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WPA Milwaukee Handicraft Project

photo Mary Kellogg Rice, art director of for the WPA Milwaukee Handicraft Project from its inception in 1935 to 1942, has written a history of the project entitled, Useful Work for Unskilled Women: A Unique Milwaukee WPA Project. The book, which was published by the Milwaukee County Historical Society in February 2003, includes 130 historic black and white photographs and sketches and 34 color photos. It is available from the University of Wisconsin Press. See also, a review of the book, Quinn's Morris Fromkin Memorial Lecture on Replacing Welfare with Work in the WPA: The Handicraft Project That Made Milwaukee Famous (October 1997), Mrs. Rice's exhibit of Handicraft products (online), and listings of resources on work relief projects in Milwaukee County and the WPA handicraft project.

This article is excerpted from Lois M. Quinn, John Pawasarat and Laura Serebin, History of Jobs for Workers on Relief in Milwaukee County, 1930-1994, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute, February 1995

Production WorkersOne of the most successful and highly publicized WPA projects in Milwaukee provided light manufacturing work for unskilled workers who had not been selected for the city and county construction and "white collar" projects. This project engaged workers in manufacture of dolls, toys, draperies, furniture, book binding, weaving, and textile printing under the supervision of designer- technicians drawn from among graduates of the Milwaukee State Teachers College art department.

The project plan called for employment of women who had become bread winners for their families and who had not found work on other projects. Initiated by Harriet Clinton of the WPA Women's and Professional Division, the project was devised by Elsa Ulbricht, an art teacher at the Milwaukee State Teachers College, and organized by one of her fourth year students, Mary June Kellogg. Clinton urged Ulbricht to develop a handicraft project for women.

Ulbricht recounted, "One of her [Clinton] suggestions to me -- and I can remember this so well -- was that we could cut out some pictures from wallpaper and make scrapbooks. And knowing her very well, I said, `Well, I don't think that would be interesting enough for me, and if that's what we're going to do, I don't want this job.'"1 Ulbricht initially anticipated that she could employ women with sewing and other skills who could be easily trained for the handwork needed. However, when she reviewed the applications on file with the Milwaukee Public Employment Service she discovered that skilled workers on relief had already been culled for other projects, including the women's sewing project, and that workers available had few, if any, apparent skills. Ulbricht described the first day of the project in an article for Design magazine.

When the Milwaukee Handicraft Project opened its doors November 6, 1935, a motley, careworn and harassed group of women were greeted and received by a small number of eager and socially sensitive young women and men into whose hands they were to be entrusted. They had been assigned from the relief lists of the United State Employment Service, in groups of fifty and one hundred at a time. Those who reported that memorable morning and the following few mornings, were nervous and excited, many of them arriving long before eight o'clock, having walked long distances. . . . They manifested uneasiness, uncertainty and great apprehension of their ability to meet the needs of this job to which they had been indiscriminately assigned and of this project about which they knew nothing. Many of them had had no work or very meager work experiences; many had been out of employment for so many months that they had become disheartened and depressed. They were of all ages, all nationalities, (some speaking very broken English), some could neither read not write, Negro and white, of all degrees of intelligence and education. Many were poorly clothed, even unkempt, and some appeared physically weak from the lack of nourishment, medical attention and insecurity suffered for so long a time.2

When it became known that the Handicraft project, unlike many WPA projects in the community, accepted African American as well as white workers, the numbers employed swelled to 900 women within the first weeks.3

Staff had originally planned to rotate workers twice a day into different production units, but this proved unfeasible given the large numbers of employees, their limited skills and the supervisory time required. Efforts were made to locate workers in a production unit which suited their skills and interests, and very simple tasks (e.g. braiding carpet strings for pull toys) were identified for workers with learning deficiencies.

An elected Workers' Council was created, which set many of the administrative policies, handled most disciplinary problems, maintained a grievance committee, and organized social functions for the workers.4 Ulbricht also established a Citizens Committee of Milwaukee State Teachers College faculty and community leaders, mostly women, who reviewed educational aspects of the work and approved the products to insure that designs were of high quality.5 Mary June Kellogg, the project's Art Director, insisted that ""no matter how simple the article to be made or how inexpensive the materials to be used in the construction, the article would be well designed or it would not be made."6 In 1937 the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors took over sponsorship of the project, but the Milwaukee State Teachers College maintained its influence over development of product designs.

Wooden  ToyNew toys were tested in local kindergartens and nurseries before beginning mass production. Draperies made of percale ("easy to launder and press") were provided to schools and hospitals. Female workers, some of whom spoke only limited English, helped in making a collection of authentic doll costumes representing 50 countries for the state historical museum, and children's dolls were prepared for nursery schools and hospitals. (According to Ulbricht, "Wherever there was a white doll there was a black doll too.")7 A number of older men who had been labeled "unemployable" due to age or physical handicaps proved to be competent carpenters and constructed looms for weaving and cabinets and cases needed by the project. The furniture unit built specially designed pieces for public rooms, including lounges at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Union, law school and dormitories, and the browsing room of the Milwaukee Public Library.

Supervisory staff changed constantly as young college graduates found non-WPA employment. There was also constant turnover of WPA employees, as workers gained skills and found work in private industry. As Ulbricht later recalled, "It was an ever-changing training program for skills because the new ones that would come would have to be taught all over again. And it took a great deal of time and patience to do that."8 According to Ulbricht, the constant turnover in WPA workers, "meant a continuous training of new assignees in the work- methods of the project, in work habits and in new skills, which naturally retarded the speed with which production was possible as well as lowering the craftsmanship of the product for a time, and made it ever difficult to be assured that production would flow as promised."9 Over the project's first eight years, more than 5,000 workers were trained.

The production units were moved a number of times due to the need for additional space, and at one time seven sites housed different production units. At its peak, the project employed 1,350 workers, housed in three floors of a factory building one square block wide. Eventually, eleven production units were established.10

  • bookbinding unit - rebinding old books, binding books in Braille, producing hand bound books, portfolios, cases and boxes.

  • blockprinting unit - making decorative wall-hangings and draperies for use by nurseries, schools, institutional buildings and hospitals; decorating covers for bound books.

  • screenprinting - printing textiles for wall-hangings and draperies

  • weaving unit - making fabric for drapery and upholstery

  • rug unit - producing button hole rugs and small and large hooked rugs for schools and institutions using cotton and wool strip waste products

  • applique unit - producing bedspreads, draperies, decorative wallhangings, and quilts for educational and penal institutions.

    Doll Makers

  • doll unit - making cloth dolls and wardrobes for nurseries, schools, and institutions (4,000 dolls were produced for one Christmas), and dolls in historical costumes for the state historical museum.

  • cloth toy unit - making washable cloth animals, alphabet books and blocks of various sizes and shapes for sick children in hospitals

Costumes

  • costume unit - sewing creative and period costumes for local pageants, school and community plays

  • wood unit - cutting, sanding, painting and assembling wooden toys, including some designed for physically handicapped and mentally retarded children

  • furniture unit - producing custom made furniture including chairs, davenports, cases, desks and tables (and using project woven materials).

Products were made available (for the cost of materials) to public institutions so that the federal project would not compete with sales by private industries. In spite of constant staff and employee changes, the project was able to raise funds through product sales to cover most non-labor costs, including materials and equipment for the work. The project was highly successful in marketing products to public institutions and produced a 90-page catalog for national distribution listing items available. More than half of the product sales were to tax-supported institutions outside Wisconsin, and eventually sales were made in all of the states of the union.

Near the end of the WPA in 1941, with private employment increasing, the average age of women and men employed in the production units was 50 years of age, with the oldest worker around 68 years of age. After federal support for the project ended in 1942, Milwaukee County continued the project as a sheltered workshop for persons on county relief who had physical disabilities.

Throughout the project, to ensure continuing support and to maintain workers' morale, visitors were encouraged to tour the production units and to inspect the products. The products were exhibited at the New York World's Fair, the Chicago Art Institute, and college art departments. Workers provided handicraft demonstrations in nearby high schools and colleges and at community-wide "open house" events. In 1936 First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt toured the project and shared her positive impressions of the work in her syndicated column "My Day."11 In 1944 a Milwaukee Journal reporter, noting the nation-wide interest in the Milwaukee Handicraft Project, dubbed it the "Project That Made Milwaukee Famous."12


The historic photographs were taken by federal WPA photographers. The wooden toy giraffe in the collection of the Milwaukee Public Museum, the costumes were made for Bay View High School.

Endnotes

  1. Transcript of "Tape Recorded Interview with Elsa Ulbricht - June 11, 1964" by Dr. Hayward Ehrlich (on file in the Milwaukee Manuscript Collection, Golda Meir Library), p. 3.
  2. Elsa Ulbricht, "The Story of the Milwaukee Handicraft Project," Design Vol. 45, No. 6 (February 1944), p. 7. Minor spelling changes are made to the original.
  3. The project was completely integrated, and an estimated fourth of the workers were black. Andy Leon Harney, "WPA Handicrafts Rediscovered," Historic Preservation (July-September 1973), pp. 14-15.
  4. Clarence G. Hackett, "The Milwaukee Handicraft Project," Cheshire Quarterly of the Milwaukee State Teachers College 7, No. 2 (December 1937): 6-8.
  5. Elsa Ulbricht, "Introduction" and "Outline for Record of Program Operation and Accomplishment" about 1937 (on file in the Milwaukee Manuscript Collection, Golda Meir Library).
  6. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, "An Exhibition of Some of the Products of the Milwaukee WPA Handicrafts Project, 1935-1943," 1978.
  7. Harney, "Handicrafts Rediscovered," p. 15.
  8. Ulbricht, "Interview," p. 10.
  9. Ulbricht, "Interview," p. 7.
  10. Ulbricht, "Outline."
  11. Eleanor Roosevelt, "My Day," " 12 November 1936.
  12. Kirk Bates, "A Project That Made Milwaukee Famous: Success of the WPA Handicraft Undertaking That Supplied Public Institution With Beautiful Draperies, Furniture and Rugs Has Led County to Continue It as Basis for Future Rehabilitation Program," Milwaukee Journal, 26 May 1944.


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