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Research Update

Learning from the WPA: Work Relief Programs in Milwaukee County

WPA Work for Women: The Milwaukee Handicraft Project

One of the significant challenges of the 1930s was creating meaningful public work for women who were the breadwinners for their families. A light manufacturing project developed by Milwaukee State Teachers College employed women making products for use in Milwaukee Public Schools, county hospital, the county orphanage, and other public institutions. (See the online exhibit of the project.) Background on this project is available from a variety of sources.

  • book cover image Mary Kellogg Rice, art director for the WPA Milwaukee Handicraft Project from 1935-1941, has written a book on this WPA project, which employed over 5,000 women in the manufacture of toys, dolls, books, quilts, fabrics, weavings, and furniture for use in schools, WPA nurseries, hospitals, orphanages, and state institutions. The book includes 34 color photographs of the products made and 130 historic black and white photographs of the workers and of children using the products. Rice's book, Useful Work for Unskilled Women: A Unique Milwaukee WPA Project, is reviewed herein. The book was published by the Milwaukee County Historical Society and can be ordered from the University of Wisconsin Press .

  • Rice's extraordinary career was outlined in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel obituary, "Amid Depression, Rice helped women find work through art WPA project gave work, respect to thousands of Milwaukee's poor" after her death in January of 2011.

  • " Replacing Welfare With Work in the WPA: The Handicraft Project That Made Milwaukee Famous," 28th Annual Morris Fromkin Memorial Lecture, October 1997. Concurrent with the lecture, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Chancellor John Schroeder presented the UWM Alumni Association's "Special Recognition Award" to 15 surviving project supervisors (and families of 7 other workers) "in recognition for their dedication to . . . providing meaningful work for thousands of Milwaukee County women" and Milwaukee County Executive F. Thomas Ament presented a special recognition for "outstanding and exemplary community service to the people of Milwaukee County."

    weaver on the WPA project The exhibit prepared by Mary Kellogg Rice for the UWM Golda Meir Library in conjunction with the Fromkin lecture is now available online.

  • Brief description of the project from the History of Jobs for Workers on Relief in Milwaukee County (see above). When it became known that the Handicraft project, unlike many WPA projects in the community, accepted African Americans as well as white workers, the numbers employed swelled to 900 women within the first weeks.

photograph of Eleanor Roosevelt with a WPA wall hanging

  • Photographs of Eleanor Roosevelt show a blockprint given to the First Lady by the Milwaukee WPA Handicraft Project workers hanging in her home. Another blockprint given to Mrs. Roosevelt by the Milwaukee workers (and found among her possessions at Val-Kill after her death) has been made into a poster available from the National Archives.

  • The New Deal Network (Columbia University) has a feature on dolls made by project workers.

  • The Broward County Library (in Fort Lauderdale, Florida) has reproductions from three children's books (At the Zoo, Come and Sing, An Adventure of Franz the Puppet) published by the WPA Milwaukee Handicraft Project in a digitized collection of WPA Children's Books (1935-1943). The library has also reproduced the project's "Catalogue 10." (Use the website search for "Milwaukee.")

  • The Milwaukee Public Library has a collection of original costume designs, photographs of furniture, samples of weavings and blockprints, and other original materials from the project available for viewing at the library. Materials are listed under "Milwaukee WPA Handicraft Project" in the library catalog.

  • The largest collection of WPA handicraft products and photos is located in the Milwaukee Public Museum, which received Elsa Ulbricht's WPA photographs and products and the dolls and other WPA products collected by Betty and Quentin O'Sullivan. (Betty's mother worked on the project as a supervisor for rug-making.)

Lasting Benefits from WPA Work Relief in Milwaukee County

The history of Milwaukee's community service employment programs for relief workers is useful in informing public discussion regarding the policies required for anti-recessionary public work measures that effectively assist unemployed families and benefit the community. In retrospect, the WPA can be seen as part of a three-pronged attack on the problems of unemployment and local relief needs. First, the Public Works Administration was expected to improve the economy through support for large-scale federal, state and local construction projects employing skilled union workers. Secondly, the WPA was designed to provide immediate work for unskilled and semi-skilled able-bodied persons on the local relief rolls (and eventually for women heads of families). Finally, federal aid was provided under the Social Security Act of 1935 for persons deemed "unemployable" -- the needy aged, mothers with dependent children (ADC), and blind persons.

The federal government kept close tabs on project spending from start to finish and monitored the numbers of persons actually employed for each project. (In 1936 construction projects in the City of Milwaukee employed 8,192 workers at a WPA cost of $26,485,876. A sewer department project, for example, deepening, widening, relocating and reverting the Menomonee River from N. 27th St. to N. 60th St. employed 182 workers. Work operating the municipal stone quarry and Lincoln Park crusher and producing crushed stone, stone curb, rubble stone and cut stone for other WPA projects in the City employed 275 workers. The city health department employed 36 workers immunizing children, copying and typing up records, and establishing and maintaining health clinics.)

They Built Our Community They Built Our Community They Built Our Community They Built Our Community
For an excellent book on the treatment of African Americans during the New Deal, see From a Raw Deal to a New Deal? by Joe William Trotter. An earlier Trotter book on Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat, 1915-1945 provides statistics on African American enrollment in emergency government jobs programs in the 1930s and 1940s in Milwaukee. WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio had a recent series on the WPA in Milwaukee including a segment on the need for the federal stimulus to include minorities and women.

book cover image
Jobs for Workers on Relief in Milwaukee County: 1930s-1990s
by Lois M. Quinn, John Pawasarat and Laura Serebin, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute, February 1995.

The full report is available as a scanned PDF file (5.4 mb) or by chapter.

From 1930 to 1995 Milwaukee city and county governments created thousands of jobs for families who could not find unsubsidized employment and who sought county relief. Milwaukee created jobs for 26,000 men to help their families through the winter of 1933-34. In 1936 the city government alone created 12,000 year-round WPA jobs in construction, education, health and office work for men and women heading families hardest hit by the Depression. Women working in shifts of three to four hundred operated a sewing center which made nearly a million articles of clothing for needy families and children in the community. And by 1940 Milwaukee County "relief workers" had helped build one of the finest park systems in the nation.

For over sixty years Milwaukee County operated work programs as part of its local provision of relief to individuals and families. Milwaukee's long history of work relief programs demonstrates that adults respond in large numbers to employment opportunities, that meaningful public service jobs can make important and lasting contributions to the community, and that local governments can provide effective leadership in developing jobs for individuals and families out of work.

Study Highlights

  • In the late 1920's, the City of Milwaukee aggressively sought employment for residents who were hard hit by the Depression. To avoid laying off city workers, Milwaukee initiated a 10 percent monthly pay cut for city employees with a corresponding 10 percent reduction in working time, and used rotating schedules for city laborers and roadmen to reduce the number of complete layoffs. The city established a residency rule requiring companies working on city contracts to hire Milwaukee residents.
  • To increase non-municipal jobs for residents, the city established an employment office in the basement of city hall to register and find jobs for unemployed workers, and distributed work order forms through local dairy routes to encourage city residents to employ local workers performing odd jobs for their households. In the winter of 1930-31 the City of Milwaukee spent $600,000 for relief work projects, including street sanitation, ash collection, road grading, new playgrounds, and work extending underground conduit for the fire and police alarm system.
  • When federal funds became available under the Civil Works Administration (CWA), with only three weeks of planning time Milwaukee city and county officials developed projects to employ 26,000 workers in the winter of 1933-34 doing landscaping, road grading, street repair and painting. One of the largest projects employed almost 2,000 men straightening out an S-curve in the Milwaukee River and constructing a lagoon and islands in Lincoln Park in order to reduce flooding on the north side of Milwaukee. County park projects included construction of a quarry at Currie Park, construction of two swimming pools, and extending electrical and telephone wiring to county parks and golf courses.
  • In the first year that the Works Progress Administration (WPA) supported local projects for workers on county relief, the City of Milwaukee developed projects for 12,000 workers constructing and improving city streets, sewer and water mains, city playgrounds, and bridges and public buildings; modernizing city real estate tax files and city records; building exhibits and classifying specimens at the Milwaukee Public Museum; and helping immunize school children.
  • The Milwaukee County Department of Outdoor Relief certified relief workers for referral to WPA employment, with one employable member (usually the male parent) identified for each case. In 1936 the county reported that about 19,000 relief cases had a worker placed on the WPA, with only about 3,200 of these families requiring supplementary county relief payments.

  • The largest Public Works Administration (PWA) project in Wisconsin was construction of the City of Milwaukee Linwood water filtration plant, which employed 1,700 men for a year. Using competitive bidding among unionized contractors, the PWA built local schools (Gaenslen, Manitoba, Windlake, Cooper), school additions (to Riverside, Cudahy, Shorewood, and Wauwatosa high schools), a Jones Island sewerage plant extension, and the Parklawn housing project, and other infrastructure projects.

  • Six Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps were established in Milwaukee County to employ single, unemployed young men, ages 17 through 28. Milwaukee camps, unlike those in northern Wisconsin, were open to African American as well as Caucasian men. The CCC crews laid jetties into Lake Michigan to control erosion at Sheridan Park, excavated rock and dirt and built dams on the Milwaukee River to control flooding, landscaped miles of parkway, and developed large sections of Whitnall Park.

  • The most visible legacy of WPA projects in Milwaukee County was the parks system, which had more construction and landscaping during the WPA period than any other time in its history. WPA construction included six swimming pools, pavilions at Red Arrow and Brown Deer Parks, service buildings at Jacobus, Jackson and Whitnall Parks, the Botanical Garden administration building and golf club house at Whitnall Park, a bathhouse at Doctor's Park, a recreation center at Smith Park, new roads in nearly every park, and parkways throughout the county.

    The Park Commission's success in using unemployed workers was due to visionary plans the Commission had already developed for a county system of parks and parkways, state legislation allowing land acquisition for parkways, availability of land parcels because of tax delinquency, and the zeal with which county and city park technicians produced detailed plans for landscaping and park lands.

  • WPA workers leveled sites for 750 homes in the Village of Greendale, an experimental "garden" community built from 1935 to 1938. The WPA's labor intensive work using horses, carts and plows contrasted with the modern technology used by skilled craftsmen employed under the Resettlement Administration. The RA built an electric rail line to bring skilled Milwaukee tradesmen to the Greendale site.
  • The Milwaukee County Department of Outdoor Relief sponsored a National Youth Administration sewing project which employed young women (ages 18 to 25) in three 70 worker shifts to sew clothes for families on relief and persons in county institutions. Young men were employed in the parks cultivating shrub beds and newly planted trees, mowing lawns, raking leaves and weeding, helping with planting, and erecting fireplaces for picnic areas. The NYA crews erected and operated camps at Holler Park for handicapped children and in the Root River Parkway for children from needy families.
  • One of the most successful and highly publicized WPA projects in Milwaukee provided light manufacturing work for unskilled workers, mainly women, in production of dolls, toys, quilts, draperies, furniture, book binding, weaving, and textile printing under the supervision of designer-technicians from the Milwaukee State Teachers College art department. New dolls and toys were tested in local kindergartens and nurseries before beginning mass production, and an elected workers' council set many of the administrative policies, handled most disciplinary problems, and organized social functions for the workers. At its peak, the WPA Milwaukee Handicraft Project employed 1,350 workers in three floors of a factory building at 1215 N. Market Street and made its products available to governments, schools, nurseries and hospitals throughout the country.

  • Logo of the Toys To Loan WPA Project A WPA toy loan project collected and repaired toys for children and operated 20 branch toy lending "libraries." Residents donated 75,000 articles ("stuffed polar bears, dolls by the thousands, roller skates and games"), and 32,000 children -- of all income groups -- registered to borrow toys. [Computers anyone?]

  • By 1940 the major WPA projects in Milwaukee County were supporting the nation's defense needs. Relief workers constructed airport runways, a hanger-administration building and a combined airport passenger and mail terminal. The WPA also built an addition to the Wisconsin National Guard Armory in Whitefish Bay, an armory on the South Side and additions to the South Milwaukee vocational school.

    To help train workers for defense industries, in Fall of 1940 the Milwaukee Vocational School added courses Monday through Friday nights, with one six-hour shift starting at 9 p.m. and a second shift starting at 3 a.m. Here, unemployed workers in WPA training attended 10- week, 300-hour refresher courses in mechanics, welding, metalwork, automotive repair, foundry work, engines and other industrial skills. In addition, vocational school instructors provided in- house training to new workers at 27 war production plants in the county.

  • After World War II, Milwaukee County continued to operate modest work programs for general assistance recipients, although the county's primary emphasis was on recipients seeking private sector employment. In 1969 a Milwaukee County ordinance required that all general assistance applicants be referred to the County Work Experience and Training (or Pay for Work) Program. After municipal employees unions raised concerns about GA workers displacing regular county employees, the types of jobs provided shifted from wide range of county and city maintenance work to nonclassified civil service positions at the county, city and Veterans Administration.
  • In the 1970s and early 1980s Milwaukee County operated public service employment programs under the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) which was developed as a counter cyclical response to increasing unemployment rates. Participants in CETA employment programs in Milwaukee County reached 2,700 in Fiscal Year 1979 and included work for local governments, community-based organizations and non-profit agencies in literacy instruction, health and nutrition education, blood pressure screening, security aides and escort services, home repair and weatherization projects, art classes and clerical support.
  • In 1994 most Milwaukee County general assistance recipients were required to work at one of the county's approved work sites, which included individual job placements, labor crews performing trash pick-up for less motivated workers, and sheltered workshops for less able workers. Over 80 local agencies, organizations and governments provided one to 100 work positions for laborers, janitors, maintenance helpers, security aides, clerical staff, stockroom clerks, administrative aides, tutors, housekeepers and other positions. In October 1994, 1,587 GA recipients were in work programs for 10 hours per week at minimum wage and another 941 clients were in education, training and placement programs. [In July 1995 the Wisconsin state legislature ended its support for county relief programs which had operated since the Territorial Act of 1838, a decade before Wisconsin statehood. In September 1995 Milwaukee County closed the county work program for indigent single persons.]

The History of Jobs for Workers on Relief in Milwaukee County, 1930-1994 is available as a scanned 5.4 mb PDF file or by chapter:

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