programs in twenty states.

Posters produced by the New York City and Arizona art projects to promote the American Guide Series. The New York City guide was reprinted in 1982 by Pantheon and currently sells for $20 clothbound, $8.95 paperbound.