American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work

American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work

Nick Taylor

Language: English

Pages: 441

ISBN: 0553802356

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


If you’ve traveled the nation’s highways, flown into New York’s LaGuardia Airport, strolled San Antonio’s River Walk, or seen the Pacific Ocean from the Beach Chalet in San Francisco, you have experienced some part of the legacy of the Works Progress Administration (WPA)—one of the enduring cornerstones of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

When President Roosevelt took the oath of office in March 1933, he was facing a devastated nation. Four years into the Great Depression, a staggering 13 million American workers were jobless and many millions more of their family members were equally in need. Desperation ruled the land.

What people wanted were jobs, not handouts: the pride of earning a paycheck; and in 1935, after a variety of temporary relief measures, a permanent nationwide jobs program was created. This was the Works Progress Administration, and it would forever change the physical landscape and the social policies of the United States.

The WPA lasted for eight years, spent $11 billion, employed 8½ million men and women, and gave the country not only a renewed spirit but a fresh face. Under its colorful head, Harry Hopkins, the agency’s remarkable accomplishment was to combine the urgency of putting people back to work with its vision of physically rebuilding America. Its workers laid roads, erected dams, bridges, tunnels, and airports. They stocked rivers, made toys, sewed clothes, served millions of hot school lunches. When disasters struck, they were there by the thousands to rescue the stranded. And all across the country the WPA’s arts programs performed concerts, staged plays, painted murals, delighted children with circuses, created invaluable guidebooks. Even today, more than sixty years after the WPA ceased to exist, there is almost no area in America that does not bear some visible mark of its presence.

Politically controversial, the WPA was staffed by passionate believers and hated by conservatives; its critics called its projects make-work and wags said it stood for We Piddle Around. The contrary was true. We have only to look about us today to discover its lasting presence.

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the night. Houseman knew the Africans took their voodoo seriously. After he and Welles had cast them, they had requisitioned five live black goats, which they ritually sacrificed, then turned the hides into drumskins. And when Houseman and Thomson had asked during rehearsals if the voodoo numbers could sound more wicked, the witch doctor warned the spell might become too strong, darkening the incantations only after Houseman insisted. But he was stunned to read the news on the afternoon of the

state governments to increase their contributions to projects for which they sought WPA-paid labor. “More contributions please!” the president wrote Hopkins, urging that he immediately press project sponsors to shoulder 30 percent of project costs. Some members of Congress wanted it to be even more. Local sponsors had contributed 9.8 percent to the costs of their WPA projects in 1936, and by 1938 it would be up to 20.8 percent. Although Hopkins was beginning to move in the president’s direction,

hospital pajamas and his jacket was flapping wide.” McMahon could barely keep from laughing, but Somervell was not amused. He turned abruptly and as they left the hospital said, “Mrs. McMahon, that project is closed.” But while the arts received an outsized share of criticism and attention, the WPA’s primary purpose continued to be its vast variety of building jobs. In terms of national iconography, none was more important than a twenty-month, $250,000 refurbishment of the Statue of Liberty. For

at New Deal Network: newdeal.feri.org/texts/813.htm. Somervell on strikes and strikes ending: NYT, July 8, 1939, 1; July 12, 1939, 1; July 21, 1940, 1. Loyalty oath: NYT, June 29, 1939, 12. Harrington response: July 6, 1939, news conference. Workers Alliance to take pledge, Morgan quote: NYT, June 29, 1939, 12. Lasser would resign: NYT, June 20, 1940, 16. Sixty-six not signing loyalty pledge: NYT, Oct. 26, 1939, 14. August Henkel: NYT, July 7, 1940, 4; www.damninteresting.com/?p=321; Robert

Civil War and briefly marry Ernest Hemingway, and Lincoln Colcord, who had been born on his father’s schooner rounding Cape Horn and, with his sister, spent most of his youth at sea before becoming a poet, journalist, and maritime historian. Their reports supplemented the hard data that FERA’s research division was providing. They put faces on the numbers, providing vivid anecdotal evidence of the human devastation wrought by the depression. Hickok’s October 30, 1933, dispatch from Dickinson,

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