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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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