Writer's Guide to Government Information

Resources to inject real life detail into your fiction

Archive for the tag “Great Depression”

Records of the Works Progress Administration (NARA)

Records of the Works Progress Administration (NARA) – http://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/069.html

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What did construction projects look like in the 1930s?
  • How were skilled jobless put to work under the WPA?
  • What was traffic like in 1930s America?


From 1935 through 1943, there was a federal agency that:

Provided jobs to unemployed workers on public projects sponsored by federal, state, or local agencies; and on defense and war-related projects; and to unemployed youth through National Youth Administration (NYA) projects.

The agency went through several names but was best known as the WPA – Works Progress Administration or Works Projects Administration.
In the course of employing Americans from all walks of life in projects from building dams to interviewing former slaves, the WPA created 7.3 million cubic feet of material encompassing more than 159,000 individual items. The material includes information on major disasters that took place in the 1930s. The bulk of this material is not available online and is only available at the National Archives facility in College Park Maryland.

This website is a very rough finding aid to this material. It is organized mostly by sub agency but also by field office. There is a tiny sliver of material available electronically by clicking on “Search OPA for entries from this record group.” This will bring up the 562 digital objects available for this record group, including 29 films and 531 photographs.

Some of the films of interest to writers include:

  • A Better Chicago – nine minute movie about WPA projects in Chicago that includes people hired to reconstruct Animal skeletons in the Field Museum, along with views of Chicago streets and how accidents are handled.
  • Danger on the Streets, 1936? – Eight minute silent film about traffic problems and accidents. Places substantial blame on pedestrians. Shows city response to an auto accident.
  • Uncle Sam, The Greatest Builder, 1937? – Nine minute sound movie about Dams built in the 1930s.

The OPA (Online Public Access) catalog will also provide basic information on other materials from this record group that may help you plan your visit to College Park Maryland.

Great Depression in Utah

Great Depression in Utah – http://historytogo.utah.gov/utah_chapters/from_war_to_war/thegreatdepression.html

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What were some of the ways people economized during the Depression?
  • How was work rationed, at least in Utah, during the Depression?
  • What did the Works Progress Administration do for states?


This resource on how the Great Depression affected a single state is from a larger site on the history of Utah called Utah History to Go. This particular page is an overview on the Great Depression, which the site asserts affected Utah more harshly than other states. At one point Utah’s unemployment rate exceeded 35% and this resulted in behavior that seems odd today:

Most school districts would not hire married women and stipulated that when single female teachers married they had to resign. In 1932 a bill was introduced into the State Legislature requiring all married female state employees to submit their resignations. Those women who stayed at home followed the old adage, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”. That meant practicing endless little economies, such as buying day-old bread, relining coats with old blankets, saving string, old rags, and wire in case they might come in handy some day, shopping creatively, and watching every penny.

In addition to the overview page, there are links to other articles going into greater detail on particular Depression era issues or people:

  • “Even the Grasshoppers Were Starving” During the 1934 Drought
  • Depression Memories
  • New Deal Agencies Built 233 Buildings in Utah
  • Alphabet Agencies in Utah County
  • A Labor Inspector During the Great Depression

American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940

American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940 – http://www.loc.gov/collection/federal-writers-project/about-this-collection/

Updated 3/15/2014 to reflect new interface.

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What was it like to live through the Great Chicago Fire?
  • What are some names associated with mining in Montana in the 1930s?
  • Where can I find an account of the Cult of Father Divine?


In the 1930s, writers making $20 a week working for Uncle Sam interviewed over 10,000 people for their life’s history. According to the website:

People who told stories of life and work during the 1930s include an Irish maid from Massachusetts, a woman who worked in a North Carolina textile mill, a Scandinavian iron worker, a Vermont farm wife, an African-American worker in Chicago meat packing house, and a clerk in Macy’s department store.

Many Americans in the thirties remembered the nineteenth century as vividly as some people now recall the Depression years. The life history narratives tell of meeting Billy the Kid, surviving the Chicago fire of 1871, making the pioneer journey to the Western Territories, and fleeing to America to avoid conscription into the Russian Czar’s army.

In a number of cases, pseudonyms were used to protect privacy. The collection can be searched by keyword. Results can be filtered by the following criteria on the left hand side of the page:

  • Original Formats
  • Online Formats
  • Dates
  • Sites and Collections
  • Contributors
  • Subjects
  • Locations
  • Languages

On the results page, be sure to note the “look inside” on each item. Clicking on this will take you to a different results page for that one document that will note exactly where your search term appears.

Items may be read online or downloaded in a number of formats, including gif and XML. Neither plain text nor PDF is provided for you.

Story Ideas:

Aside from being a great source of daily living lore from 1850s-1930s, this collection could help you with back story. For example if you were writing a story about Roswell New Mexico, you might connect your characters to people who lived in Roswell before the UFO era. People like Sidney L. Prager, pioneer merchant of Roswell in the 1880s/1890s who happened to work with the Jaffa brothers. Spelled the same way as the Jaffa of Stargate SG-1.

This is another open collection free of copyright restrictions, so material from it can be directly incorporated into your story.

America’s Story: Depression to WWII

America’s Story: Depression to WWII –http://www.americaslibrary.gov/jb/wwii/jb_wwii_subj.html

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • When did posters with the phrase “Uncle Sam wants you!” become popular?
  • Where can I find pictures of Pearl Harbor widows?
  • What were people wearing in the 1930s?


America’s Story is a Library of Congress website aimed at children with a mixture of text and photographs. It’s timeline arrangement may make it helpful for people seeking quick bits of information about significant events such as the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, the first federal prisoners to arrive at Alcatraz, the formation of USO clubs, disagreements between Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill over whether to focus on the Atlantic or Pacific theaters or more.

Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information (Library of Congress) photographs

Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Photographs

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What sort of living conditions did the rural poor have?
  • How did Depression era schools look?
  • Where can I get photos of lumber mills?


From the website,

“The images in the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Collection are among the most famous documentary photographs ever produced. Created by a group of U.S. government photographers, the images show Americans in every part of the nation. In the early years, the project emphasized rural life and the negative impact of the Great Depression, farm mechanization, and the Dust Bowl. In later years, the photographers turned their attention to the mobilization effort for World War II. The core of the collection consists of about 164,000 black-and-white photographs. This release provides access to over 160,000 of these images; future additions will expand the black-and-white offering. The FSA-OWI photographers also produced about 1600 color photographs during the latter days of the project. ”


According to the Rights and Reproductions page for this collection, it is likely that these images are reusable without cost and most fall into the public domain. But be sure to read the page for some cautions and realize that in addition to copyright, publicity and privacy issues could apply.

2013 Update – Since I first wrote this entry, the color photos have been posted to Flickr. This makes the photos easier to use than ever.

2014 Update – This collection was taken off American Memory and split into two collections with similar functionality. The search tips below still apply.

Search Tips/Story Ideas:

I recommend using geographic terms in your searches.  Check out the photos from taken in Hollywood to see fashion trends including cotton stockings. Photos might also alert you to events you might not have been aware of. Consider the photograph with the LC call number, LC-USE6- D-008372, “Hollywood enlists its typewriters for war” with the following caption:

“Hollywood enlists its typewriters for war. Hollywood studios have answered the nation’s call for typewriters for the armed services. Picture shows a load of machines released by 20th Century Fox studies to two Uncle Sam’s Waves. The schools and private owners to sell one out of every four machines to obtain 600,000 typewriters urgently needed by the armed services. New production ceased October 31. Typewriter manufacturers are now producing war materials.”

I knew about many kinds of rationing, but typewriters? How about you? How did people feel about giving up those typewriters? How did a Wave feel when she first started typing away at something that could have wrote the movie she went to last year? How many other potential vignettes are sleeping silently in these files waiting for a writer to give them life?

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