Works Progress Administration & Genealogy: Federal Art Project

The Great Depression created the impetus for President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to put Americans back to work. One of the many programs created in 1933, under the New Deal, was the Works Progress Administration, or WPA.

Why are the WPA accomplishments important to genealogists today?

The Works Progress Administration programs touched the lives of millions of Americans during the Great Depression. It was designed to not only employ those out of work, but Federal Project Number One, which included the five projects about which I am writing, had as a goal to make culture and the arts accessible to everyone during those difficult years.

It is likely that you have parents, grandparents or perhaps even great grandparents who participated in one or more of these projects in some way. You never know exactly what you are going to find, but, as you will see, a huge variety of records were created in less than a decade. It’s well worth taking the time to have a look.

Back in 2015, I wrote about the basics of the Works Progress Administration, but in today’s digital world, that was the dinosaur era. Both federal and state repositories have made some of the books, guides and various record sets available to researchers online. Therefore, it’s time to take a much deeper dive into these fabulous records.

How are these records organized?

WPA records have been divided into five categories:

Federal Art Project
Federal Music Project
Federal Theatre Project
Federal Writers Project
Historical Records Survey

The two programs with the largest paper output are the Writers Project and the Historical Records Survey, but each of the five projects impacted daily American lives.

Where can the records be found?

Part of the reason that these records are underused by genealogists is because they are not found in any one repository.

Several of the five projects, like today’s topic, have easy access, almost one-stop shopping guides, so to speak.

However, the Historical Records Survey is housed in many different places. Some pieces can be found at NARA, at state level archives, on FamilySearch, on HathiTrust and the Internet Archive and even in some local level repositories, such as historical societies. It all depends on who accepted possession of the records when the Works Progress Administration ended as the United States entered World War II and where digital versions of records have been saved.

What kinds of information can be found in the WPA Projects?

A huge variety of American cultural and historical information has been noted and recorded in the various projects. Researchers will find everything from state guides containing local historical tours to slave narratives to American theatrical shows to local church records to photographs detailing American life. There is much information about American life that would have been lost to history had the WPA workers not saved it.

These surveys didn’t have a genealogical goal in mind as they were created. You might be lucky to find a family member in these records – I found an oral interview of a grand uncle of my mother-in-law describing life in early Oklahoma – but it is likely that you will learn something new about the daily life of Americans that will enrich your own family history knowledge.

This will be a five-part series, one post about each project, and today we will look at the Federal Art Project.

The first stop for anyone interested in the WPA projects should be the Library of Congress Web Guide.

The objective of the Federal Art Project was “to provide work relief for artists in various media–painters, sculptors, muralists and graphic artists, with various levels of experience.”

Online materials include over 900 poster images of the 2000 known to have been created in the WPA era, plus over 200  fine art prints created by local artists.

Those items can be accessed on the Library of Congress website using the links found in the guides.

The Web Guide also has a short list of external collections, including those held by NARA, the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art. The Smithsonian also has a collection of oral interviews with both artists and photographers of the Depression Era.

Where else can information be found about the
Federal Art Project?

Wikipedia has an extensive list of Federal Art Project artists and background history about the project itself. Both have extensive links.

The Art Story has an excellent overview and the accomplishments of the program.

Being visually oriented, this is a fun project just to browse. Poster art included Public School Art from Sioux City, Macbeth presented by the WPA Federal Theatre Negro Unit and See America. Welcome to Montana. There is a bit of everything representing the arts in America.

Search Tip –  Be sure to do a search of each of the five WPA Federal Projects with the name of a state included in the search terms to locate local resources pertaining to each project.

Finally, be aware that not everything has been digitized, nor is it all accessible online.

Tomorrow’s post will look at the Federal Music Project.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.