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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Genealogist’s Declaration of Rights

Have you signed the Genealogist’s Declaration of Rights?  genealogists vote

Fellow CSGA member, Jan Meisels Allen, who wears many hats in the genealogical community (1), has written a letter to California societies urging all California genealogists to sign.  But as individuals you can also sign and get your friends to sign as well.  As Jan states:

 “Genealogists are having increased difficulty with access to records that are needed for our research—due to misinformation that our access could and has led to identity theft—that is wrong. What causes identity theft is computer hacking into government, commercial, financial and health care businesses where the “bad guys” appropriate personal information and misuse it. (Recently released California Attorney General Kamala Harris’s second annual report on identity theft indicated 18.5 million Californians were involved in data breaches in 2013. Retailers, banks, health care providers and other organizations reported 167 different breaches in the state during 2013. That is six times more than the 2.5 million accounts hacked in 131 breaches in 2012, and represents nearly half of the state’s 38 million residents. The problem to be solved is how to stop hacking of secure data NOT limiting access to already public data.

RPAC believes that it is essential to let our elected officials—federal and state—know that their constituents are deeply interested in access to vital records. One of the RPAC state liaisons, Bob Rafford from Connecticut, developed the idea of the Genealogists’ Declaration or Rights and presented it to RPAC and all three sponsoring organizations approved the Declaration. At each of the FGS, IAJGS and NGS national conferences in 2014 there were RPAC information tables where we asked conference attendees to sign the declaration. We currently have approximately 4,000 signatures and to make an impact we really need about 20,000.

“Both the California Legislature and the US Congress start again in January and the earlier we can get the necessary number of signatures to make an impact the better prepared we will be to address any proposed legislation and or regulations in 2015 ….. There is also an electronic version where people can sign …. They must be US citizens to sign.”

If you are a member of a society Jan encourages you to take the Declaration of Rights and Signature Sheet to a society meeting and submit them according to her Instructions for Signing at Meetings.

Orange Line

Records Preservation and Access Committee
GENEALOGISTS’ DECLARATION OF RIGHTS
27April 2014

WHEREAS, Americans have pursued the research of their family heritage since the beginning of our country; and

WHEREAS, millions of Americans derive enjoyment from genealogical exploration, consistent with the pursuit of happiness recognized by the founders of our country in our Declaration of Independence; and

WHEREAS, Americans derive substantial emotional benefit from genealogical exploration into their heritage; and

WHEREAS, many Americans derive financial benefit from the practice of professional genealogy and have performed such throughout this nation’s history; and

WHEREAS, genealogists make meaningful contributions to the fields of forensic genealogy, identification of kinships, determining the facts in legal cases such as probate court, cases involving tribal and other relationships; and

WHEREAS, thousands of genealogical and historical societies, libraries, museums, and other institutions and associations have been established throughout our land to assist all Americans in the pursuit of their family heritage; and

WHEREAS, genealogy adds substantially to the ethnic, cultural, and racial richness of which our country is composed; and

WHEREAS, the American people have recognized that the right to open government and unfettered access to the records of our government are rights which find expression in the constitutions and legislation of our federal and state governments and which enrich the lives of all Americans; and

WHEREAS, genealogists have been at the forefront of efforts to protect and preserve the precious records and documents of our genealogical and historical heritage; and

WHEREAS, genealogists, no less than other Americans, are vitally concerned for personal privacy and safety from untoward acts that diminish our freedom; and

WHEREAS, most records, including vital records, have, for all of our nation’s history, been substantially open to access,

NOW THEREFORE, BE IT KNOWN

That we, the undersigned genealogists, in pursuance of our individual and collective rights as Americans, do hereby

DECLARE

That genealogists possess the right to the pursuit of genealogical exploration through unfettered access to the records of our government; and

WE CALL upon our governmental representatives to recognize our rights by;

PRESERVING the freedom of the American people to access the public records of our government in a timely and orderly manner through appropriate legislation; and

REFRAINING from legislation which would prevent or render extraordinarily difficult access to the public records, principally birth, marriage, and death records collected by our state and federal governmental agencies; and

PROMOTING those principles that enhance, not diminish, our freedom of access to records; and

CELEBRATING with genealogists the valuable benefits of exploring, researching, and compiling the histories of our families, and as a result, the history of our exceptional nation.

WE SIGNED,

Orange Line

(1)Chairperson, International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) Public Records Access Monitoring Committee;  IAJGS Sponsoring Member to the Records Preservation and Access Committee (RPAC)*;  President, Jewish Genealogical Society of the Conejo Valley and Ventura County (JGSCV)

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FDR’s Alphabet Soup: Records of the Great Depression

HOLC (Home Owner’s Loan Corporation)   (1933-1951) RG 3.6.3  

FHA (Federal Housing Administration)  (1934-1965 absorbed into HUD) RG 31

 Cath Madden Trindle

Farm home of Elof Hansen owner of land in Yuba County, California. He owes federal land bank loan of twenty-two hundred dollars against this land (as of March 13, 1939)

• Farm home of Elof Hansen owner of land in Yuba County, California. He owes federal land bank loan of twenty-two hundred dollars against this land (as of March 13, 1939) – LOC – Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives

Prior to the Depression fewer than 40% of U.S. households owned their own homes.   Mortgages were not consumer friendly.  For example, an 80% mortgage meant making a down payment of 80% of the purchase price. The typical term was 3 to 5 years with a balloon payment at the end.  Available funding was limited to 50% of the home’s value.

As the depression deepened, many households were unable to come up with the required balloon payments.  The financial turmoil made it difficult to find a bank willing to extend a new loan.  Families began to lose their homes.

In an effort to keep people in their homes, the Homeowner’s Refinancing fhaAct established the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC).  When he signed the act on 13 Jun 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt stated “The Act extends the same principle of relief to home owners as we have already extended to farm owners. Furthermore, the Act extends this relief not only to people who have borrowed money on their homes but also to their mortgage creditors.”

The HOLC issued bonds and then used the bonds to purchase the mortgage loans of  home owners who were having problems making the payments “through no fault of their own.” The loans were then refinanced for the buyers.  Non-farm homes worth less than $20,000 were eligible for the modifications.  Typical borrowers were more than two years behind on both mortgage and property tax payments.

Between 1933 and 1935 the HOLC made just over one million loans.  At that point they stopped making loans focused on repayments.  Eventually about 20% of the loans failed.  Borrowers who were more than a year behind on payments to the HOLC faced foreclosure.  Homes that were repossessed were refurbished and rented out until they could be resold.  More than 800,000 of the loans were repaid, many early.  In 1951 HOLC closed operations and sold the last of its assets to private lenders.  The nearly thirty year operation turned a small profit.

As new loans from the HOLC ended, the Federal Housing Administration, which had been created by passage of the National Housing Act (48 Stat. 1246) on 27 Jun 1934 stepped in.  The focus of the FHA was to stimulate the growth of the building industry.  The FHA promised a stable future by providing the funds necessary to construct low-income housing.  They also encouraged residential repair and modernization.

 

The FHA sought to stimulate homeownership by providing mortgage insurance and regulating interest rates. Over time, the agency has contributed to a dramatic increase in the number of homeowners, across a diverse income-scale. Early programs especially increased the market for single family homes.

Starting in 1934 the FHA instituted fifteen year mortgages, with a high loan to value ratio (80% to 90%), low interest rates and fixed monthly payments. The term soon increased to thirty years.

The FHA began the practice of determining whether borrowers were likely to be able to repay the loans, and basing eligibility on that. In the past loans had been made according to whether the borrower was “known” by the lender.  Additionally the FHA set quality standards that had to be met in order to qualify for a loan. As commercial lenders eased back into the lending market, they found it necessary to be competitive with the FHA terms and conditions.

Special housing initiatives for veterans during and post WWII provided help for veterans and their families. The Section 608 program provided mortgage insurance to construct housing for war workers during the war, and then for rental properties for returning veterans. Designed to counter the postwar housing deficit by providing lenders with a federal guarantee, Section 608 provided insurance for as much as 90% of the mortgage value on rental housing projects. By the end of 1958, the FHA had enabled nearly five million families to own homes and helped more than 22 million to improve their properties.

Programs and policies of the HOLC and FHA were not without controversy.  Red-lining, was one of the biggest. This was the process of assessing areas and deciding where loans would be made. Areas were assigned a letter grade of suitability ranging from A to D. Ultimately, this practice led to discrimination as many minority areas in urban areas received “Ds” and therefore were ineligible for insured mortgages.  These areas became more and more blighted.  Adjoining areas might also receive a lower grade unless they created barriers separating them from their depressed neighbors. This led to deepening ghettos.  While this practice did not originate with the FHA, it was used.  Another complaint was that it was easier to get a mortgage for a new home than to get a loan to repair an existing home.  Both issues led to the deterioration of the inner cities and the spread of the population to the suburbs. Check the bibliography below for links to redlining articles and maps.

A scandal developed in 1950 following years of abuse by unscrupulous builders who received mortgages through the Section 608 program.   The builder would procure a high mortgage under the program then build it for far less than the loan amount, often with inferior materials and workmanship.  The builder would then sell the property and transfer the mortgage to the new owner, pocketing the difference. The lack of oversight caused the program to be terminated in 1954.

HUD, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which was established in 1965 (79 Stat. 667) absorbed the FHA and its mission.  On the department’s website you will find links to state offices and other useful information.  By clicking on Research (under Resources on the menu bar) you are taken to the HUD user website.  This site provides bibliographies and other research tools for finding information about projects.  While publications date only from 1969, some discuss projects from earlier years.

  • Like other “Alphabet Soup” departments, the HOLC and FHA touched the lives of many.  Look for loan documents in family papers and county Deed and Mortgage Books.  National Archives holdings are found mainly at the national level.  Search OPA (see below) for records, maps and  other records relating to the agencies. Check local newspapers of the era for references to programs available in the area. Search for information on “Projects” your family might have lived in.  Check the Online Archive of California (FHA)  (HOLC) for records held in California repositories.

Publications Videos and More

Originally published in the CSGA Newsletter Nov-Dec 2013

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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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