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, bridges, schools, and other public structures.
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 (FMP), and the Federal Theatre Project (FTP). 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, the American Guide Series, 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 collection American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940.
For more on the Federal Writers’ Project, view the Articles and Essays that include stories and photographs of Americans during the Depression era. Search the collection for the names May Swenson, Ralph Ellison, and Nelson Algren to find interviews conducted by these famous writers. Or, select a place name to find interviews recorded in a region of your choice.
The WPA Federal Theatre Project (FTP) 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 collection also includes production notebooks, playbills, posters, photographs, and stage and costume designs for three plays performed by the Federal Theatre acting units.
For more information 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,” and also The New Deal Primary Source Set.
- Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938 — a collection of digitized materials produced by the FWP which contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves.
- California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties is a multi-format ethnographic field collection that includes sound recordings, still photographs, drawings, and written documents from a variety of European ethnic and English- and Spanish-speaking communities in Northern California. This elaborate New Deal project was organized and directed by folk music collector Sidney Robertson Cowell for the Northern California Work Projects Administration.
- The collection Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937 to 1942 combines sound recordings and manuscript materials from four discrete archival collections made by Work Projects Administration (WPA) workers from the Joint Committee on Folk Arts, the Federal Writers’ Project, and the Federal Music Project from 1937-42. This online presentation provides access to 376 sound recordings and 106 accompanying materials, including recording logs, transcripts, correspondence between Florida WPA workers and Library of Congress personnel, and a proposal to survey Florida folklore by Zora Neale Hurston.
- Posters: WPA Posters — 908 boldly colored and graphically diverse original posters produced from 1936 to 1943 as part of the Federal Art Project, a WPA relief project for visual artists. For an overview of the types of posters included in the collection, browse a selection of representative images.
Additional collections with materials created by other work relief projects during the New Deal include:
- The Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives collection comprises some of the most famous documentary photographs ever produced. Created by a group of U.S. government photographers, the images show Americans in every part of the nation. In the early years, the project emphasized rural life and the negative impact of the Great Depression, farm mechanization, and the Dust Bowl. In later years, the photographers turned their attention to the mobilization effort for World War II. Also explore the FSA/OWI Color Photographs.
- The Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey collection records America’s built environment in multi-format surveys comprising more than 350,000 measured drawings, large-format photographs, and written histories for more than 35,000 historic structures and sites dating from pre-Columbian times to the twentieth century.