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Melissa McCaffrey

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was the largest and most ambitious agency created by the United States government as part of the New Deal, established under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to help combat the Great Depression, focusing on the “3 Rs” of Relief, Recovery, and Reform: relief for the poor and unemployed, recovery of the economy, and reform of the financial systems already in place to help prevent another depression. In total, over 100 offices were created – some established by Congress, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, and some through Roosevelt’s presidential executive orders, including the WPA.

The goal of the WPA, headed by Roosevelt’s close friend Harry Hopkins, was to create jobs for millions of Americans who were eligible for employment. The WPA operated in conjunction with state and local governments, which helped cover a percentage of the costs and provided supplies, while the WPA was responsible for the majority of costs and for the workers’ wages.  

Between 1935 and 1943, the WPA employed more than 8.5 million workers to carry out public works projects including the construction of hundreds of thousands of miles of highways and roads, bridges, reservoirs, irrigation systems, parks, playgrounds, and over 125,000 public buildings including hospitals and schools. Notable projects built under the WPA include the Lincoln Tunnel, LaGuardia Airport, and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. A smaller division of the WPA, called Federal Project Number One, employed musicians, artists, writers, actors, and directors for arts, drama, and media projects.The WPA program was ended on June 30, 1943, due to low employment because of the worker shortage caused by World War II.

During the Great Depression, unemployment in the city of Milwaukee was at roughly 40 percent, and in 1933 an astonishing 53 percent of property taxes went unpaid because people couldn’t afford to make their payments. The WPA launched the Milwaukee Handicraft Project in 1935, under the direction of Elsa Ulbrecht, the Fine Arts Director of Milwaukee State Teachers College, with the goal of creating by hand high quality educational materials for schools that taught arts and crafts. The project hired roughly 5,000 workers and taught them to make a variety of wood and cloth items including dolls, toys, furniture, rugs, curtains, book-bindings, quilts, textile prints, and costumes. The women were assigned to specific production units, each led by an experienced artist or designer. The items were then sold at cost to educational and tax-supported institutions, including the Milwaukee Public Schools, libraries, and local hospitals.

The Milwaukee Handicraft Project was one of the most successful and innovative of the WPA’s various programs. The vast majority of workers hired by the WPA for its public relief projects were white men, but the Milwaukee Handicraft Project attempted to balance this disparity. Most of the workers hired for this program were uneducated and unskilled women of all ages and nationalities, many of whom had never held a job. A large number did not even speak English. Only certain jobs were considered appropriate for women at the time, and so Harriet Pettibone Clinton, the District Director of the Women’s Division of the Wisconsin WPA, deliberately chose to create a project in which the vast numbers of unemployed women could freely participate.

The WPA also sent a group of 300 African-American workers to participate in the project, intending them to have a segregated workspace. However, the program directors were opposed to this idea and insisted that the women and minorities work side-by-side. The integrated workforce made the Milwaukee Handicraft Project unique in its progressive and forward-thinking mindset.

One of the production units was the blockprinting unit, which grew out of the bookbinding unit when the lead designers decided to create decorative book covers using linoleum block prints. They created patterns which the workers then transferred to linoleum blocks and cut away to create stamps. These blocks were then inked and stamped onto paper and fabric. They were designed to be labor-intensive, so as to help guarantee the women with many hours of paid work. F.A. Bernett currently has in its inventory a suite of six portfolios displaying samples of the various handmade blockprinted textiles created in the workshops of the Milwaukee Handicraft Project.

Applied Design: Blockprinted Textiles. An Educational Service Prepared by the Milwaukee WPA Handicraft Project. Milwaukee.- Milwaukee WPA Handicraft Project. 6 vols: I. Surface Patterns; II. Surface Patterns; III. Motifs; IV. Border Designs; V. Motifs; VI. Supplement, comprising a suite of portfolios containing 72 total examples of matted blockprinted textiles in a wide variety of patterns and styles, including figures, animals, birds, botanical, and geometric designs, the back of each matte stamped “WPA Handicraft Project #7040, Milwaukee Wisconsin, Sponsored by Milwaukee County and Milwaukee State Teachers College”, the inside front cover of portfolios 1-4 and 6 labeled “This portfolio was made by the Milwaukee Handicraft Project, Sponsored by Milwaukee County and Milwaukee State Teachers College, Wisconsin WPA”, portfolio five stamped “WPA Handicraft Project #8601, Milwaukee Wisconsin, Sponsored by Milwaukee County and Milwaukee State Teachers College”. Portfolios 1-3 folio, 4-6 elephant folio. Green cloth-covered boards portfolios, contents loose as issued. Milwaukee (Milwaukee WPA Handicraft Project) n.d. (circa 1935). Ex-library copy with bookplates, labels to covers, rubber ink stamps to portfolios and mattes, and pencil acquisition notations to mattes. (48655)

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48453c_008A complete archive of the original artwork, photographs, advertisements, and fully edited and corrected typewritten essays which comprise the official guide to the 1936 Democratic National Convention, held in Philadelphia: including 41 original pen and ink drawings by Lyle Justis used as vignettes and illustrations throughout the text; over 200 original photographs, most with identification stamps, photographers include Harris & Ewing, William Rittase, Earl C. Roper, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, Lewis Wickes Hine, H.H. Rideout, Phillip B. Wallace, Theodor Horydczak, Underwood & Underwood Studios, Jean Sardou, and Bachrach, departments include the U.S. Bureau of Mines, the U.S. Forest Service, the Treasury Department, the Resettlement Administration, the U.S. Navy, the National Park Service, and the Works Progress Administration; and approximately 47 original typewritten manuscripts, heavily edited and corrected, which make up the essays printed throughout the program, including biographies of important members of the Democratic Party and reports from a wide variety of governmental departments, programs, and administrations; together with typed letters from members of the Democratic National Committee and advertisers in the program, captions, ad copy, and three copies of the program, one final printed version in orig. illus. wrpps. and two mock-ups of the signed limited edition of the program, full calf bindings.

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The contributors to the 1936 program include varied and notable figures from politics, journalism, and other fields. Hendrik Willem Van Loon was a historian and the first children’s book author to win the Newbery Medal. Roosevelt later called on him to work on his 1940 presidential campaign. Bascon Timmons was an esteemed newspaperman with a career spanning six decades, who served as an advisor to Presidents Coolidge and Roosevelt.

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Edward A. Filene was known for building the Filene’s department store chain and for his role in pioneering employee relations, a 40-hour work week, minimum wage for women, profit sharing, paid vacations, and credit unions. Claude Bowers, who served President Roosevelt as ambassador to Spain and Chile, wrote such influential histories of the Democratic Party that they moved Roosevelt to build the Jefferson Memorial. James Hamilton Lewis was the first Senator to hold the title of “Whip” in the United States Senate, and was a leader in getting much of Woodrow Wilson’s “New Freedom” legislation passed. Cordell Hull was the longest-serving Secretary of State in US history, and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945 for his key role in establishing the United Nations.

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Henry Morgenthau, Jr. served as Secretary of the Treasury under FDR and was instrumental in designing and securing financing for the New Deal, as well as playing a major role in establishing the financing for US participation in World War II through a system of war bonds. Homer Cummings, the U.S. Attorney General from 1933 to 1939, secured the passage of twelve laws related to the “Lindbergh Law” on kidnapping, made bank robbery a federal crime, established Alcatraz prison, and strengthened the FBI. James Farley served simultaneously as Chairman of the Democratic National Commitee and Postmaster General under the first two Roosevelt administrations, and revolutionzed the use of polls and polling data.

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Harold L. Ickes served as Secretary of the Interior and Administration of Public Works, was reponsible for implementing much of Roosevelt’s New Deal, and was in charge of the Public Works Administration relief program. Frances Perkins Wilson was the longest-serving Secretary of Labor and the first woman appointed to the Cabinet. During her tenure, she helped pull the labor movement into the New Deal coalition, assisted in getting the Civilian Conservation Corps and Public Works Administration up and running, crafted laws against child labor, enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act which cemented minimum wage and overtime laws and defined the 40-hour work week, and established the Social Security Act which included unemployment benefits, pensions for the elderly, and welfare for the poor. Marriner S. Eccles was a banker, economist, and member and chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, whose essay in this program titled “The Economic Program Since 1932” is a sort of blueprint for the New Deal.

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Harry L. Hopkins was one of the architects of the New Deal, especially the relief programs of the Works Progress Administration, which he directed and turned into the largest employer in the country. During the War, Hopkins also acted as Roosevelt’s unofficial emissary to Winston Churchill. Rexford G. Tugwell was an economist who took part in Roosevelt’s first “Brain Trust”, a group of academics who helped develop policies leading up to the New Deal. Tugwell helped design the New Deal farm program, the Soil Conservation Service following the Dust Bowls of the 1930s, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, and the Resettlement Administration, a unit of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration which helped the rural unemployed.

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Mary Williams (Molly) Dewson was a feminist and political activist who served as the head of the Women’s Division of the Democratic National Committee where she worked with FDR to bring the women’s vote into action. She also worked with delinquent girls and domestic workers, served with the American Red Cross in France during World War I, and as president of the New York Consumers’ League, worked closely with Eleanor Roosevelt to pass labor laws for women. Fannie Hurst was a novelist and suffragist who fought for women to preserve their maiden names after marriage. Charl Ormond Williams was a teacher and suffragist who became the first woman to serve on the Democratic National Committee, and was the youngest and first southern woman to serve as President of the National Education Association.

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Cuba, OSPAAAL (Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa, and Latin America), 1971 and 1972 

Extensive and Culturally Significant Archive of Approximately 500 Political Posters. An important, unique, and carefully curated collection of political posters, dated from approximately the 1960s to the 2000s, from a wide variety of leftist and militant groups in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America, related to a broad range of domestic and international movements and issues, providing an essential overview of the global political climate at the time with regards to radicalism, solidarity, and liberation. Some with scattered soiling, marginal tears, tack holes, and other minor losses, overall excellent condition. Various sizes. Various cities, 1960s-2000s.

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France, MRI (Mouvement Revolutionaire Internationaliste), 1980s

This collection documents a vital period in the history of both Western Europe and Third World countries in the second half of the 20th century, a time of political upheaval, domestic terrorism, radical left-wing groups, and liberation movements. The posters that make up this collection can be roughly divided into three categories. First, a large number of the posters document the struggle of the militant left at home within Europe, with movements from Germany, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, and Ireland covered including Antifaschistische Aktion, RAF (Red Army Faction), RZ (Revolutionäre Zellen), Secours Rouge, CCC (Cellules Communistes Combattantes), CPN (Communist Party of the Netherlands), Kraakbeweging, RVF (Rood Verzetsfront), AFAPP (Asociación de Familiares y Amigos de Presos Politicos), Moviment de Defensa de la Terra, FRAP (Frente Revolucionario Antifascista y Patriota), Circolo Lenin Catania, Sinn Féin, and the Irish Republican Army. These posters cover a range of issues, including the treatment of political prisoners, hunger strikes, anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, anti-NATO, urban development, housing shortages, squatters, election reform, the women’s movement, and the labor movement.

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Netherlands, Communistische Partij van Nederland, Circa 1965

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Ireland, Irish Republican Movement, Circa 1980

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Germany, Autonomen Gruppen/Antifaschistische Aktion/RZ (Revolutionäre Zellen), 1984

A second large group demonstrates the solidarity of Western European groups for the assorted liberation movements and uprisings happening across the Third World. These include posters from CISNU (Confederation of Iranian Students National Union), Chili Komitee Nederland, Komitee Jongeren Voor Vietnam, MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola), Inlichtingen Angola-Comité, Palestina Komitee, Solidariteits Komitee Argentinie Nederland, UJPA Belgique (Union des Jeunes Progressistes Arabes), Collectif Pour la Libération de Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, Comité Catalá de Solidaritat Internacionalista, Asociacion de Amistad y Solidaridad con El Pueblo Saharui, Halkin Kurtulusu, MPP (Mouvement Populaire Perou), Association de Solidarité avec Timor Oriental, and MRI (Mouvement Revolutionaire Internationaliste).

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Netherlands, Palestijnse Vereniging, 1976

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Spain, Circa 1980s

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Netherlands, MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola), Circa 1975

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Netherlands, Vietnambeweging Delft, Circa 1973

Lastly, the third group of posters represents the political climate within the Third World countries themselves, including organizations such as the Cuban group OSPAAAL (Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa, and Latin America), FMLN from El Salvador (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front), Partido Comunista del Peru, ASALA (Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia), FATAH (Palestinian National Liberation Movement), PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization), PFLP (People’s Liberation Front of Palestine), GUPW (General Union of Palestinian Women), PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party), YJWK (Patriotic Women’s Union of Kurdistan), ERNK (National Liberation Front of Kurdistan), and YAJK (Free Women’s Army of Kurdistan).

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“Either Palestine…Or Hell”, Palestine, FATAH (Palestinian National Liberation Movement), 1983

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El Salvador, FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front), 1980s or 1990s

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Peru, Partido Comunista del Peru, 1986

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Palestine, P.L.O. (Palestine Liberation Organization), Department of Information and Culture, 1980s

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