Sunday, April 2, 2017

New Deal Art: "Competition"... and how the New Deal fed a hungry nation

Above: "Competition," a woodcut by Harry Rein (1908-1969). According to the Baltimore Museum of Art, Rein made this woodcut when he was in the WPA's Federal Art Project, ca. 1935-1939. The woodcut depicts hungry children competing with dogs for scrap food in trash cans. It highlights some of the awful conditions that existed after reckless banking and insatiable greed blew the American economy apart in 1929. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Above: A WPA-provided meal in Jacksonville, Florida, ca. 1935-1943. The WPA provided over 1.2 billion school lunches to hungry children, and also had a summer lunch program (Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, 1946, pp. 68 and 134). Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Above: Ellen Woodward (right), head of the WPA Womens' and Professional Division, visits a surplus commodities distribution center in Washington, DC, ca. 1936. The New Deal's Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation (FSCC) distributed food all across the country to people in need. In 1936, for example, the FSCC in Colorado distributed 80,000 pounds of dry milk, 990,000 pounds of apples, 1,000 crates of cauliflower, and more (FSCC annual report for 1936, p. 11). Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Above: The food stamp program (today, called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or "SNAP") had its genesis in the New Deal's "Food Stamp Plan." This plan, administered by the New Deal's Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation (note the "F.S.C.C." in the upper left-hand corner of the stamps) allowed a person on relief to buy orange stamps, and then receive the blue stamps for free to purchase additional food. Image from personal collection.

Above: These WPA workers are enjoying a meal on a boat in the Delta National Wildlife Refuge, ca. 1937. The men lived on these boats while they were creating the refuge (today, the refuge is used for hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, and boating). When the private sector rejected millions of working class Americans during the Great Depression, the WPA gave them jobs and hope. We still benefit from thousands of WPA projects today, 80 years later. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and the New Deal Network.

Above: The WPA restored dignity to millions of unemployed Americans--Americans who had been spit out by the private sector and insulted by their fellow citizens--by providing them with meaningful jobs and the ability to support their families through difficult times. This father, a WPA worker, is having dinner with his family in Zeigler, Illinois, 1939. One survivor of the Great Depression recalled, "my father immediately got employed by this WPA. This was a godsend. This was the greatest thing. It meant food, you know. Survival, just survival" (Studs Terkel, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, 1986 reprint, p. 86). Some people thought that WPA jobs were useless made-work, and that WPA workers were lazy good-for-nothings. This type of mentality is still prevalent today, with right-wing politicians, talking heads, and Internet-commenters calling the poor & unemployed all manner of foul names, and likening them to animals. But even the founder of the modern right-wing movement knew better. In his autobiography, Ronald Reagan wrote: "The WPA was one of the most productive elements of FDR's alphabet soup of agencies because it put people to work building roads, bridges, and other projects... it gave men and women a chance to make some money along with the satisfaction of knowing they earned it" (An American Life, p. 69). Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.


  1. Some of the more venomous comments I've gotten were over Liberty Lobby lies over "plowed pigs" that still persist today. Some FERA reports I just dug up #cough# report of a bumper crop of potato's in Northern Maine that were bought and distributed that would otherwise have ruined the farmers and been wasted due to the freezing conditions that year. Likewise, a local LA newspaper showed pork products in a giant freezer warehouse being readied for distribution which kind of blows the Liberty Lobby lies apart. Plus, Wallace's concept of the "ever present grainary" and parity pricing were quite visionary.

    1. I wrote a brief biography on Henry Wallace a few months back. He lived and breathed agriculture. As I recall, he even thought about agricultural improvements when he was a young boy and teen, experimenting on how to grow things better.