By William C. Carlotti, Vermont (revised)
There are times when relatively minor incidents trigger recollections that have been placed on the back burner of our storehouse of memories. Such was the case several years ago when I visited the offices of The Voice and made some comments regarding the amazing advances that have evolved as the typewriter became transformed into the computer.
(It was the case again yesterday when I spotted an article about social security and an article about a new Millau bridge in France amongst the iBratt posts that returned me to an article I wrote several years ago. I decided that it deserved revisiting and so what follows is the article with some up-to-date modifications)
In the course of my comments I was reminded of, and then mentioned, that my mother had been able to type 90 words a minute on one of the manual typewriters extant in the 1930s when she worked for the W.P.A. Arts Project. I had mentioned my mother’s typing because I had always been amazed at the speed and dexterity of her skill when I had seen it as a young boy, and only incidentally mentioned that she had worked for the Arts Project. It was then that Sarah (I’ve always had a subliminal affection for the name) said that she never knew that the W.P.A. had an Arts Project and suggested that I write about it.
I was surprised that Sarah had not heard about the Arts Project but, then again, this kind of thing seems to be happening to me more often these days. I start talking to my children or grandchildren about something that I presume they have some experience with, but soon get reminded that what I’m talking about happened long before they were born or before they became aware of events outside of their immediate family. My grandson nearly collapsed with laughter when I told him that there was no television when Pearl Harbor (he saw the movie) was attacked, and that we heard the news about it on our Stromberg Carlson vacuum tube radio (which we still have, and which still works).
In any case, the Work Projects Administration (W.P.A.) of the 1930s did have a Federal Arts Project, a Federal Writer’s Project, a Federal Theater Project, and a Federal Music Project. It was an amazing time in the history of United States government action. We were in the midst of a devastating depression. Millions of people were unemployed, farmers were losing their properties by the thousands, small businesses were collapsing, and the banks were failing in the manner of the current Enron, wiping out the savings and retirements of millions of Americans. To solve the problem, the United States government became the employer of last resort or provided the funds for vast public works projects. The Hoover Dam, the Grand Coulee Dam, flood control dams all over the country (including some in Vermont), the Tennessee Valley Authority with its dams for rural electrification, post offices, courthouses, highways, bridges, tunnels, forest and wildlife conservation, housing—the entire infrastructure of the United States became the target of federal projects to provide work for the unemployed
Unusual in its scope, the employment programs extended beyond the normal employment categories and included artists, actors, musicians and writers who were put to work on the government payroll to paint, write, act, dance, perform, create movies and plays—to publish and record. There is scarcely a government project of the 1930s that was without its murals or sculpture depicting the lives of the people involved in the project. When the new United States Post Office was built in Torrington, the murals that were painted for the Post Office built in the ‘30s were preserved and transferred on to the walls of the new Post Office.
According to a clerk at the Post Office, residents of Torrington still remember posing as the students in a classroom scene depicting a teacher in the midst of a lecture. The Federal Arts Project employed the artist Arthur Covey to paint the murals in Torrington, and employed other artists to paint similar murals on the walls of post offices, courthouses, and hundreds of other projects built under the auspices of the W.P.A.
In the meantime, writers employed by the W.P.A.’s Federal Writer’s Project were recording the history of industries and communities all over the country. Thousands of interviews were conducted and were transcribed into a mosaic of oral history from the lives of former slaves, immigrants, coal miners, clockmakers, sheepherders, garment and hat makers, itinerant workers, stone cutters, tapping and sugaring, logging, etc.—stories of working people from a vast variety of professions and trades who had worked in all kinds of industries. Studs Terkel, the author of Working, an anthology of oral histories by people describing their work and their feelings about it, produced this popular best seller using the kinds of interviews that that had preceded him by some forty years.
In Connecticut, the writers of the W.P.A.’s Federal Writer’s Project conducted hundreds of interviews. Those that have been preserved were written by project workers Francis Conovan, Robert Guanino, Merton R. Lovett, M.V. Rourke, P.K. Russo, M.G. Sayers, and William J. Smallwood. The occupations of those interviewed ranged from clockmakers to foresters to ministers, and their views regarding politics, World War I, labor disputes, women in industry, religion, etc. were assiduously recorded by the writers. One of the current frequent contributors to The Voice is Charles Smith, and it is quite possible that he may know something about the interview with a Charles Smith about clockmaking and knifemaking and the clock industry of Thomaston in 1938.
In Vermont, writers working for the Federal Writer’s Project wrote history after history. Some one hundred and twenty nine of them have been preserved and can be read at VERMONT ORAL HISTORY The story about Corti, whose memorial stone carved by his brother is in Barre’s Hope Cemetery, is especially interesting because it is an opening window to some of the organizing turmoil of the time that can be pursued by those with an interest. There may be amongst the stories persons that have survived all these long years.
The opinion of the writer that compared the Millau Bridge in France to the proposed concrete slab bridge endorsed by now Governor Arnold Scwarznegger, is reminiscent of the kind of discussion that took place in the 1930’s, in and out of the W.P.A., about the arts. The photos of the Millau bridge make it clear that there are places where the joining of art and function takes place. I would not, however, turn my nose up so quickly at the bridges that use concrete slabs. I don’t have the photos to back it up but, if there are those that occasionally travel the road to Hartford, Connecticut, the graceful steel and concrete curves and intricate interwoven elements of the intersection of U.S. 91 and U.S. 84 in the center of Hartford would be hard to resist as a candidate for the joining of art and function. How the elements and materials of function are used, in my opinion, is what transforms function into a work of art.
Yet, the discussion of the 1930’s went beyond the discussion of the abstractions of art and function, they went to the content art. Art that had a content, art that went beyond a pleasing arrangement of color and form or pleasing arrangement of black and white and form was the art favored by the overwhelming number of artists in the W.P.A. Federal Projects.
Those interested in the kind of art with content, should visit the Works Project Administration’s site at: THE FUNCTION OF ART as a starter and then browse through the other pages.
In addition to the creation of work by the W.P.A., the safety nets that now exist for the millions of working people—and which are assumed as a given of our society—were enacted into law in the same period of ten or fifteen years. All in all, the current political climate—which seeks to remove the government funding and support from a wide variety of the programs and practices (Social Security, workman’s compensation, unemployment insurance, federal deposit insurance, child labor, minimum wage, the eight hour work day, Disability Insurance) that originated in this same period in our history—would really serve to place us at the mercy of skullduggery such as the Enron failure and the earlier Savings and Loan fiasco that collaterally involved the Bushes.
The ideological precedents to the Bush and Cheney, Wolfowitz and Perle, Kristol and Podhoretz and the rest of the Judeo/Christian/Neocon/Zealot crowd were defeated in every aspect of our society—in the government, in the judiciary, in the congress, in the supreme court ---- by the consistent, persistent, constant demands through organized meetings, marches, protests, writings and every other demonstrable expression.
To preserve the safety nets, to enhance their durability, to expand the collective benefits and, to defeat those that would steal our earnings to the tune of three trillion dollars ($3,000,000,000, count the zeros) to engage in the SLAUGHTER OF INNOCENTS in lieu of these collective benefits, is the work of THIS generation