Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The recollections, and the wise & spirited words of Harry Hopkins - part 3: Safety Pins and Dumb People

Above: WPA administrator Harry Hopkins visits Hallie Flanagan and her federal theatre actors in New York, 1936. Many people thought federal money for unemployed theatre workers was a waste of taxpayer dollars. Others despised the racial integration they saw in some of the performances. Still others thought that the WPA program, which included puppet shows for children and circus performances for the disabled, was a communist plot to take over the country. Conservative politicians--both Democrat and Republican--eagerly fueled this fear, hysteria, and irrational thought (much like they do today), and shut the program down in 1939. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and the New Deal Network.

Above: Disabled children enjoying a WPA circus performance in New York City, ca. 1936-1939. When conservatives shut the theatre program down, they "saved" these children from the "communist plot" of the circus clowns. And, no doubt, they thought the money would be better spent on tax-breaks-for-the-wealthy. You can see this same conservative philosophy today. For example, Republicans in Kansas have recently taken $9 million from their highly productive Children's Initiative Fund to preserve tax-breaks-for-the-wealthy. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and the New Deal Network.

One of the great character traits of Harry Hopkins was his fearlessness towards critics. Today, out of fear of political correctness, many politicians frequently backtrack on their statements, and many government administrators don't speak at all. There seems to be a sort of "hush hush, lest you lose your job" mentality. 

In April of 1935, Hopkins was asked to justify some federally-funded research projects, including a historical study of safety pins (probably funded through the Federal Emergency Relief Administration). He responded: "Why should I? There is nothing the matter with that. They are damn good projects - excellent projects... You know, some people make fun of people who speak a foreign language, and dumb people criticize something they do not understand, and that is what is going on up there, God damn it!... I have no apologies to make. As a matter of fact, we have not done enough..." (Henry H. Adams, Harry Hopkins: A Biography, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1977, p. 62).

Many people did not approve of Hopkins saying "dumb people." However, sometimes you have to fight fire with fire. Throughout the Great Depression, people scolded the unemployed as lazy-good-for-nothings, just like they do today. There was (and still is) a great tendency to lump all the jobless together, and then label them  "worthless." Harry Hopkins fought back against this discrimination and stereotyping throughout his years as a New Deal administrator. He thought it was dumb, so he said it was dumb.


  1. I recently discovered a 3 volume set of books in the Los Angeles library that are a resource on scientific research projects on a vast array of subjects produced by the various New Deal agencies and the amount of work done is staggering. In the LA city archives is the annual reports of the park department and there is a list of science displays at Griffith Observatory built by the WPA, two that are still on display, the Tesla coil and Foucault Pendulum, beyond the observatory itself financed and built by the New Deal. Exhibits were on the Fourth dimension, Polarized Auto headlight, Cosmochron, water erosion model, Kettering Animated Molecule, star camera, and many more. At the Pasadena Museum of History, there's a photo of an electrical experiment at Cal Tech funded by the New Deal. The big one of course was the San Dimas experimental forest. Unfortunately, science experiments don't quite fit on the Living New Deal site even though its rather an interesting aspect of the program and one that George Washington mentions in his Thanksgiving proclamations for instance on the need of the diffusion of scientific knowledge to the general population and a prerequisite for the general welfare. That's some aspects of that here in Southern California that I've run across anyway. Could be the subject of a future blog of yours perhaps? ;)

    1. Hi Drew, thanks for the information. That definitely sounds like a possible blog post. I'll check into it after I finish my Hopkins' quotes series. If you know of any good photos of some of these displays, please send.

  2. The Cal Tech photo requires some money before PMH will give you a copy of their New Deal pictures unfortunately. I have a photo of the Tesla coil and pictures of the pendulum are available since its a popular display. The LND has historical photos of the experimental forest, however, access by the public is very limited accept by appointment.