FDR’s Alphabet Soup: Records From the Great Depression

SSA – Social Security Agency

1934 – Present RG 47

Cath Madden Trindle

Drawn by climate and activity, thousands of elderly Americans flocked to southern California during the roaring twenties. Their comfortable living came to an abrupt halt as many lost their savings and retirement incomes when the Depression crashed down.

Controversial then and now, the Social Security Act passed in 1935, promised benefits ranging from $10 to $85 per month. Supporting this level of benefits required a tax rate of 2% (half paid by the worker and half by the employer) on the first $3,000 of wage income. The first checks arrived in households in 1940 with a maximum payout of $41.20 per month.

But the SSA was not the only suggested pension plan for citizens. Doz-
ens of plans were proposed, over eighty in California alone. Some
were suggested before the SSA passed, some were suggested as amendments and some were considered as supplements to what had already passed.

The most popular proposal was the Townsend Old Age Pension Plan. It was proposed in 1934 by Dr. Francis E. Townsend (1867-1960), a retired Long Beach physician.

CaptureThe plan was simple. Each person over the age of sixty who was retired (there was a “fully” retired test) and had a past life free from habitual criminality would receive a monthly pension of $200. They were required to spend the money within thirty days thus restoring “the proper circulation of money.”

No contributions were to be collected from the beneficiaries. There was no obligation to work and pay taxes for a number of years. It was possible for a person who never worked a day in their life would be entitled to a full ʺretirementʺ pension under the Townsend Plan.

There was no means-test, poor and rich alike would collect the same $200 payment regardless of any current or past taxes they had paid to the government. And the beneficiary had to spend the entire pension payment each month as it was received–it would be illegal to save even a penny from the benefit.

The funds would be supplied by a 2% federal sales levied ʺon the gross value of each business, commercial, and/or financial transaction,ʺ to be paid by the seller.

Within two years of the publication of the plan, as stated in a letter to the editor in a Long Beach, California news-paper, there were over 7,000 ʺTownsend Clubsʺ with over 2.2 million members actively working to make the Townsend Plan the nationʹs old-age pension system. Regional and National Conventions were held, the walls reverberating with the clubs anthem “Onward Town-send Soldiers.”

Public opinion surveys in 1935 found that 56% of Americans favored adoption of the Townsend Plan and in 1936 Townsend delivered petitions to Congress containing 10 million signatures in support of the plan. However, fiscally unworkable, the plan was not adopted. The Social Security Administration website has a synopsis of the plan (The Townsend Plan’s Pension Scheme) that discusses the fiscal implications. You will also find a link to the full text of the Congressional hearings. You can find a guide to records held in the National Archives at Guide to the Townsend National Recovery Plan, Inc. Records 1934-1960.

To put that $2400 a year in perspective, my father-in-law at the age of 29 earned a salary of $1,545.70 as a teacher in a Long Beach. He did not reach the lofty income of $2,400 before he joined the army in 1942 and in fact his income in 1952 just topped $2,500 as a salesman of audio-visual equipment to schools.

Another proposal, specifically for California’s elderly, was Willis and Lawrence Allen’s “Ham ‘n’ Eggs”. It was based on Robert Noble’s California Revolving Pensions Plan which had promised to pay the elderly $25 every Monday morning. The Allen brothers, started out working with Noble, but soon suggested a different plan that omitted any involvement by Noble. Their plan offered to pay every unemployed person over fifty $30 every Thurs-day. Like the Townsend act this plan suggested a tax of 1¢ to 2¢ a week on unspent funds as an impetus to keep the money moving in the economy.

The plan was to be funded by a 3% gross income tax on Cal-ifornia Individuals and businesses. Although denounced by economists as irresponsible, it was placed on the 1938 ballot as an initiative. Although defeated, it received more than 1,430,000 votes. In fact it might have won if the corrupt practices of the Allen brothers had not come into the open shortly before the election.

Read more at The Battle for Ham and Eggs – San Diego History; California pension plan, Ham and Eggs, October 1938 – LA Times Blog.

You can read more about the History of Social Security on the SSA website.

Originally Published in the CSGA Newsletter May-June 2013

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FDR’s Alphabet Soup: Records From the Great Depression

Miscellaneous Agencies

Cath Madden Trindle

Before delving into the genealogical wonders of WPA records in a future issue, it is worth mentioning some of the “other” Alphabet Soup agencies and boards set up during the Franklin Roosevelt administration.  Whether your ancestor was an employee of the agency or one of those regulated by its mission you might find wonderful background information and perhaps a lucky few will find actual information on an ancestor. Many FDR agencies are still active today.  See the CSGA Blog for other agencies not covered in this series of articles.

CAB 1938-1985.

NARA RG197  cab

The Civil Aeronautics Board was created to regulate the economic aspects of United States air carriers, to help establish foreign air routes and services and to investigate civil air accidents. It was preceded by the Aeronautics Branch (1926-1934) and the Bureau of Air Commerce (1934-1938).   It absorbed the Bureau of Air Mail, Interstate Commerce Commission (1934-1938), the Civil Aeronautics Authority (1938-1940) and the Air Safety Board (1938-1940).  The Civil Aeronautic Board’s authority was abolished effective 1 Jan 1985 with authority going to the Federal Aviation Administration.  Read more at History of FAA and it’s predecessors

CCC 1933-1948. 


The Commodity Credit Corporation was created to make loans to promote ccc carrying and marketing of agricultural commodities.   In 1948 the Commodity Credit Corporation Charter Act (62 Stat. 1070) placed the federally chartered corporation under the Department of Agriculture. Information on the records held by NARA can be found in Norman D. Moore’s “Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Commodity Credit Corporation,” NC 98 (Feb. 1965) ask your local NARA branch for a copy.

FLSA 1938   

NARA RG155.2  

The Fair Labor Standards Act, enacted in 1938, was the last major piece of New Deal legislation intended to reform the economy, and it is still with us today. This law established the minimum wage, which at the time was twenty-five cents an hour. It also set the standard for the 40-hour work week and banned the use of child labor.  Enforcement is by the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor.

  • San Francisco has 76 cubic feet of WHD Region 9 (AK, AZ, CA, HI, ID, NV, OR, UT, WA) case dated from 1939 to1971.

NLRB 1933 – present    


nlrbThe National Labor Relations Board  was created by the National Labor Relations / Wagner Act of July 5, 1935. It replaced two earlier boards: the National Labor Board (NLB), established August 5, 1933, and a first NLRB, established on June 19, 1934. When the National Industrial Recovery Administration (NIRA was declared unconstitutional in May of 1935,  the first NLRB ceased to function. The second NLRB, was tasked with determining the unit of employees appropriate for collective bargaining, conducting elections for employee representatives, and to force employers to end specified unfair labor practices in industries other than the railroads and airlines. Functions have subsequently been modified by the War Labor Disputes Act of June 1943, the Labor Management Relations / Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 and the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure / Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959. All three boards utilized a system of regional boards to deal with labor controversies in the field.

NRPB 1939-1943  


The National Resources Planning Board was created by the Executive nrpbOffice of the President, Reorganization Plan No. 1 of 1939,  to advise the president on the development of national resources in cooperation with state and regional planning boards.  It replaced the Federal Employment Stabilization Board (1931) and absorbed the functions of the National Planning Board of the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works (1933) and various successors. The NRPB planned public works, coordinated Federal planning relating to conservation and efficient use of national resources, and encouraged local, State, and regional planning. The NRPB was abolished by an act of June 26, 1943. 

Regional offices primarily acted as clearinghouses of planning information, carried out the Board’s activities in the field, and coordinated regional, State, and local natural resource planning activities.

  • NARA San Francisco has 52 cu ft of records from NRPB Region 8 (Pacific Southwest – AZ, CA, HI, NE, UT).  Records include drainage basin committees and State planning boards. Records include correspondence, clippings, issuances, printed materials, reports and maps.
  • Finding Aid – Virgil E. Baugh, comp., Preliminary Inventory of the Regional Offices of the National Planning Board, PI 64 (1954).

Originally Published in the CSGA Newsletter Jan-Feb 2014

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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

2014-10-30 14.38.24

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.

2014-10-30 14.44.18
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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