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American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work

American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work

4.8 6
by Nick Taylor

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If you’ve traveled the nation’s highways, flown into New York’s LaGuardia Airport, strolled San Antonio’s River Walk, or seen the Pacific Ocean from the Beach Chalet in San Francisco, you have experienced some part of the legacy of the Works Progress Administration (WPA)—one of the enduring cornerstones of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s


If you’ve traveled the nation’s highways, flown into New York’s LaGuardia Airport, strolled San Antonio’s River Walk, or seen the Pacific Ocean from the Beach Chalet in San Francisco, you have experienced some part of the legacy of the Works Progress Administration (WPA)—one of the enduring cornerstones of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

When President Roosevelt took the oath of office in March 1933, he was facing a devastated nation. Four years into the Great Depression, a staggering 13 million American workers were jobless and many millions more of their family members were equally in need. Desperation ruled the land.

What people wanted were jobs, not handouts: the pride of earning a paycheck; and in 1935, after a variety of temporary relief measures, a permanent nationwide jobs program was created. This was the Works Progress Administration, and it would forever change the physical landscape and the social policies of the United States.

The WPA lasted for eight years, spent $11 billion, employed 8½ million men and women, and gave the country not only a renewed spirit but a fresh face. Under its colorful head, Harry Hopkins, the agency’s remarkable accomplishment was to combine the urgency of putting people back to work with its vision of physically rebuilding America. Its workers laid roads, erected dams, bridges, tunnels, and airports. They stocked rivers, made toys, sewed clothes, served millions of hot school lunches. When disasters struck, they were there by the thousands to rescue the stranded. And all across the country the WPA’s arts programs performed concerts, staged plays, painted murals, delighted children with circuses, created invaluable guidebooks. Even today, more than sixty years after the WPA ceased to exist, there is almost no area in America that does not bear some visible mark of its presence.

Politically controversial, the WPA was staffed by passionate believers and hated by conservatives; its critics called its projects make-work and wags said it stood for We Piddle Around. The contrary was true. We have only to look about us today to discover its lasting presence.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

H. W. Brands
Taylor's American-Made is bigger than its title suggests; he provides a succinct survey of the Great Depression and particularly its consequences for workers…he interweaves personal stories with explanations of policy. His manner is brisk; chapters of four and five pages fly by. He treats Roosevelt sympathetically, but his hero is Harry Hopkins, the WPA's founding director.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Launched in 1935, at the bottom of the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) served as a linchpin of FDR's "New Deal." Through the WPA, Roosevelt put millions of unemployed Americans to work on public construction projects, from dams and courthouses to parks and roads. The WPA's Federal Writers Project employed a host of artists and writers (among them Jackson Pollock, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston and Studs Terkel); theater and musical artists also received funding. Taylor (Ordinary Miracles: Life in a Small Church) vividly and painstakingly paints the full story of the WPA from its inception to its shutdown by Congress in 1943, at which point the war boom in manufacturing had made it unnecessary. In an eloquent and balanced appraisal, Taylor not only chronicles the WPA's numerous triumphs (including New York's LaGuardia Airport) but also its failures, most notably graft and other chicanery at the local level. Taylor details as well the dicey intramural politics in Congress over which states and districts would get the largest slice of the WPA pie. All told, Taylor's volume makes for a splendid appreciation of the WPA with which to celebrate the upcoming 75th anniversary of the New Deal's beginnings in 1933. (Mar. 4)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Taylor (coauthor, John Glenn: A Memoir) acknowledges 2008's 75th anniversary of the New Deal (dated to FDR's first inaugural), followed in 2010 by that of the Works Progress Administration (1935-42)-later called the Work Projects Administration (WPA). His is a balanced summary of one of FDR's most prolific agencies. Although introductive for general readers and younger scholars on the subject of what a government can accomplish in a time of need, it is also informative for professional historians. The WPA's famous first commissioner, Harry Hopkins, was reassigned from the Civil Works Administration, later to move to the Commerce Department and then to become a presidential adviser. Taylor shows that the WPA also evolved from diverse programs to those focused on construction. The post office murals; the Federal Writers, Theater, and Music programs; what is now known as Camp David; and numerous parks, zoos, recreational areas, and airports are iconic products of the WPA. It also did work in the library field and offered a pavilion at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair. Its follies and triumphs are praised and critiqued here in a readable, often investigative, and apparently first full retrospective. Lavishly illustrated, the book also has a list of New Deal organizations, a partial list of construction projects, a New Deal chronology, and endnotes. It will be a boon to all 20th-century history collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ11/1/07.]
—Frederick J. Augustyn Jr.

Kirkus Reviews
Breezy but well-considered account of the Works Progress Administration, the New Deal's signature jobs program. Taylor (Laser: The Inventor, the Nobel Laureate, and the Thirty-Year Patent War, 2000, etc.) writes popular history, which means that academics may find his fast-paced narrative lacking in complex ideas. He peppers descriptions of major policy clashes with profiles of destitute people whose lives were literally saved by going on the workforce program. The book is filled with plucky, fast-talking characters who by dint of charm and grit pulled themselves up by their bootstraps to participate in the nationwide effort to put the jobless to work. Taylor's principal hero is Harry Hopkins, the tireless, charismatic FDR aide who steamrolled bureaucratic opposition to get the WPA up and running, then saw it through to the end, at the expense of his health and personal political ambitions, until it was ultimately derailed by the onset of World War II. The author paints a colorful, compelling picture of how miserable life was for most Americans after the stock market crash of 1929; his portrait of government competence and visionary goals contrasts pointedly with the radically restricted ambitions of today's politicians. He gives airtime to critics who found the WPA anti-business and anti-American, who invented the term "boondoggle" to describe the government's sometimes wasteful methods for getting people back to work. He also shows those voices drowned out by the concerns of starving citizens and reminds us that the WPA built some of the nation's most beloved pieces of infrastructure, from San Francisco's Cow Palace to New York's LaGuardia Airport. Readable and vividly rendered-anear-definitive account of one of the most massive government interventions into domestic affairs in American history. Agent: Lynn Nesbit/Janklow & Nesbit Associates
From the Publisher
“A must-read for history buffs and government wonks.... Taylor is at his best in describing the different projects and the lives of the people who worked on them. “—USA Today

“Brisk…. Taylor's American-Made is bigger than its title suggests; he provides a succinct survey of the Great Depression and particularly its consequences for workers…. he interweaves personal stories with explanations of policy.”—Washington Post Book World

“Vividly rendered—a near-definitive account of one of the most massive government interventions into domestic affairs on American history…. The book is filled with plucky, fast-talking characters who by dint of charm and grit pulled themselves up by their bootstraps to participate.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Eloquent and balanced…. A splendid appreciation of the WPA.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

“A paean to the WPA ... balanced and engaging.”—Boston Globe

"An immensely detailed book telling the epic story of an equally immense agency, American-Made does an incomparable job of chronicling an important chapter in American history, one which many of us only know from the classroom and some of us know all too well."—New Hampshire Business Review

“A quick read … engagingly written…. There is something here for everyone to learn.”—San Francisco Chronicle

"Well-written and helpfully structured.... Taylor intersperses individual stories to give body to stark statisticsan admiring, as well as admirable, history of FDR's main job-creation program."—Chicago Sun-Times

"A lively 'people's history' of the WPA."—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Vastly informative, popular history at its finest…. A straightforward, relentlessly chronological, clearly written account.”—Dallas Morning News

"Chock-full of facts.... Taylor captures the drama and idealism of the program's early years."—Time Out New York

“[Taylor] has produced what is likely the most complete account yet of the much-written-about agency, just in time for the 75th anniversary of the New Deal.”—Milwaukee Express

"A lively and uplifting look at hard times—and a government program that worked."—Arizona Republic

“American-Made might be one of the most empathetic stories ever told…. It also is among the greatest.”—Miami Sun Post

“Pertinent and timely…. Filled with both insight and wisdom. It is highly readable, absolutely terrific and highly recommended.”—Tucson Citizen

“Brilliant. American-Made…is the story of how American energy, administration, and improvisation coalesced in one of the country’s finest hours.” —California Literary Review

“The WPA…returned to the nation what FDR called ‘the joy and moral stimulation of work.’ Taylor’s book is both a paean to American resourcefulness and a staunch defense of the New Deal.” —New Yorker

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Chapter One

The End of Jobs

In 1932, the United States faced the greatest crisis in its history short of war. The American industrial powerhouse that had emerged at the end of the Great War in Europe had fallen still. The stillness had progressed from the stock market, which had lost almost 90 percent of its value since the awful crash of October 1929, to the nation’s factories, and from the factories to city avenues, small-town streets, and out across the countryside, where it reached farmers who were mired in a crisis of their own, caused by debt and drought. Workers from every walk of life were idle, one-quarter of the workforce—13 million men and women, though some estimates ranged to 15 million and above. As their resources dwindled, they descended a spiral from belt-tightening to despair to destitution. Millions lost their homes, wore their clothes into rags, and had to forage like animals for food: city dwellers fought for scraps in garbage cans and dumps, while in the country, the hungry scratched for roots and weeds.

For all of the physical suffering, the greatest loss was to the spirit. People felt fear, shame, despair; the suicide rate soared, and the nation trembled at the prospect of a dark, uncertain future. The optimism that Americans had distilled from the promise of the Constitution and learned to take as their birthright—their dreams—had disappeared with their access to work.

This did not have to happen. That it did was dictated by a revered American political philosophy that denied the central government a role in addressing social problems. In the so-called New Era, which began in 1921 and spanned the Republican presidencies of Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and now Herbert Hoover, business interests effectively ran the country with some friendly advice from Washington, primarily in the form of useful information. The right data, gathered by the government, would allow banks to adjust their loan portfolios and manufacturers their production schedules, thereby achieving greater efficiencies than they had attained on their own. Labor was a commodity, like iron ore or cotton, to be purchased on the open market at the cheapest price. It was outlandish to think that employers would have any interest in their employees beyond their productive capacity, and even odder to think that the federal government would interfere by telling them how to treat their workers. As for human health and welfare, these were private matters. Society understood that there would always be a few unfortunates who could not—or chose not to—work and take care of themselves, and for these stragglers local governments and private charities were expected to lend a helping hand. It was certainly not Washington’s job to feed and clothe people or give them employment. The government had an interest in promoting social goals, since a healthy, well-fed, stable nation provided a good business climate, but that was all.

“The sole function of government,” Hoover had said in the fall of 1931, two years after the crash, “is to bring about a condition of affairs favorable to the beneficial development of private enterprise.” His predecessor, Coolidge, had put it more succinctly (a practice for which he was famous; his nickname was “Silent Cal”): “The chief business of the American people is business.”

But the New Era had failed, and Hoover’s efforts to revive it had been fruitless. Babe Ruth had put the president’s performance into harsh perspective. Early in 1930, the New York Yankees slugger was holding out for a contract that would pay him $80,000 a year. When sportswriters reminded him that the president made $75,000, Ruth responded, “What’s Hoover got to do with it? Besides, I had a better year than he did.”

And conditions were not improving. Businesses continued to fail at an unprecedented rate, more than 50,000 since the crash, and the pace of these failures was accelerating. By 1932, more than 3,600 banks had closed, robbing millions of depositors of their life’s savings. Every time a bank or business shut its doors, men and women lost their jobs and their buying power, which meant more business failures. As a result, industry was operating at a fraction of capacity, with production lines slowed or shut down entirely. In Birmingham, Alabama, 25,000 of the steel town’s 108,000 salaried workers had no jobs at all, and another 75,000 were working reduced hours, for an average pay of $1.50 a day. Thirty percent of workers were jobless in Detroit, 40 percent in Chicago, 50 percent across the state of Colorado. New York City had 800,000 workers without jobs. Skilled laborers in the construction industry—carpenters, plumbers, and electricians—saw their jobs disappear as new construction vanished. White-collar profes- sions were equally hard hit. Only half the nation’s engineers had work. With few new homes, or commercial or public buildings, to design, architects’ practices were decimated; only one in seven had jobs. Nationally, unemployment had doubled in a year.

After the prosperity of the late 1920s, the widening epidemic of joblessness sent shock waves through the nation. Before the crash, almost every non-farmer who could work and wanted a job had one. The unemployment rate in 1929 had been just 3.2 percent. Flush times had begun to seem permanent, a notion supported by the nation’s leaders. Hoover, accepting the Republican presidential nomination in June 1928, said, “Unemployment in the sense of distress is widely disappearing. . . . We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poorhouse is vanishing from among us.”

When it was jobs, not unemployment, that vanished, people found it impossible to believe at first. They never thought it could happen to them. Office workers who got pink slips went home and circled newspaper want ads at the kitchen table, then went out the next morning with the paper tucked under their arms, full of expectation, only to return at night disappointed. Factory men gathered day after day in union halls, in employment offices, and at the gates of the factories where they used to work. Bulletin boards bristled with “No Help Wanted” signs. Barkers bellowed “No jobs today, men” over bullhorns at the factory gates. Each day hope flaked away like layers of old paint. And when the reality that there were no jobs finally sank in, the job seekers continued to leave their homes each morning, but now sat on park benches and in the reading rooms of public libraries. They haunted the counters of cheap coffee shops and stood in sheltered doorways. Anything was better than returning home and admitting defeat to a wife whose eager hope shone on her face as she opened the door—and to children who sensed the desperation in their parents’ whispered conversations.

The hardships that followed came on slowly. Those who hadn’t lost their savings when a bank failed spent them down to nothing. Then they borrowed. They put off paying rent, bought on credit at the grocery store, skipped the installment payments on their furni- ture. When their credit was gone, they leaned on relatives and friends. When their clothes wore out, they darned and patched until the fabric couldn’t hold new thread. When the soles of their shoes wore through, they stuffed them with cotton, cardboard, or old newspapers. When they couldn’t pay for electricity or coal and suppliers cut them off, they huddled together in the dark and chased coal trucks down the street to pick up the odd lumps that fell onto the pavement. When they found the eviction notice nailed to their front door, they tore it down and hoped the sheriff would forget them.

Food was the last necessity to go. Parents skipped meals so their children could eat. Siblings ate on alternate days. Teachers watched skinny, ill-clothed, malnourished children nodding at their desks until the day came when they dropped out of school and vanished. Foster homes and orphanages swelled with youngsters whose parents could not afford to feed them, 20,000 in New York alone. At night people lurked behind restaurants and grocery stores waiting for the refuse cans to be set out, and fought others for the chance to claw through the garbage. They followed sanitation trucks to city dumps. They stared at the food displayed in grocery store and bakery windows and wished they had the nerve to hurl the brick that might let them satisfy their children’s hunger for a night.

By 1932, the situation of city dwellers had finally fallen to a par with the nation’s farmers, who for the past ten years had not been able to sell their crops and livestock for what these cost to grow. The farm troubles had started in the aftermath of the world war. Food from America had sustained Europe when its own farms were idled by the war, but once those farms regained their productivity America’s export markets disappeared, and suddenly its farmers were producing more food than the domestic market could absorb. Protective tariffs, which sheltered American manufacturers from inexpensive imports, had never been erected on behalf of farmers. While the nation’s overall economy recovered from the brief postwar depression of 1920–21, when manufacturing output fell 25 percent, the farmers never regained their buying power. Subsequent years of drought had made matters even worse. Eleven million farm families continued to live in unremitting poverty, and the banks’ hold on their mortgaged land grew ever tighter.

And no matter where they lived, those who had a roof at all were lucky, because the sheriff could not forget those struggling in arrears, even if he wanted to. When the eviction notice was hammered to the door a second and a third time, the dispossessed were likely to steal away in the middle of the night to find space where they could, sometimes in apartments where landlords who were also desperate were offering terms of free rent to fill their empty space, sometimes doubling up with the same relatives and friends they had already pressed for loans, sometimes even in their cars. But for many who lost their homes through eviction or foreclosure, including farmers who had been turned out or simply walked away from barren and unproductive land, there was no place to go. Following rumors or blind hope that jobs waited at the next crossroad or rail junction, thousands upon thousands became nomads. Old farm trucks driven by grim men plied the roads, overloaded with mattresses and furniture, pots and pans, suitcases and chests, wives and children and sometimes parents crowded together in the cab or huddled under canvas in the back. Others rode in—or under—empty freight cars or hitchhiked, wandering between hobo jungles where they might find a crude meal and temporary shelter. Most though not all of them were men. Women and even children were also on the roads and rails, their days spent in a twilight world of fear and want. The homeless numbered as many as 2 million. They collected in city doorways, in railway freight yards, under bridges. They lived in squalid migrant camps and shantytowns cobbled together from abandoned cars, discarded tarpaper, sheets of tin, scraps of wood.

Yet even the most impoverished families were slow to turn to charity. Americans’ deep-rooted belief in work came with a catch: failing to find it, it was not in their blood to ask for help. Campaigning in 1928, Hoover had extolled “the American system of rugged individualism,” a system, he said, that “has come nearer to the abolition of poverty, to the abolition of fear of want, than humanity has ever reached before.” But even when the system failed in 1929, bringing them face-to-face with poverty and want—and fear itself—Americans clung to its assumptions. If they couldn’t make their own way in the world, the fault must be with them.

“Oh, don’t bother,” a laid-off Texas teacher who had been forced to seek assistance told a social worker who was trying to cheer her up. “If, with all the advantages I’ve had, I can’t make a living, I’m just no good, I guess.”

The growing evidence of suffering brought no change in the philosophy that ruled government and business. The United States clung to a tradition of poor laws that harked back 350 years to Elizabethan England. The burden of caring for the poor fell on local governments and private charities. In recent years a few state governments, led by New York, had set up formal systems to administer what was called “relief,” as in relief of want by way of cash payments, vouchers for necessities such as food and rent, and—where work could be created—paying jobs. But Washington remained aloof. Business and banking interests insisted on maintaining this alignment of responsibilities, which had been in place under the Republican administrations that with few exceptions had been in power since the Civil War. When the United States Chamber of Commerce polled its members in December 1931, they responded 2,534 to 197 that “needed relief should be provided through private contributions and by state and local governments.”

But these governments were now as broke as the people who needed their help, and as the depression deepened they were unequal to the task. City tax collections had shrunk with the contraction of the economy. Many local governments were on the verge of bankruptcy. Charitable donations had also shriveled, and with them the ability to provide relief to families in need.

Those charged with the burden of the poor sought solutions with growing desperation. Winslow Township, New Jersey, an area of small farm communities with about 5,000 people, mirrored the country as a whole. One worker in five was out of work. On January 2, 1932, the eight members of the Winslow Township Committee convened in Blue Anchor, a crossroads halfway between Philadelphia and then-sleepy Atlantic City. The committee voted to dismiss the five-member police force it no longer could afford to pay. Then, led by its aptly named chairman, Herman Priestley, the committee called for a week of prayer to ask God’s help in solving the township’s unemployment crisis.

Prayer was all many jobless Americans had left in 1932.

From the Hardcover edition.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"Vivid, engagingly written" —-San Francisco Chronicle

Meet the Author

Nick Taylor is the author of seven nonfiction books and collaborated with John Glenn on his memoir. He lives in New York City.

From the Hardcover edition.

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American-Made 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She looked at the rabbit from afar, not daring toget any closer, due to her black pelt. She looked at the rabbits shadow. Due to the angle of the morning sun, it was large enough. Sh dissappeared, rematerializing next to the rabbit, biting its neck. ( ok, ill explain. I have the power to control shadows, that includes being able to move from one t another almost instantaneously. I promise i wont godmod. I never do. I rarely use the power anyways because its quite painful)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago