Top of page

Collection American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936 to 1940

Women and Work

The Federal Writers' Project of the 1930s recorded more than 10,000 life stories of men and women from a variety of occupations and ethnic groups. The following is a sampling of these interviews, which include audio excerpts read by modern actors.

Mrs. Elizabeth E. Miller

Canning beans
Surrogate image: Canning beans, farm near Bristol, Vermont, 1940. Louise Rosskam. Photograph, 1940.

Name: Mrs. Elizabeth E. Miller (Grammy Miller)

Age: 90 years old

Ethnicity: Scotch/Yankee

Family: 4 boys, Clarence, John, James, George and 1 daughter who died in infancy

Location: Mountain and Lake View Farm, West Newbury, Vermont

Date: November 4 and 16, 1938

Interviewer: Rebecca M. Halley

Interview Excerpt: "Did you ever have to do work that the men usually did?"

Listen to Elizabeth's response

"One fall we had a five hundred and fifty pound dressed hog hanging in the yard. The men went off to Wells River to take up another hog they had dressed at the same time and left it hanging there and the caldron kettle half full of water. They aimed to get back and take the hog down to cellar before it froze. It would never do to let pork that was going to be salted freeze. I was all alone with the children and I waited until almost twelve. My husband didn't come and so I took a lantern and a saw and a knife and went out to fetch in that hog...I cut up that hog and loaded it piecemeal onto the sled. The worst part was getting it through the front door, but I managed. I had it all done before my husband got home. He asked who had brought the hog in. I said, 'I did.' He asked who helped and I said, 'Alone.' I wasn't wasting many words on him. He was struck dumb."

Transcript #37130111

Mrs. Mayme Reese, Housewife

Quilting in Hinesville
Surrogate image: Quilting in Hinesville, Georgia, 1941. Jack Delano. Photograph, 1941.

Name: Mrs. Mayme Reese

Birth: Born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1881

Ethnicity: African-American

Family: Two married sons, one single son and one married daughter

Occupation: Housewife

Location: 1 St. Nicholas Terrace, New York City

Date: September 20, 1938

Interviewer: Dorothy West

Interview Excerpt: "What kinds of things did you used to do when you got together with other women?"

Listen to Mayme's response

"Did you ever hear about quilting parties? We used to have quilting parties at least twice a year. One time we would meet at one house and one time at another; you'd keep on that way until the quilt was finished....

"In the fall when they had the county fairs, sometimes we'd take our quilts out to fair-grounds for exhibition. Each lady picked out her best quilt--the prettiest color, the prettiest pattern and the best stitches--and took it to the fair to try to win the prize. No, it didn't make any difference if your prettiest quilt had been quilted by three or four other people. You see you already had the pattern and you'd already put the pieces together so that much was your own idea."

Transcript #25060506

Mrs. Marie Haggerty, Maid

Dorothy De Greenia
Surrogate image: Turkey Pond, near Concord, New Hampshire. June 1943. Woman workers employed by a U.S. Department of Agriculture timber salvage sawmill. Mrs. Dorothy De Greenia, slip woman, doesn't find her job hard after years of housework. John Collier. Photograph, 1943. (LC-USW3-34072-E).

Name: Mrs. Marie Haggerty

Age: 72 years old

Occupation: Maid

Location: 63 Austin Street, Worcester, Massachusetts

Date: February 20, 1939

Interviewer: Mrs. Emily Moore

Interview Excerpt: "When you worked as a maid, did you mainly do housework?"

Listen to Marie's response

"But my dear, it wasn't housework I did...I was a nurse maid or a second girl--never just an ordinary girl out to service...You got hired by your looks and even if you looked honest, they would test you out. Why, once I was making up a bed, and right beside the bed was a five dollar bill. I knowed nobody dropped that for nuthin', so I didn't know if I should pick it up and tell them, or what, but my face burnt like fire, for I knowed I was gettin' tested."

Transcript #15010211