The 1930s Writers' Project

One of the many New Deal projects to help get people back to work during he 1930s Great Depression was the WPA (Works Project Administration) for writers. One was named ‘Folklore Project’ and the other ‘Federal Writers’ Project’. This paid writing assignment put over 6,500 men and women around the country to work, paying them a subsistence wage of about $20 a week. They created stories and documents anywhere between 2,000 and 15,000 words in length. Most were written based on interviews with general American citizens. These would be histories of families or individuals describing the informant’s family education, income, occupation, political views, religion, medical condition, diet and miscellaneous observations.

Under Folklore, life sketches were developed to help preserve information about a person’s travels, jobs, and struggles in life. The later Federal Writers’ Project expanded on that concept to include stories of former slaves, people struggling during the Depression, explanation of various cultural customs, and many others to eventually have some 300,000 written stories. Included was the information about numerous ethnic and historical artifacts in certain states.

These projects were also to preserve the past before it was lost forever and now in the 21st century you can view these stories. The American Life Histories is through the Library of Congress and can be viewed online. There are approximately 10,000 stories of men and women from a variety of regions, occupations and ethnic groups.

To start select from ‘Search by Keywords’ or the ‘Search a State’. Under keyword you can search a surname or a hometown or occupation. Using the state search a map appears showing the 24 states done (note not all states were done in the writing project). One you select a state, in the upper left will be all the topics covered and written in the state. Illinois has 71 different stories, State of Washington has 26, Massachusetts has 139, and Texas with 445 stories shows the various numbers.

Select a topic or story title and it is transcribed, but you can also you can also click on the ‘image’ to view the original scanned written by hand or typed document. An interest note is to use the keyword in doing a search, because that name could appear anywhere, as a writer, the person being interview or even a brief reference. That one tiny piece of information could guide you to finding even more about an ancestor. Any of these documents can also be saved to your computer.

Good hunting in what was written over 75 years ago.

Photo: In Colorado, writers and artists producing models of cultural groups.

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