Works Progress Administration

On April 8, 1935, Congress approved the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935, the work relief bill that funded the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Created by President Franklin Roosevelt to relieve the economic hardship of the Great Depression, this national works program (renamed the Work Projects Administration beginning in 1939) employed more than 8.5 million people on 1.4 million public projects before it was disbanded in 1943. The WPA employed skilled and unskilled workers in a great variety of work projects—many of which were public works projects such as creating parks, and building roads and bridges, and schools and other public structures.
Seabrook Farm, Cannery Workers, Bridgeton, New Jersey, John Collier, photographer, June 1942. Voices from the Thirties, American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940
The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) was one of several projects within the WPA created to employ people with skills in the arts. Other arts projects included the Federal Art Project (FAP), the Federal Music Project, and the Federal Theater Project. When these projects were created, they were known collectively as Federal Project Number One—or more informally, “Federal One.” Among the well-known writers employed by the Federal Writers’ project were Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, May Swenson, and Richard Wright. During the Project’s early years, FWP writers produced a series of state guidebooks that offer a flavorful sampling of life in the United States. Now considered classics of Americana, these guides remain the Federal Writers’ Project’s best-known undertaking. But, the Federal Writers’ Project also left a hidden legacy. In the late 1930s, Federal Writers recorded the life stories of more than 10,000 men and women from a variety of regions, occupations, and ethnic groups for the FWP’s Folklore Project. Nearly 3,000 of these manuscripts are now available online as part of the American Memory collection American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940. For more on the Federal Writers’ Project, view the special presentation Voices from the Thirties: Life Histories from the Federal Writers’ Project, which includes stories and photographs of Americans during the Depression era. Search this collection for the names May Swenson, Ralph Ellison, and Nelson Algren to find interviews conducted by these famous writers. Or, select a state name to find interviews recorded in a region of your choice. The WPA Federal Theatre Project employed out-of-work actors, musicians, vaudevillians, and theater technicians in performances of classical and modern plays, such as Orson Welles’ production of Macbeth. The Library’s collection includes production notebooks, playbills, posters, photographs, and stage and costume designs for three plays performed by the Federal Theatre acting units. Please note: Unlike most American Memory collections, this collection is not searchable by keyword.
Costume Design for Dr. Faustus, staged by Orson Welles, New York City, 1937. The New Deal Stage: Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939
To learn more about the Library of Congress’ collections of WPA-era materials, consult the essay: “Amassing American Stuff: The Library of Congress and the Federal Arts Projects of the 1930s.”
indian-art
Indian Art of the United States,” exhibition poster, Pistchal, artist, New York. “Posters for the People,” The New Deal Stage: Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939

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