FDR’s Alphabet Soup: Records From the Great Depression

It is always great to be able to recommend a website for our genealogical research.  In this case Yale University, in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Humanities has created Photogrammar an online archive of images of the Great Depression.

The website states “Photogrammar is a web-based platform for organizing, searching, and visualizing the 170,000 photographs from 1935 to 1945 created by the United States Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information (FSA-OWI).”

Capture You start your search with a map that allows you to pick a particular county and explore the images available.  Some, like San Mateo County, have only a few.  Some have none, but others have hundreds  of images available.  Although the images are also available on the Library of Congress website, the organization here makes it much easier to browse for what you want.  Once you click on a picture it is easy to select pictures taken the same day by clicking on the date, or by the same photographer by clicking on the name.  There is also a second map that uses colored dots, with the colors denoting specific photographers. Capture

 

 

Selecting the Library of Congress call number will take you directly to the picture on their website, where you might find additional information about access or ordering a copy.  While it is possible to download copies from Photogrammar and from the LOC website, be sure to check the copyright information on LOC before using the photos for anything but your own research.

The Photogrammar Blog supplies some information on how the project was developed and implemented.

Thanks to Genealogy In Time Magazine for bringing this website to my attention.

 

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FDR’s Alphabet Soup: Records of the Great Depression

 Works Progress (Project) Administration

1935-1943   NARA RG 69

 Cath Madden Trindle

Established on 6 May 1935, the goal of the Works Progress Administration was to relieve unemployment through the creation of jobs.  It succeeded FERA and the CWA, both created in 1933.  In July of 1939 it was renamed the Works Project Administration and placed under the Federal Works Agency (FWA).  Although officially abolished on 30 June 1943, the Division for Liquidation of the Work Projects Administration was set up in the Federal Works Agency allowing programs to wind down by 30 June 1944.

In the nine years it was in place the WPA employed over 8.5 million workers in construction, the arts and more.  The goal was to make sure there was at least one wage earner in every family. WPA workers were paid the prevailing wage for the area where they lived, but they could not be paid for over 30 hours in a week.  For the most part the jobs were intended to be temporary and there was little attention to teaching skills for permanent job placement.

Aquatic Park Bathhouse, Beach Street, West of Polk Street, San Francisco, San Francisco County, CA – WPA 1939

The result was buildings, bridges, dams and other structural projects were funded in communities in every state.  Artistic endeavors were encouraged.  It is hard to find a community that does not have a striking example.  In San Francisco the Beach Chalet has wonderful murals painted by Lucien Adolphe Labaudt and the Botanical Gardens were planted with WPA funds.  In Inglewood the “History of Transportation” a massive mosaic by Helen Lundeberg, most likely the largest New Deal art work commissioned has been restored. In Fresno the Memorial Auditorium is a prime example of New Deal architecture.  Details of other California WPA projects can be found on the website of University of California – Berkeley’s  The Living New Deal.

The WPA was run at four levels federal, regional, state administrations and district offices.  Most federal records, including those of special projects and field offices are held in Washington D.C.  Many have been microfilmed including over 10000 rolls of field office records, 634 for California.  Those records include correspondence, administrative files, project folders, sponsors’ reports organizational and functional charts, accomplishment reports, as well as other records, covering the years 1935-1943. (RG 69.6).  

The Library of Congress has hundreds of online items in their WPA collections, including: photographs, films, manuscripts, narratives, books, music and more.  Finding Aid to Works Progress Administration Records at LOC, search the aid for California for more specific information on California Collections.

The Online Archive of California lists 257 collections with WPA references. These include records for many statewide and local projects.  Many of these records are of great importance to genealogists and historians and will be covered more fully below or on the CSGA Blog, where a posting on the 15th of each month has been supplementing the information in this series on FDR’s Alphabet Soup.

The Federal Writers’ Project (1935–1943) –  At its peak, the Writers’ Project employed about 6,500 men and women around the country as writers, researchers, editors, historians, and other field workers, paying them a subsistence wage of about $20 a week.   

 For more information on the WPA

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FDR’s Alphabet Soup: Records From the Great Depression

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The WPA might have shut down in 1943, but some projects took years more to complete. Among those is San Francisco’s last WPA project, the Rincon Annex Post Office. The building’s architect was Gilbert S. Underwood (Ahwanee Hotel in Yosemite). The design with hints of classic Greece and Moorish Spain is termed “art-deco moderne”.Map of Rincon Center

With the building complete, the W.P.A. held a competition for a mural in 1941. The winner was Anton Refregier, a Russian emigrant to the United States.

His work, entitled, “History of San Francisco” was begun that year. Comprised of 27 panels painted with casein tempuro on white gesso over plaster the work covered 400 square feet of wall space. Work was soon interrupted by WWII. And it wasn’t until 1946 that Refregier resumed painting. The mural finished in 1948, cost $26,000 and was the largest single commission of the Painting and Sculpture devision for the WPA.

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It is an impressive work. It is even more impressive when one learns of the controversy that ensued. Refregier designed and painted the entire history, but along came the revisionists. This painting showed the Padres in a bad light, the hanging man was a little too dark, the workers on the railroad a little too chinese, Sir Francis Drake had blood on his sword, there was too much red which might support communism. Refregier fought to keep what he could, but in the end made 92 changes to the murals before they were finally finished in 1949, possibly the last WPA project to be completed.  You can read about the controversy in individual panels of the mural on Art and Architecture – San Francisco: The Embarcardo – Rincon Annex Murals.

But the story wasn’t over. On 1 May 1953, the House Committee on Public Works, fueled by the fears of the “McCarthy Era” began debate on a resolution by Rep. Hubert Scudder (R-Sebastopol) to destroy the murals as they slandered California pioneers and pushed Communist propaganda upon unwitting postal customers.  The resolution was waylaid, but not before the California Senate passed a resolution supporting Scudder’s resolution. Rob Spoor elaborates on the trial in Art (and History) on Trial: Historic Murals of Rincon Center – Rob Spoor Guidelines

In 1978 the Rincon Annex Post Office was closed.  The city, hoping to avoid destruction of the murals, had the building placed under the protection of the National Registry of Historic Places in 1979.  Today it is the entrance to the Rincon Center, offering a delightful mix of old and new architecture and art.

While you can definitely check this building out on your own, you might want to consider taking a tour.  City Guides offers many free tours in San Francisco including the waterfribt area. The tour I took was sponsored by the Commonwealth Club and led by historian  Rick Evans.  I am sure there are others.  Getting out and walking around is a great way to see any city.

Rincon Annex isn’t the only WPA Post Office.  In fact,  during the years of the New Deal, the federal government built over 1,100 post offices, three times the number that it had built in the previous 50 years.  Many were PWA projects that not only provided work for the unemployed, but strove to  ensure “public works of an ensuring character and lasting benefits.”  Many of these post offices included murals.   Read more…….

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