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WPA Artists, 1930s

WPA mural, Manistee County

For a larger view of the above image, click WPA mural, Manistee County - Large View.

We know that this photo was taken in Manistee County, Michigan in the 1930s or early 1940s. We also know that these women are painting for the WPA, an agency of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Sadly, the names of the women themselves have been seemingly lost to history. If you know who they are, then please contact Bob Garrett, Archivist, at

In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the Democratic Party's Presidential nominee. At that time, the Great Depression was nearly three years old. Roosevelt promised support and relief, offering "a new deal for the American people." He won the election and took office in March 1933. As President, he established agencies designed to aid impoverished Americans and strengthen the economy.

The Works Progress Administration, established in 1935 (and renamed the Work Projects Administration in 1939), was among these agencies. Its primary purpose was creating work for the unemployed. The federal government funded the work projects, which were first proposed by local government agencies and then approved at the state and federal levels. Harry Hopkins, a close Roosevelt advisor, oversaw the program. On page 101 of his book The Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, George McJimsey notes that WPA workers "built thousands of miles of roads and streets and improved drainage systems, public buildings, parks and recreational facilities."

The WPA hired white-collar workers as well as blue-collar ones. These white-collar workers included unemployed creative professionals. Writers produced tour guides, musicians performed symphonies and actors staged plays. Artists became involved, too, and many - such as the women in these photos - painted murals.

WPA Artists, not datedThe murals often decorated public buildings (although it is unclear if that is the case with these photos.). Many conveyed an historical theme. The mural in the photo above emphasizes defense, suggesting, perhaps, that the photo was taken not long before - or possibly during - American involvement in World War II. Milton Meltzer, on Page 141 of his book Violins and Shovels: The WPA Arts Projects, notes that "by the middle of 1940, the arts projects were being hitched to the defense program. The artists, for instance, began building training aids, making posters for military bases and decorating service clubs." Meltzer also notes that all WPA projects were phased out sometime in 1943.

The date aside, these photos were among those that Louise Armstrong donated to the Archives of Michigan in 1955. Ms. Armstrong was a federal relief administrator in Manistee County, Michigan during the New Deal. Armstrong memoirs of this time, entitled We Too Are the People, were published in 1938. Author Susan Stein-Roggenbuck comments on Armstrong's work in her 2008 book Negotiating Relief: The Development of Social Welfare Programs in Depression-Era Michigan.

-Bob Garrett, Archivist

Rural property inventories, which included data about rural land and buildings, represent another product of WPA labor.

Digital copies of Michigan WPA inventories are available at Seeking Michigan. Click Seeking Michigan - Discover to find these and other Seeking Michigan collections

For a list of other New Deal materials housed in the Archives of Michigan, click New Deal Agencies - Archives of Michigan Circular #23

The following books were consulted for the above article. Clicking on the title retrieves the ANSWER library catalog records.

We Too Are the People by Louise V. Armstrong

Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Rendezvous With Destiney by Frank Friedel

The Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by George McJimsey

Violins and Shovels: The WPA Arts Projects by Milton Meltzer

Negotiating Relief: The Development of Social Welfare Programs in Depression-Era Michigan by Susan Stein-Roggenbuck

Click Archives of Michigan to visit the Archives of Michigan home page.

Click Image of the Month Archives to access former Image of the Month pages.

Archives of Michigan
Michigan Library and Historical Center
702 W. Kalamazoo Street
Lansing, MI 48913
Phone: (517) 373-1408

This page is the Archives Image of the Month page for June 2009.

Updated 05/29/2009

Michigan Historical Center, Department of History, Arts and Libraries
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