About the Series

The Great Depression was the most serious national crisis since the Civil War.  Hundreds of thousands of people had lost their jobs.  Banks were collapsing.  People could not pay mortgages and abandoned their homes.  The was America in 1933, and Franklin D. Roosevelt had just been elected president.  To alleviate the crisis in the country's economic and political systems, Roosevelt quickly created the still controversial Works Progress Administration (WPA) to put people back to work, building roads, bridges and schools. 

The Federal Writers' Project

One small section of the mammoth WPA initiative was the Federal Writers' Project (FWP).  Instead of building roads and bridges, the FWP's formerly jobless writers and artists helped to create a remarkable portrait in words of something less tangible: the country's soul.

The purpose of the WPA was emergency aid.  The Federal Writers' Project was considered a "make-work" agency to assist in getting the economy moving again.  Nobody expected that such an agency would create anything as meaningful as a snapshot of America at a critical moment: a time when old ways were breaking down and new American stories were just emerging.

The Federal Writers' Project was responsible for the American Guide Series of travel guides for every state and for interviews with former slaves and thousands of citizens all across the U.S. in the 1930s.  Driving along the nation's back roads, these writers wrote the biography of America in the 1930s; they described the nation's buildings and festivals, detailed its land and its landmarks, and recorded its people's stories.

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WPA Poster, 1936-41

Courtesy of Library of Congress