Online Exhibits: Putting People to Work
Jobs were scarce, banks were unstable, and a good part of the nation’s farms were stricken by drought. The people were in despair. Beginning in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the federal government used their powers to improve the lives of Americans. They created a series of experimental economic measures known collectively as the “New Deal.” These measures created jobs for the unemployed, worked towards economic recovery and growth, reformed the financial system, and invested in public works.
Workers earned income, maintained self-respect and a strong work ethic, and sharpened their work skills. The people of Northwest Arkansas benefited from hundreds of make-work public construction projects, which were administered by a variety of “alphabet agencies” (so called because of the use of initials when referencing their proper names). Agencies provided grants and loans, typically paying for workers’ salaries, while state and local governments supplied the necessary land, materials, and equipment.
In Northwest Arkansas, woodcutters chopped firewood for cooking and heating, visiting housekeepers improved home conditions, and seamstresses made warm comforters. The federal government gave $8,384 towards a program which turned surplus ticking (a tightly woven fabric used for making mattresses) into overalls in Madison, Benton, and Washington Counties.
Workers were hired as supervisors at canning kitchens, as research and statistics clerks at the University of Arkansas, and as sanitary workers in the disposal of drought-stricken livestock. As part of the National Youth Administration, Washington County boys built coffins for paupers while Madison County girls made toys. Under the Works Progress Administration, archeological sites were surveyed and pre-historic Native American materials were collected on behalf of the University of Arkansas museum in Fayetteville.
The Federal Art Project hired artists to paint murals and create sculptures for post offices in Springdale, Siloam Springs, and Berryville. As part of the Federal Writers’ Project, writers contributed to the American Guide Series, producing a guidebook which described Arkansas towns, historical sites, scenic areas, and resources. The Writers’ Project also collected oral histories from early settlers and enslaved African Americans. Workers with the Historical Records Survey in Madison County cataloged public records for use by local citizens and researchers.
Some claimed that the far-reaching programs were an unconstitutional extension of federal authority. Others said that projects weren’t fairly distributed or that some were of little value. Some felt that projects such as canning food or making mattresses put the government in competition with commercial manufacturers.
New Deal projects were phased out, as men were sent to fight overseas and women entered the workforce. Today, Americans still benefit from New Deal-era programs such as Social Security, the Federal Housing Administration, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. And in Northwest Arkansas, we still value and enjoy the many parks, roads, schools, and government structures built during a time when it was important to put people to work.
Workers at Devil’s Den State Park near Winslow (Washington County), 1934. Bill Scoggins, photographer. Billye Jean Scoggins Collection (S-95-6-51)
Thelma Blake Lierly (left) and Ruby Burks Warren, Bailey Stadium, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville (Washington County), 1940. Lloyd O. Warren, photographer. Lloyd O. Warren Collection (S-96-2-533)
Dedication of Bailey Stadium, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville (Washington County), October 9, 1938. With Governor Carl E. Bailey (left) and WPA Administrator Harry Hopkins (speaking). Washington County Historical Society Collection (P-762)
PWA (1933-1943). The Public Works Administration planned, funded, and administered the building of large public structures such as roads, bridges, dams, post offices, courthouses, schools, and parks. The PWA was a stimulus program. It made loans and grants to state and local governments which in turn hired private construction firms to carry out the work.
CCC (1933-1942). The Civilian Conservation Corps conserved and developed natural resources on rural, government-owned lands. The CCC built national and state parks, planted forests, and constructed roads. The program was designed to help single, unemployed, young men whose families were on relief.
FERA (1933-1935). The Federal Emergency Relief Administration provided funds to states to operate relief programs and create jobs in construction, the arts, and the manufacture of consumer goods. After two years, the FERA was replaced by the WPA.
WPA (1935-1943). The Works Progress Administration (later renamed the Works Projects Administration) was the New Deal’s largest and most comprehensive agency. Its goal was to provide one paid job for every family in need. The WPA used mostly unskilled laborers to build such things as roads, schools, parks, courthouses, and recreational institutions like museums and zoos.
NYA (1935-1943). The National Youth Administration offered work to youngsters ages 16 to 25. By employing youth in part-time “work study” jobs at their schools, such as construction, administration, and repair projects, the government hoped to give them skills while keeping them in school and out of the strained job market.