FDR’s Alphabet Soup – Records of the Great Depression

CWA (Civil Works Administration)
1933-1934
NARA RG 69.2

“Four million men now out of employment will be put to work under a plancwa3 announced today by the President. .. Two million of these will become self-sustaining employees on Federal, State and local public projects on November 16th, and will be taken completely off the relief rolls. An additional two million will be put back to work as soon thereafter as possible.” Remarks by FDR on signing Executive Order creating Civil Works Administration on 8 Nov 1933. (1)

Authorized under the National Industrial Recovery act of June 1933, the CWA was created to provide more immediate relief as the PWA got off to a slow start. Building up self-esteem by working rather than living on the “dole” was deemed essential by the Administration for the well being of the citizens and the country as a whole. In all about 3% of the population was employed by the CWA during it’s short existence.

Workers tutored the illiterate, built parks, repaired schools, and constructed athletic fields and swimming pools. A forerunner to the WPA the CWA employed over three thousand writers and artists. Jobs such as raking leaves and shoveling snow led some to scoff at the “make-work” tasks some were assigned.

CWA ” Six hundred men and a scenic boulevard” San Francisco, CA circa 1934 – National Archives ARC Identifier 196525

All those employed by the CWA were Federal employees. The provisions called for one-half of the jobs to go to those who were on relief, and the other half to anyone else who needed work. For those who had been receiving relief this was an increase from $6.50 to the minimum wage of $15.00 a week. Those not on relief were not required to submit to a “means test,” (proving you have absolutely no assets) in order to get an income.

By the winter of 1933-1934 counties and cities were running out of money and resources to keep their citizens going. During it’s short lifetime the CWA, run by Harry Hopkins, built or repaired 800 airports and over 250,000 miles of roads. It built or modernized over 4000 school building, hired some 50,000 teachers for rural schools and constructed over 3000 athletic fields. The CWA helped the country through the winter.

However, the cost of the program exceeded expectations and more emphasis was placed on higher paying construction jobs. The effort was unsustainable and the CWA was liquidated in March of 1934 and all functions transferred to the Emergency Relief Program of FERA. By 1935 the successor WPA was established.

NARA has 888 rolls of CWA field office records, 59 rolls pertain to California. These include final state reports, engineering records, easements and rights of way, progress reports, CWA and state reporting forms, correspondence, and other project records. Over 600 rolls of general records also include information on projects, arranged by state, administrative records, employment records and more.

UC Berkeley has various collections that include California CWA records. Search the Online Archive of California (Federal “Civil Works Administration” 1933-1934 California) for listings there as well as at the Hoover Institute, Huntington Library, University of Pacific Library and the California State Archives.
Suggested Reading:

 

  • United States. Federal Civil Works Administration (in California). Summary report, Civil Works Administration activities, State of California, November 27, 1933-March 29, 1934
  • Schwartz, Bonnie Fox. The Civil Works Administration 1933-1934. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press. 1984
  • New Deal Civil Works Project Remembered in Berkeley Berkeley Daily Planet, 11 Feb 2009

 

Originally published in the CSGA Newsletter – Aug-Sep 2013

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FDR’s Alphabet Soup: Records of the Great Depression

NRA – The National Recovery Administration

NARA Record Group 9

  • NRA NRA was established as an independent agency by EO 6173, June 16, 1933, pursuant to the National Industrial Recovery Act (48 Stat. 195), June 16, 1933.
  • In a 1935 Supreme Court decision,  Schechter Poultry Corp. v. U.S. , many provisions of the National Industrial Recovery Act were declared unconstitutional.
  • NRA was abolished effective January 1, 1936, by EO 7252, December 21, 1935, which assigned liquidation functions to the Department of Commerce.

As you will note this series of articles and blogs is in no particular order.  It is based solely on what caught my fancy. 

The NRA was one of a few programs that basically failed.  The concept, arguably might have been good.  The implementation was somewhat flawed.  Special interests pushed their ideas forward and found loopholes for their own benefit.  Most importantly the enforcement was uneven, often unethical and riddled with prejudice.

The mission of the NRA was to draw up trade codes of fair competition; to set up a managed economy by relieving business of antitrust laws to eliminate “wasteful competition.” It was thought that creating an artificial scarcity of commodities would cause higher prices, yield  higher profits and support higher wages. Each industry was tasked with creating their own code, setting up quotas, limiting hours and restricting construction of new factories and businesses. Each code was approved by FDR and then put in place.  Regional variations were allowed due to differing industry and wage standards.  Firms that participated displayed blue eagles to inform consumers of their patriotism. There were over 2 million participants. 

While some mandates of the NRA were found to be illegal by the Supreme Court other areas such as guaranteed collective bargaining for unions and child labor laws are still in existence today.

One sample of a code is that for ICE HOUSES. Employees could work 48 hours a week averaged over 3 months with a maximum of 54 hours in any one week.  For this they were to be paid 25 to 30 cents an hour. Office workers were limited to 44 hours per week, and no more than 8 hours in a day for which they should earn at least $14 a week with overtime paid at 1and 1/3 more per hour.

Development of codes and enforcement was by region.  The National Archives – San Francisco has records (RG 9) for Region IX (California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Arizona, Nevada and Utah).  The records for the Territory of Hawaii are also located in at NARA-San Francisco (San Bruno). 

One example of enforcement in California is the action against the Scatena Bros. Winery in Healdsburg where the field hands were working more than the allowed 40 hours a week.  Workers shifts could include up to 9 hours in day, and up to 6 days per each 7 day period. During harvest they were allowed 60 hours a week with up to 10 hours in a day.  The workers must be paid less than 40 cents an hour.

In Oakland, Monet Chevrolet was cited for giving more than the coded amount for used car allowances. In Oregon Fred Meyer was cited for using loss leaders.  In San Francisco the Smith Lumber Company was  criminally charged for pricing their supplies below “modal pricing.”  Their lost eagle was reinstated when, in an effort to save the NRA, pricing standards were removed from the NRA codes.

Reading through the files archived at NARA-San Francisco, it seemed that a great deal of the enforcement was for employment issues.  Most complaints were not by the employees, however, those seemed to be the exception.  In fact, enforcement efforts were often due to complaints from competitors, and often led to solutions that in retrospect make you think the bad guys won and the nice guys finished last.

Take the case of  Zenkichi Hatakenaka doing business as Kodomoya Notion House.  He was charged with violating Article V of retail code in the Territory of Hawaii.   Mr. Hatakenaka set up staggered schedules for the four sales girls working in his store They came in on alternating days from eight in the morning to noon.  Two of the girls lived quite a distance from the store and had to walk through rough neighborhoods to get home.  They chose to stay in the store until 9 pm when Mr. Hatakenaka would drive them home.  Each girl had a 1½ hour lunch break and 1½ hour dinner break with food supplied.  They normally worked 6 days but at Christmas went in and straightened the store on a Sunday.  In addition to this 7th day and each worked a few extra hours that week.  The girls were paid $12 a week. A complaint was made that the girls were working more than the hours allowed by their industry.  A bench warrant for $500 was issued.

In the store Mr. Hatakenaka had posted a schedule that showed the actual hours that each girl was on duty.  The hours were well within those allowed except for Christmas week, when it was shown that all stores in the area were opened extra hours.  The investigator, however, wouldn’t allow the posted schedule as evidence. The hours the girls were physically in the store were used to define their shifts.

Result – Mr. Hatakenaka ended up pleading guilty and received a fine of $100 and 5 years probation under rule 131 of the US district court and had to give up his blue eagle. And perhaps worse, the girls no longer could wait for a safe ride home.

If your family owned a business during the years that the NRA was in place, you will find information on the NRA codes controlling their industry in the records at NARA.  You might also find information on the business itself  if it was involved in an investigation for any reason.

So, your ancestors didn’t own a business.  Were they employed?  Check out the records for the business they worked in. What were the codes they lived with?  Was their employer a participant in the NRA?  Were they in compliance with the industry rules?

Check the newspapers.  The NRA, nicknamed the National Run Around, was very controversial.  Newspapers were often quick to comment on controversial rulings.

See the CSGA Blog for additional NRA cases and a links to NRA promotional and educational materials.

Bibliography

  • Homer L. Calkin, Meyer H. Fishbein, and Leo Pascal, comps., Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the National Recovery Administration, PI 44 (1952).
  • The National Recovery Agency Digital History,
  • National Industrial Recovery Act(1933),  
  • Record copies of publications of the National Recovery Administration in RG 287, Publications of the U.S. Government.

Originally Published in the CSGA Newsletter Jan – Feb 2013

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FDR’s Alphabet Soup: Records of the Great Depression

University of Southern California - Digital Library - WPA Land Use Collection

University of Southern California – Digital Library – WPA Land Use Collection

WPA Maps

Cath Madden Trindle

Among the collections at University of Southern California are the WPA Land use survey maps for the City of Los Angeles, 1933-1939.   

This collection of 345 maps covering 460 square miles tracked land usage including: residential, commercial, industrial, manufacturing, agricultural and vacant.  Each of these was broken down further.  For example agricultural land was shown as mixed, livestock, field crops, row crops, bush fruits, orchard, nursery, woodland, or farming.

This is one example of individualized projects that took place around the country.  Read newspapers of the time for clues on what might have been happening where your family lived.  Search the special collections of Universities, Historical Societies, County Archives, Libraries, etc. for materials created by those projects.

This series of articles and blogs is intended to point you in the right direction to do your own research.  There is a  wealth of records providing background material on the places where our families lived and perhaps on the programs in which they participated.  Some of the records at the National Archives which were not previously covered include:

69.8 Cartographic Records 1933-1940  Mostly published and blueprint city and county transportation, land, and census study maps resulting from various WPA projects

69.11 Still Pictures documenting the programs and activities of the Alphabet Soup Era 1922-44.  This collection of thousand of pictures includes aerial photos among its other treasures.

69.4.3 Records of the Division of Information. Collections include over 43000 photographs, more than 100 films, press releases, clippings and much more.  These include publications of the other Alphabet Soup Agencies.

69.4.4 Records of the Division of Engineering and Construction History: Created in December 1935 with the responsibility of planning and supervising construction projects for highways, airports, dams, and sanitation works.

69.5.7 Survey of the Federal Archives (RG 69.5.7)  Organized in January 1936 as Federal Project No. 4, with the National Archives as cooperating sponsor. Became part of Historical Records Survey, on a reduced basis, in June 1937. Terminated June 30, 1942. Along with correspondence and reports there are over 3000 photographs in the NARA collections. 

69.5.9 Records of the National Research Project (NRP)  studied industrial techniques than their effect on employment.  Collection includes photographs of workers and some housing situations.

 

This is the last of the series.  Watch the blog for reprints of the articles that were published in the CSGA Newsletter.

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