In 1935, Roosevelt’s WPA announced The Federal Writers Project, a way to provide jobs to white collar workers (historians, writers, teachers, et al) displaced by the Great Depression. It was successful, employing over 6000 writers, some who would become household names, such as John Steinbeck, Zora Neale Hurston, and Studs Terkel.
The most well-known product of the FWP was the “The American Guide Series. Authors subsidized by the federal project but printed by individual states would compile books that were equal parts history and tourism. To a historian, they are a goldmine of contemporary descriptions of cities, attractions, and photographs. The project proved so successful doing the 48 states that the scope was widened to include regions, large cities, and American territories.
Federal funding ended in 1939 with the growing threat of another war, but some states continued to support the project until 1941. One of the casualties of the loss of funding was Guide to Milwaukee, which was completed and ready to publish in 1940. It never saw the light of day. It languished in the Wisconsin Historical Society Archives for 75 years, until rediscovered. The Wisconsin Historical Society Press and historian John D. Buenker have published the book, now a time capsule of Milwaukee in the 1930s, revisiting long lost neighborhoods and exploring local perspectives on landmarks and buildings. Beautifully illustrated with maps showing each neighborhood, it’s a remarkable resource for historically minded writers, a valuable resource for historians and genealogists, and a priceless gift for someone who lived there at the time.