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
The full report is available as a
file (5.4 mb) or
From 1930 to 1995 Milwaukee city and county governments created
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
- 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
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
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
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.
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
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
- 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:
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. Background on this project is available from a variety of sources.
Mary Kellogg Rice, art director for the WPA Milwaukee Handicraft
Project from 1935-1941, has written a book on this WPA project, which
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
of the products made and 130 historic black and white photographs of the
workers and of children using the products.
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
Replacing Welfare With Work in the WPA: The Handicraft Project That
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."
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.
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
- 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.")
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