The WPA as Working Model: Guiding Principles & Key Projects

Reading time: 6 minutes

(Second in a series of articles on American Work Projects of the Great Depression).

Experimentation & Innovation

“I am for experimenting…trying out schemes which are supported by reasonable people and see if they work. If they do not work, the world will not come to an end.”

Harry hopkins

Harry Hopkins had years of experience creating work prior to coming to Washington to head the WPA in 1933. As head of New York state’s Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA), approximately 40 percent of the projects Hopkins oversaw involved road construction. Other work projects involved sanitation, water supply, parks and playgrounds, utilities, schools and public improvements. Yet Hopkins wasn’t afraid to innovate when he encountered unusual situations or groups of people with unique skills. His first work experiment – upon which numerous others were subsequently based – created work for previously unemployed workers at the Bronx Zoo in New York City. When he discovered that members of an artist’s colony in upstate NY were starving, he put the artists to work by creating a public arts project. He also found work for teachers and clerical workers.

Hopkin’s openness to experimentation and innovation culminated in the creation of hundreds of novel projects throughout the country. Packhorse Libraries were one of many projects created by Hopkins and the WPA that created novel solutions to complex problems: Thousands of women travelled on horseback to remote homes and communities throughout Appalachia and the South bringing books to adults and children who were eager to read but who had no access to books. Horses, mules, and boats were used to bring books to children and adults in rural Ohio, Georgia, South Carolina and in most other Southern states. 1 The following narrative captures the experience of Grace Overbee, a mother of two from Kentucky who worked as a librarian on muleback:

Grace was the oldest of nine children who helped raise her younger siblings who would weed gardens and clean homes in exchange for barter to feed her family. She saw a notice for a job delivering books to remote schools and families that lived beyond the reach of roads. Once she received her first paycheck, her life got easier. Grace was not much of a reader herself, but on the days between her travels she would often browse through the materials she had ready for delivery. Being a packhorse librarian was a job in her eyes, not a mission, but what amused and touched her most, was that she was welcomed like a queen practically everywhere she went. Her job had status, which she had not anticipated at the start. She felt necessary, like a person delivering the mail. So eagerly was she received that she came to feel that the people all along her route were starved for experiences outside their own. Books gave them this, apparently, and almost any book would do. The children – including her own children – loved adventure stories, while adults liked history. All clients took eagerly whatever books she had on hand. And some who lived all alone in the remote hills wanted nothing more than sight and sound of another human being. The best days brought her to schools on her circuit. Sunshine, rain or snow, when she came around the last bend in the trail the children would be gathered in the yard, calling out: “Book lady’s comin’! Book lady’s comin’!” 2

Carriers in Hindman, KY

Speed is of the Essence

Hopkins understood how quickly the negative impacts of worklessness were felt. He recognized that widespread worklessness as an emergency and responded accordingly. His plan for economic and psychological recovery was simple: Any able-bodied unemployed person would be given socially useful work to perform at decent wages.

The sheer speed of Hopkin’s achievement was unprecedented: Hopkins created projects that hired millions of previously unemployed workers within several months. By January 1934 – three months after the CWA was created – it employed over 4 million workers. He accomplished this by “focusing on small quick starting projects such as road repair, repair of public buildings, playground development, and rural road improvements. By 1936 the WPA was sponsoring work projects that employed people in every county in the United States. 3

Trolley track work

All Types of Work, All Types of Workers

“Hell! (Artists and White-Collar Workers) got to eat just like other people.”

harry hopkins

Most of the work that the WPA created involved unskilled labor since this was most of what the jobless had to offer during the Great Depression. Yet Hopkins realized that it would be counter-productive and inhumane to compel those with special skills – such as artists, writers and musicians – to become third rate laborers when they had talents and skills that could be expressed in other ways. Hopkins was committed to employing all kinds of workers at the inception of WPA. The CWA (a forerunner of the WPA created in 1933) hired three thousand painters, etchers, sculptors and mural painters and created “an army of workers whose goal must be to better, to make more livable our towns and cities, our schools more cheerful, our playgrounds and our parks our pride and a delight.” Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who had been carving the four presidents on Mount Rushmore since 1927, offered that artists were hungry not just for food but with “unexpressed creative longing and were “anxious to be part of the great comeback.”

Innovative job creation was employed for diverse trades and occupations. Teachers were employed in adult education. Window dressers and clerks were sent to museums to help build displays and put old records in order; statisticians reported to hospitals to track disease patterns; bookbinders went to libraries to repair tattered books; historians and architects were dispatched to far-flung spots to compile the beginnings of a list of historic American buildings.

Usefulness as Pre-Eminent Criterion

“(T)here is no intention of using the public works funds to build a lot of useless projects disguised as relief. It is the purpose to encourage real public works.”


The most important criterion used to evaluate proposed programs entailed determining whether it served an enduring socially useful purpose: “all work undertaken should be useful – not just for a day, or a year, but useful in the sense that it affords permanent improvement in living conditions or that it creates future new wealth for the nation.” 4 The Jobs would need to create social benefits that private industry would or could not confer. FDR frequently reminded the nation that “…all of (the WPA projects) spring from a necessity, a definite human need” and thereby underscored the human need to mobilize energy needed to address a clear and present danger.5

The Aesthetic Dimension

One of the most enchanting aspects of the WPA resided in the degree to which those who governed it recognized the importance of beauty and the skills required to create it. WPA projects were not only useful but often resulted in magnificent works of art, architecture, and landscapes.

The purpose of WPA’s Federal One project, for example, not only kept “arts workers out of breadlines” but also constituted an educative, aesthetic and social force. By 1936, Federal Art Project employed 5000 mural and easel artists, printmakers, sculptors, poster artists, and art teachers. Small and large scale projects were undertaken by creative workers employed by the WPA. Examples of such projects – many of which persist to this day – include:

  • The creation of Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood, Oregon. Armenian and Turks who possessed ancient skills were used to make tapestries that decorated the lodge.6
  • A Federal Music Project that employed composers and musicians.
  • A national series of guidebooks produced by previously unemployed writers.
  • A Federal Theater Project that employed playwrights and actors.
  • The San Antonio River Walk, which transformed the Texas city into “a kind of Venice”.7
  • The creation of Flushing Meadow Park, which transformed a dump into a graded and landscaped site that was home to the 1939 World’s Fair.  The Fair featured a Mural by Gutson called “Work-The American Way.” Inside the WPA building exhibits showed off the WPA’s work in art, writing, landscaping and conservation, recreation, construction and disaster relief.  .” The theme of the World’s Fair was titled: “Democracity”.8
Flushing Bay during construction, 1936.

The Busiest Airport in the World

The largest of WPA’s construction jobs was NYC’s LaGuardia Airport. It transformed part of shoreline in the Borough of Queens in NYC into the nation’s most modern aviation complex. When the airport was completed in 1939, it was an enormous success. A crowd of 325,000 people showed up at its dedication in October. By December of the year in which construction of the airport was completed it was the busiest in the US, and less than a year later, it was the busiest in the world.

Pragmatism and Effectiveness over Ideological Purity

Harry Hopkins accepted the possible over the perfect. He was neither an ideologue nor a radical, but believed in the power of work and the governments’ responsibility to ensure that work was available. Hopkins would change policies when the situation warranted and wouldn’t hesitate to adapt his programs to conform to the needs of a new situation. “Basic to all of his relief work was his total commitment to making sure that he was putting men and women back to work.” 9

The government needed to organize work projects and workers not because Hopkins had a special affinity for government per se but because the government was the only entity capable of mobilizing labor. The government needed to “release the productive energies of persons who would otherwise be unemployed.” 10

Hopkins – a native Iowan – reiterated that such projects were “as American as corn on the cob” and repeatedly expressed impatience with ideologues on the Right and Left who tried to fault the program for perceived ideological impurities.

Although he had little patience for ideologically based attacks, Hopkins not only welcomed constructive feedback but actively sought it. He hired hundreds of field investigators to ensure that the work projects sponsored by the WPA effectively and efficiently employed as many workers as usefully as possible and that the work programs were free of fraud and other types of corruption. He instructed his army of field investigators to “Go out around the country and look this thing over…Tell me what you see and hear. All of it. Don’t ever pull your punches.” 11


  1. Taylor, Nick. American-Made. The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work. Bantam Books, New York. 2008. Page 225.
  2. Ibid, pages 223-226.
  3. Ibid, page 213.
  4. Ibid, page 161.
  5. Ibid, page 191.
  6. Ibid, page 277.
  7. Ibid, page 439 – 442.
  8. Ibid, page 442.
  9. Hopkins, June. Harry Hopkins: Sudden Hero, Brash Reformer. St. Martin’s Press, New York. 1999. Page 189-193.
  10. Ibid, page 204.
  11. Ibid, page 121.

2 thoughts

  1. This is just terrific. Very moving and meaningful. Be great to have this a consistent part of American society/culture – to deepen the ties of work and citizens as well as to culture an appreciation and addressing of the needs of the country – I know others have articulated this, but reading your ideas, Andy, gets me fired up to make it happen.

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