Putting Ohioans to Work

October is Archives Month!

This year’s theme is Ohio in the Depression. This is the third in a series of blog posts highlighting photographs of people and places in Ohio during the 1930s.

Teacher Viola Davis...

WPA employed teacher Viola Davis with her students at the Butler County Emergency School, Oxford, Ohio, 1936.

Today’s Archives Month image is one of many photographs taken by the Federal Writers’ Project, part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), while writing the Ohio Guide. These photographs documenting the Great Depression are now part of the Ohio Guide Collection in the Ohio History Connection Archives/Library. This photograph depicts a class from the Butler County Emergency School. Mrs. Viola Smith taught this class in homemaking in Oxford, Ohio in the fall of 1936. Her class focused on cooking, food values, meal planning, sewing, quilting, and basketry. In order to raise money for materials for the class, the students wrote and put on a play in Stewart High School. The materials purchased from this fundraiser allowed them to make aprons and dresses, thereby enabling them to learn more about sewing, designing, and finishing garments.

Four children participating in the WPA "Learn to swim" campaign at the pool in Navarre, Ohio.   These "Learn to Swim" campaigns were part of the Works Progress Administration, a project that hired unemployed Americans to work on various government projects from April 8, 1935 to June 30, 1943.

Four children participating in the WPA “Learn to swim” campaign at the pool in Navarre, Ohio. These “Learn to Swim” campaigns were part of the Works Progress Administration, a project that hired unemployed Americans to work on various government projects from April 8, 1935 to June 30, 1943.


Viola Smith was one of thousands of teachers employed by the WPA. Created in 1935, the WPA offered employment to those in need on an unprecedented scale, spending federal money on a wide variety of programs – from highway construction to rural rehabilitation, reforestation, and schooling. The goal of these and other programs like it was to get people back to work rather than simply giving them a government handout for unemployment. As Harry Hopkins, the administrator of the WPA, said, “Give a man a dole, and you save his body and destroy his spirit. Give him a job and you save both body and spirit.”
Bookbinding project in Cincinnati Public Library, Cincinnati, Ohio.  WPA work relief programs included training in library instruction.

Bookbinding project in Cincinnati Public Library, Cincinnati, Ohio. WPA work relief programs included training in library instruction.


Hopkins’ philosophy worked. In the first six months, the WPA employed over 173,000 Ohioans. More than 1,500 of these were unemployed teachers, whom the WPA used to teach courses ranging from homemaking to reading. One of these teachers’ foremost tasks was to teach illiterate adults how to read. Others employed by the WPA included writers, who wrote the Ohio Guide and interviewed former slaves and who artists painted murals in public buildings throughout Ohio. The WPA continued to operate throughout the United States until 1943. By this time, the World War II was underway and unemployment had dropped drastically as war-time jobs were created in response to the need for munitions and supplies. During its nine years of existence, the Works Progress Administration completed over 1.4 million projects and employed about 8.5 million people, providing work and hope to those families during a time of widespread unemployment and hopelessness.

Interested in learning more about the Works Progress Administration and the Great Depression? Check out these links:

Lilly Library, Indiana University. “The Works Project Administration in Indiana.” Indiana University. http://www.indiana.edu/~liblilly/wpa/wpa.html.

Ohio History Central. “Works Progress Administration.” Ohio History Connection. http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Works_Progress_Administration?rec=1011.

PBS. “The Works Progress Administration (WPA).” PBS. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/dustbowl- wpa/.

Caitlin Smith, History Collections Intern

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