Today in History

Today in History: April 8

Works Progress Administration

Seabrook farm, CT
Seabrook Farm, Cannery Workers, Bridgeton, New Jersey,
John Collier, photographer, June 1942.
Voices from the Thirties
American Life Histories, 1936-1940

On April 8, 1935, Congress approved the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Created by President Franklin Roosevelt to relieve the economic hardship of the Great Depression, this national works program (called the Works Project Administration beginning in 1939) employed more than 8.5 million people on 1.4 million public projects before it was disbanded in 1943.

The Federal Writers' Project was one of several projects within the WPA targeted to people with skills in the arts. Among the well-known writers employed by the project were Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, May Swenson, Margaret Walker, and Richard Wright.

During the Project's early years, the Federal Writers produced a series of state guidebooks that offer a flavorful sampling of life in the United States. Now considered classics of Americana, these guides remain the Federal Writers' Project's best-known undertaking. But, the Federal Writers' Project also left a hidden legacy. In the late 1930s, Federal Writers recorded the life stories of more than 10,000 men and women from a variety of regions, occupations, and ethnic groups. Nearly 3,000 of these manuscripts are now available online as part of the American Memory collection American Life Histories, 1936-1940.

Search this collection on May Swenson, Ralph Ellison, and Nelson Algren to find interviews conducted by these famous writers. Or, select a state name to find interviews recorded in a region of your choice.

costume design, Dr. Faustus
Costume Design for Dr. Faustus, staged by Orson Welles, New York City, 1937.
The New Deal Stage: Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939

For more on the Federal Writers' Project, view the special presentation Voices from the Thirties: Life Histories from the Federal Writers' Project, which includes stories and photographs of Americans during the Depression era.

Another arts-related project was the WPA Federal Theatre Project, which employed out-of-work actors, musicians, vaudevillians, and theater technicians in performances of classical and modern plays, such as Orson Welles' production of Macbeth.

The policy of government financing of theatrical productions stirred political controversy throughout the life of the project, and in 1939, Congress discontinued its funding.