At the height of the Great Depression, nearly one in four Americans was unemployed. Under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the federal government created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to employ millions of jobless Americans. The WPA hired men and women to do white collar work like writing, as well as manual labor and construction. In Minnesota, the WPA's Federal Writers' Project was marked by controversy and tension with the federal government, but it created state guidebooks and ethnic histories that are still read widely today.
In 1929, the U.S. stock market crashed and took the world economy with it. Unemployment rose, and in 1932, voters elected Roosevelt to replace Herbert Hoover. Roosevelt immediately passed legislation and issued executive orders to provide jobs for the unemployed, restore faith in American banks, and promote economic recovery. Together, these policies and agencies were known as the New Deal.
The WPA was a New Deal program. It was created in 1935 to employ people who were able to work and to provide important community services. The WPA was not poor relief - it was not for the aged, disabled, or unemployable. Instead, it employed Americans for construction projects as well as educational, library, art, and health projects.
The Federal Writers' Project (FWP) was the part of the WPA that hired unemployed writers. Together with the Federal Music Project, Federal Theatre Project, and Historical Records Survey, the FWP formed "Federal One." Unlike most New Deal employment programs, which hired manual laborers, Federal One hired cultural workers.
The FWP hired writers at the state level. In Minnesota, a physician and former bookstore owner named Mabel Ulrich was hired to head the state project. She was told to hire 250 writers. The number was reduced to 120 after Ulrich had trouble finding qualified writers.
The FWP's main accomplishment was a series of state guidebooks known as the American Guide series. Ulrich oversaw the Minnesota guidebook, but she often fought with the federal editors. They wanted a guide with a more romantic focus on Minnesota folk culture. Ulrich resisted their direction, because she did not believe Minnesota had a distinctive regional culture.
In 1937, Ulrich and the head of the WPA in Minnesota, Victor Christgau, resigned in separate incidents. Christgau was pushed out by Governor Elmer Benson, for what Ulrich said were political reasons. Ulrich resigned from the writing project after writers organized and threatened to strike.
Some writers hired by the FWP were grateful to be employed, but others felt exploited or embarrassed by the mundane work and low wages. Many WPA workers around the nation joined unions, and WPA writers and artists in particular had a reputation for being "reds" (Communists) or "parlor pinks" (radicals rumored to be effeminate or homosexual). Although Minnesota writers were members of the Workers' Alliance union and threatened to strike, they never did.
Minnesota: A State Guide - now known as the WPA Guide to Minnesota - was published in 1938. Based on research and writing from the WPA writers, the guide begins with essays about Minnesota's history and culture. The rest of the book consists of auto and city tours that highlight important places across the state.
Writers continued FWP work until 1943, but only a few of their projects were published. The most notable Minnesota publications besides the main guidebook are The Minnesota Arrowhead Country and Bohemian Flats. Bohemian Flats was an in-depth ethnic study of an immigrant community that had lived near St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis.
At one point, the WPA employed nearly one in four Americans. But by the 1940s, it was no longer needed. Although the WPA was ended in 1943, several Minnesota writers used their WPA experience to further their writing careers. Frances Densmore was a WPA writer, and she published most of her work on Ojibwe and Dakota cultures after that experience. Activist Meridel Le Sueur was employed by the WPA as a teacher, and she went on to write numerous books, including The Girl, which was based on research she did for the WPA.
Bold, Christine. The WPA Guides: Mapping America. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.
Brewer, Jeutonne. The Federal Writers' Project: A Bibliography. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1994.
Hendrickson, Jr., Kenneth E. "The WPA Federal Art Projects in Minnesota, 1935-1943." Minnesota History 53 n.5 (Spring 1993): 170-183.
Mangione, Jerre Gerlando. The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers' Project, 1935-1943. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.
Ulrich, Mabel S. "Salvaging Culture for the WPA," Harpers Monthly (May 1939): 653-664.
The Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration. The WPA Guide to Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1938.
Minnesota Federal Writers' Project. "Achievements of the Minnesota Writers Project of W.P.A. Manuscript: The Final Report." [1943?]
The Works Progress Administration is founded in 1935. Unlike most government work programs, it provides jobs for writers, painters, and other cultural workers, in addition to manual laborers like construction workers.