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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Great Depression Era & WPA by Kaye Spencer

Great Depression. Dust Bowl. New Deal. Franklin D. Roosevelt. My grandparents raised their young children during this difficult time in American history that roughly encompassed the years 1930 to 1943. I’ve heard first-hand stories. I’ve read historical accounts. I read and re-read such novels as Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, and No Promises in the Wind. It was a hard time for a goodly portion of the American population, that’s for sure. We’ve seen the iconic images.
Florence Thompson (Migrant Mother)
 Work Relief Efforts – Brief History

In an effort to mitigate the high national unemployment, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law on May 6, 1933 a government-sponsored work relief plan initially called Civil Works Administration (CWA, 1933-34), which was renamed Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA, 1933-38), and finally Works Progress Administration (WPA 1935-39). For this article, I’ll use the WPA term, because that’s the one I’m most familiar with. This program ended on June 30, 1943 due to the low unemployment rate as a result of the worker shortage from the World War II years.

During its eight years, WPA provided millions of Americans with jobs (mostly unskilled men, a percentage of head-of-household women, and teenagers). 1938 was the peak year, and three million men, women, and youth were employed. Minimum wages were typically determined by the ‘going-rate’ wage of a particular area, and generally speaking, WPA provided one paid job for all families in which the breadwinner encountered long-term unemployment.

WPA was a program that operated projects in cooperation with state and local governments with whom costs were shared (10% - 30%)—an ‘in-kind’ situation. Local and state governments might provide land, trucks, and supplies and WPA would cover wages and salaries of supervisors which were not included in the relief efforts.  The more widely known WPA projects included the construction of public works projects, which included construction of public buildings and roads.

If you’ll look around your area, I’ll wager that you’ll find evidence of a WPA project, since almost every community in the United States had a new park, bridge, or school constructed by the agency. Here are a few examples:

Griffith Observatory, Los Angles, California
La Guardia Airport, Queens, New York

Boise HS Gym, Boise, Idaho
Schoolhouse, Lometa, Texas

Riverwalk, San Antonio, Texas

WPA Programs within the Program

A lesser well-known aspect of WPA was the Federal Project Number One, which included the following subdivisions:

Federal Art Project
  • At peak, employed 5,300+ people
  • Employed created illustrations and posters for the WPA writers, musicians, and theaters
  • Exhibition Division provided public exhibitions of artwork from the WPA
  • Artists from Art Teaching Division employed in settlement houses and community centers offered classes to 50,000 children and adults in over 100 art centers around the country
Federal Music Project
  • At peak, employed 16,000+ musicians
  • 1940 - Noon-hour WPA band concert in Lafayette Square, New Orleans
  • Purpose was to establish different ensembles such as chamber groups, orchestras, choral units, opera units, concert bands, military bands, dance bands, and theater orchestras that gave an estimated 131,000 performances and programs to 92 million people each week
  • Performed plays and dances, as well as radio dramas
  • Offered music classes to an estimated 132,000 children and adults every wee
  • Recorded folk music, served as copyists, arrangers, and librarians to expand the availability of music
  • Experimented in music therapy
Federal Theatre Project
  • At peak, employed 12,700 performers
  • Performers presented more than 1,000 performances each month to almost one million people, Produced 1,200 plays in the four years it was established
  • Introduced 100 new playwrights and performers who became Hollywood ‘names’ such as: Orson Welles, John Houseman, Burt Lancaster, Joseph Cotten, Will Geer, Virgil Thompson, E.G. Marshall
Federal Writers Project
  • At peak, employed 6,686 writers
  • By January 1939, more than 275 major books and booklets had been published
  • Known for creating the American Guide Series of guidebooks for every state that included descriptions of towns, waterways, historic sites, oral histories, photographs, and artwork
  • Sponsors fronted the publishing costs, and book sales recouped these costs
  • Recorded oral histories to create archives such as the Slave Narratives and collections of folklore
  • Participating writers were involved in research and editorial services to other government agencies
Historical Records Survey
  • At peak, employed 4,400+ workers
  • Employees identified, collected, and conserved United States’ historical records
NOTE: To view the collection of the Library of Congress’ WPA posters, visit this link:

WPA Criticism

Yes, there were the naysayers of the WPA. The major criticisms were:
  • Distribution of projects and funding allotment was result of the view that the decisions were politically motivated
  • The South, as the poorest region of the United States, received 75 percent less in federal relief and public works funds per capita than the West
  • Perception that WPA employees were not diligent workers, and that they had little incentive to give up their busy work in favor of productive jobs
  • Some employers said that the WPA instilled poor work habits and encouraged inefficiency
  • Some job applicants found that a WPA work history was viewed negatively by employers, who said they had formed poor work habits
  • WPA and its workers were ridiculed as being lazy. The organization's initials were said to stand for "We Poke Along" or "We Putter Along" or "We piddle around" or "Whistle, Piss and Argue." These were sarcastic references to WPA projects that sometimes slowed down deliberately because foremen had an incentive to keep going, rather than finish a project.
WPA where I live
Right here in southeastern Colorado are many WPA-constructed bridges, schools, Baca County courthouse, and just 50 miles from where I live in the town of Lamar is a community park that was not only WPA-constructed, it was the first WPA project in Colorado.
Lamar, Colorado
WPA tower at Willow Creek Park, Lamar, Colorado
"Zebulon Pike camped here 1806 - Tower built WPA 1932" Lamar, Colorado
Here are pictures of the WPA-constructed courthouse in my county.

WPA - Baca County (old side) Courthouse, Springfield, Colorado

WPA - Baca County (old side) Courthouse, Springfield, Colorado "WPA 1935"
WPA - Baca County Courthouse annex building, Springfield, Colorado

You’ll notice the cut and carved sandstone that makes up these particular WPA structures. The sandstone is indicative of a WPA project in many places.

So why am I interested in WPA?

I’m interested in WPA projects indirectly as one component in the “Great Depression Era as Romance Story Fodder” possibilities.

Although the Dust Bowl/Great Depression Era is not a typical backdrop for a romance, it is ripe with story possibilities. I’m exploring ideas for this time period. In fact, I currently have a micro story set during the Great Depression. (The story is one of several Christmas-themed micro stories in an anthology-not a Prairie Rose anthology.) I have ideas to expand this snippet of story someday. Maybe someday…

Until next time,

Writing the West one romance upon a time

The Comanchero's Bride is available on and where where other fine Prairie Rose Publications' are sold.

References and Further Reading: (Note: Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication)

Images – Creative Commons - attribution

Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, California (WPA 1933)
Matthew Field / CC-BY-SA-3.0
Change to image: resized

LaGuardia Airport, Queens, New York (WPA 1937–39)
Patrick Handrigan / CC BY-SA 4.0
Change to image: resized

Boise High School Gymnasium (WPA 1936)
SoggenDazs / Public Domain
Change to image: resized

Schoolhouse, Lometa, Texas (WPA 1938–40)
Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 4.0
Change to image: resized

River Walk, San Antonio, Texas (WPA 1939)
Kolomichuk / CC BY-SA 3.0
Change to image: resized

Migrant Mother (Florence Thompson)
Dorothea Lange, Farm Security Adminsitration / Public Domain
Change to image: resized

Springfield and Lamar, Colorado WPA images courtesy Kaye Spencer’s personal photo library.


  1. Kaye, I loved this article. I, too, remember my parents and grandparents talk about how life was during the Great Depression. They seemed to take so much hardship in stride and even told funny stories about some of the things they endured and encountered.
    Although I knew about the WPA, I have never seen such detail about the projects they began and the accomplishments they made for us to enjoy years later. I liked how you included all these great photos.
    I did a college term paper on The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck. I found it so dark and depressing I would never want to read it again, but I'm glad I read it. It gave me an opportunity to really understand the tremendous hardships people managed to endure and their unrelenting will and courage to survive.
    This was a well researched and informative article, Kaye. All the very best to you.

  2. Sarah,

    Both sides of my family weathered the Depression without too many awful stories to tell. However, my paternal side of the family lost the farm, literally. They held onto the farm and ranchland during the '30s, but it ultimately went into foreclosure after the Depression Era. My paternal grandpa then went to work for the sugar beet plant (Great Western Sugar). My paternal grandma was a teacher all those years, which is what probably kept the family from starving. My maternal grandpa worked in a cannery, at a greenhouse, and he was the cemetery caretaker, so he had steady work and the family got along okay.

    Grapes of Wrath... That's a tough, tough story to get through--the movie, too. Just a bit too much realism for me. Your comment about it resonated with me. "It gave me an opportunity to really understand the tremendous hardships people managed to endure and their unrelenting will and courage to survive." That is the legacy that needs NOT to be forgotten by the generations that followed.

    Thank you so much for commenting.

  3. I used to work in the old federal building that was a WPA project. Also, the work they did to microfilm records and take oral histories of former slaves has proven invaluable to genealogists. A lot of good came out of their efforts.

    Robyn Echols w/a Zina Abbott

  4. Robyn,

    Yes. The genealogical records are priceless. A school in my county organized an oral history project for southeastern Colorado a few years ago, and the high school students who participated took oral histories of the "old timers" who told stories of settling here, living through the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. This is invaluable information.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  5. I had no idea it was so huge and so widespread. I was born in 1940, and as a tiny girl, my daddy worked for the WPA building a rock safety wall around a high dangerous curve of a local highway--in North Texas. The only other project I know of is the picnic/lodge house in Bastrop State Park and a lodge in Big Ben National Park. No doubt many of the men were lackadaisical and had no incentive to move on to better jobs. My daddy did, though, and we lived a good life supported by his job with an oil company.
    The Great Depression makes up the very fiber of many people still living today. I was born right after, but my husband was a product of the Great Depression, and even though he is a successful man with plenty of everything...and more...he still saves twisties, pencil stubs, picks up pennies in parking lots, and will drive across town to save 25 cents on some product. Those horrible years will never leave him. He's always been brokenhearted at what it did to his mother.
    I'd be interested in reading a romance set during the Depression--it can't be easy. Much luck to you.

  6. Celia,

    It was hard on the women. Moms and grandmas scrimped, cut corners, did without, stretched every meal... So much sacrifice. Men who couldn't find work or had to take work they might have once considered "beneath their dignity" surely had such hurts to their pride and dignity. So sad. There's a scene in the movie "Legend of Bagger Vance" that illustrates this. The boy, Hardy, is embarrassed that his dad took a job sweeping streets. Then Rannulf Junah (Matt Damon) sets him straight.

    "Your daddy is out sweeping streets, because he took every last dime he had, and used it to pay up every man and woman he owed and every business who worked for him, instead of declaring bankruptcy like everyone else in town, including your best friend Wilbur Charles' dad, Raymond, which is why he's able to sit around all day long on his dignity! Your daddy stared adversity in the eye, Hardy. And he beat it back with a broom."

    It's a powerful scene with a powerful message.

    Thank you for visiting and commenting today, Celia. I so appreciate it.

  7. Kaye,
    A wonderful overview. The WPA played a role in the lives of many people in this country. For that reason, it needs to be remembered. I love the idea of a story set in that time. There was a John Wayne movie that had some 'dust bowl' aspects to it, "Three Faces West". It was an interesting film.

    Best on the stories. Doris

  8. Doris,
    The 1930s were hard enough from an economic standpoint without adding the dust and dirt to an already 'weary in heart and soul' population. I, too, hope this isn't forgotten. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.