Tuesday, April 15, 2008

WPA Guides

"Elevator to residential section on bluffs. Dubuque, Iowa."
by WPA photogragher, John Vachon.
Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)LC-USF34- 060475-D.

Blizzard of the Blue Moon offers a great tie-in for an interesting series written as part of the New Deal programs. For clues to help solve the book's mystery, author Mary Pope Osborne introduces the reader to New York City's Guide Book, circa 1938. The children use the guide to help identify landmarks in New York City.
Similar guides were written for every state in the union except Hawaii and Alaska, although there is a guide that disucsses Alaska's territorial areas and attributes. And the guide books were not limited to states. As in the case of New York City, entire volumes were devoted to many individual cities, as well.

Guide books were written from 1935-1941 by local authors. The writers varied in skill level and style and the assorted entries in the guidebooks reflect that fact. When the program was initiated, unemployed writers sought work with the WPA, believing that the salaries provided would fund their personal writing. Many quit the project when they realized the government had a specific idea of what the authors would write. But others, needing the income, signed on.
The state guides are organized into three parts. The first part consists of essays that reflect the mood and essence of each, individual state. In the case of the Iowa guidebook, topics include agriculture, history, religion, commerce and the arts. The second part features essays that describe the largest cities in the state. The third part consists of travel logs where the writer follows a specific path and journals about the cities, sites, restaurants, etc. along the way. One such essay details a trip along Highway 20 that runs through my city, Cedar Falls. The books also include photographs, similar to the one above, that depict the state or city as it was during the 1930's and early 40's.

Guidebooks are an easily accessible resource to use in the study of the WPA programs. Most libraries carry a copy of their state's guide, and perhap some city ones, too. An interesting lesson plan consists of securing a guide for your area. Have students read different sections of the guide. Look for photographs of familiar landmarks. Compare them to photographs of the same landmark, today. How have they changed? Or stayed the same.
Another idea is to pick a particular topic and see if what was written about the topic matches the reality of today. For example, back in the 30's, Iowa had a large horse population, nearly one to every three humans. This was due to the fact that horses were still widely used in fieldwork. Of course, that isn't true today. But it gives an interesting perspective of how life has changed and evolved.
Check out your own city or state's WPA Guide and see what memories you can discover.

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