Family Experiences and New Deal Relief
The Correspondence Files of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, 1933–1936
Fall 2012, Vol. 44, No. 2 | Genealogy Notes
By John P. Deeben
At the height of the Great Depression in November 1934, Mae E. Sanford of Chicago penned a heartfelt letter to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House. Using a Biblical allusion to emphasize the dire effects of the Depression on her personal and economic situation, Sanford bluntly asked for help:
My home is heavily mortgaged and I have been a cripple for years. The time is near where I am in fear of being disposed, as it had been hard for me to meet my payments and almost impossible to get along. . . . Dear Mrs. Roosevelt Please help me and let me keep my home after all we are God's children and he teaches us to ask that we shall receive.1
Mrs. Roosevelt passed Sanford's request on to an administrator for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) in Washington, D.C., who dutifully advised Sanford to contact her local emergency relief administrator in Chicago for assistance.
The Great Depression was one of the most important events of the mid-20th century, an economic catastrophe that touched all facets of American society. It devastated personal finances (including incomes and investments), drastically restricted national revenue and international trade, and caused unemployment to skyrocket.
Such an all-encompassing event changed family narratives as well. As with any major historical event—and especially those of a decidedly traumatic nature—how relatives responded to or weathered the crisis of the Great Depression formed an essential aspect of family history.
The efforts of the federal government to counteract the Depression through the various programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal—and in particular the work of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration during the depths of the Depression—produced many records that document such personal experiences, offering useful information about individuals and family members at a dramatic moment in history.
The New Deal in Action: FERA Gives Economic Aid
The Federal Emergency Relief Act of May 12, 1933, implemented President Roosevelt's first major initiative to combat the adverse economic and social effects of the Great Depression. The act established the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, a grant-making agency authorized to distribute federal aid to the states for relief. By the end of December 1935, FERA had distributed over $3.1 billion and employed more than 20 million people.
FERA assumed the responsibilities of the former Emergency Relief Administration (ERA) that President Herbert Hoover had established to loan federal funds to state governments for their own relief efforts.
In the early years of the Depression, responsibility for emergency relief had rested almost entirely on state and local governments, but swelling unemployment and economic hardship fostered the growing perception that the Depression required a greater, national response. That viewpoint launched Roosevelt into the White House in 1932 and provided the catalyst for his subsequent New Deal programs.2
In contrast to the ERA's local approach, FERA gave the federal government a more centralized role in economic recovery by allocating (rather than loaning) funds for both direct relief (cash payments to individuals for immediate necessities such as food and shelter) and state-directed work relief (projects intended to get the unemployed back to work, even if only temporarily).
Rather than establish a whole new federal hierarchy, which might delay relief to the general public, FERA assumed oversight of existing state relief programs. To ensure compliance and foster better understanding of relief needs in response to economic and social conditions, FERA established minimum national relief standards and served as a clearinghouse for information on relief problems, policies, and procedures.
By November 1934, FERA had been divided into several divisions that focused on different kinds of relief, including Work; Rural Rehabilitation; Research, Statistics and Finance; and Relations with States (Transients).3
Another major and innovative—if only fleeting—component of FERA included the Civil Works Administration (CWA), a temporary agency established on November 9, 1933. Conceived in response to the need to put millions of unemployed people immediately back to work during the harsh winter of 1933–1934, the CWA created thousands of construction jobs for unskilled laborers. Projects mainly included building or improving roadways, schools, playgrounds, and airports; laying sewer pipes and masonry walls; or simply raking leaves and shoveling show in public and national parks.
Women employed by the CWA often sewed garments for the destitute. Employing approximately 4 million workers by January 1934, the CWA proved immensely popular among the general public but was nevertheless disbanded by Congress on March 31, 1934, due to increasing political fears that the program would create too much "public" employment centered on temporary work devoid of lasting value.4
The work of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration eventually came to an end after the passage of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act on May 6, 1935. Permanently shifting the focus of economic recovery from direct relief assistance to enhanced work relief, the act implemented a massive public works program under the direction of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
The largest and most ambitious of the New Deal agencies, the WPA essentially resembled a much amplified version of FERA, and by the end of 1935 it had assumed all of its predecessor's relief functions. The WPA even expanded work relief by creating projects for professionals and artisans as well as unskilled laborers, including the Federal Arts Project, the Federal Writers Project, and the Federal Theater Project. The WPA continued until 1943, when the economic boom of America's industrial war effort during World War II finally wiped out the last lingering effects of the Great Depression.5
Subject Files Reveal Depression Experiences
As soon as FERA opened for business in May 1933, applicants seeking relief assistance flooded the agency's main offices in Washington, D.C., with correspondence, usually addressed to top administrators such as FERA director Harry L. Hopkins. Letters sent directly to Roosevelt at the White House were also forwarded to FERA for a response. All letters received, along with carbon copies of replies, were arranged in the agency's central correspondence file.
Now part of Record Group (RG) 69, Records of the Work Projects Administration (WPA), FERA's central file was divided into two parts, the "Old General Subject Series, March 1933–January 1935" (Entry 8) and the "New General Subject Series, February 1935–1936" (Entry 9). The "Old" series uses an alphabetical arrangement by subject, while the "New" series uses a three-digit decimal classification scheme. General subject series for the central files of the CWA (Entry 2) and the WPA (Entry 11) contained similar arrangements, respectively.6
The categories or topic headings in the subject series demonstrate various aspects of general relief efforts. In FERA's "Old" subject series, for example, subjects range from such items as "Adjustment Division" cases, "Chattel Mortgages," and "Commissary Complaints" to "Social Work," "Women's Camps," and "Work Relief." Some categories included subtopics as well, such as "Work Relief," which contains not only general correspondence but also letters addressed to federal departments, field representatives, and the White House (including communications relating to a White House Conference on Emergency Needs of Women, held on March 20, 1933).
Correspondence filed under "Rural Rehabilitation" addresses such subtopics as "Appeals for Relief," "Applications of Stranded Families for Land," "Employment," the "Canning Program," "Grape Purchases," "Land for Sale," and "Sub-marginal Land." Categories containing large volumes of correspondence were usually arranged alphabetically by the name of the correspondent.7
The central files of all three agencies also include a "State" series, which covers administrative matters and reports concerning relief operations within a single state or territory. FERA's "State Series, March 1933–1936" (Entry 10) contains important correspondence with state relief administrators, arranged alphabetically by state or territory and then by decimal scheme according to the following classifications: "General Correspondence" (400), "Rural Rehabilitation" (410), "Transients" (420), "Education" (430), "Medical Care" (440), "Work Relief" (450), and "Complaints" (460).
Some classifications once again include subcategories. "General Correspondence," for example, contains letters relating to "Finance and Statistics," "Policies," "Personnel," and "Field Reports" (with the latter being further divided into reports from field representatives and field examiners). Other "State" correspondence among the central files in RG 69 include "State Series, 1933–34" (Entry 1) for the CWA, and "State Series, 1935–44" (Entry 12) for the WPA.8
General Subject Series Headings Contain Details on Individuals
Certain headings in the general subject series contain particularly useful details about individual experiences during the Depression. Letters filed under "Appeals and Applications for Employment" readily documented the travails of destitute families, sometimes in colloquial and moving fashion, even if they did not always reveal the end of the story. Similar to Mae Sanford's personal entreaty to Eleanor Roosevelt, S. M. Loey of Iowa Falls, Iowa, wrote to FERA administrator Bruce McClure on April 21, 1934, to request help with the pending foreclosure of his business. Invoking presidential authority to reinforce the legitimacy of his plea, Loey informed McClure that "President Roosevelt said in his fireside speech that if anyone was about to loose [sic] by foreclosure to refer their troubles to you. I am about to loose my store building where I have all my ovens and machinery and my salesroom for a bakery. . . . I have tried in vain to get help for myself but it is impossible to find a loan."9
Personal requests for employment, of course, permeate the correspondence. Writing directly to Harry Hopkins to solicit a job on a music project in the Work Division, unemployed musician Simon Bucharoff of Los Angeles emphatically declared his desire to work rather than accept a government handout: "I do not want a dole and basket. I want to work at something constructively and there are many others in my profession who have been placed in the same situation." Hoping to assist his fellow musicians back on their feet, Bucharoff urged Hopkins (with a bit of jingoistic flare) to approve a project "to teach music in all its branches, develop music by Americans and bring it before the public and make a strong attempt at placing American artists in positions now occupied by foreigners."10
Other artisans and entrepreneurs hoped FERA would finance their ideas and inventions. E. L. Harrison of Portsmouth, Ohio, pitched his plan for "an automatic rat trap" directly to Roosevelt in the belief the President "helped our Country and our Oeople more than any other living man, and mayb [sic] you might be able to help me out of the rut, in some way or other."11
Letters in the "Rural Rehabilitation" category convey details about FERA's efforts to place destitute families on small farms—or in some cases to relocate farm families from poor soil tracts to more productive lands—where they could establish a decent standard of living and a measure of self-sufficiency by raising what they needed. Here again, applicants for this type of relief often relayed their personal circumstances and hardships in colorful detail. A youthful Clyde Raymond Carhart of Norfolk, Virginia, told President Roosevelt in no uncertain terms of his desire to better himself as a farmer:
When you read this you will probably think that I am the biggest fool in the world, but you are the only one I know could help me. . . . I have always wanted to be a farmer—not to get rich but to make a living for my mother, two brothers and my sister—to give them an education, something that I always wanted and never got. I want to feed them on more than oatmeal and bread and get a start in this world. Everyone has to have a start. You did, Lincoln did and I want a chance.12
Figuring to purchase a 44-acre farm for $2,600 plus expenses (including mules, implements, seed, and a truck) with $250 down, $90 per year in mortgage payments, and $26 per year for taxes, Carhart hoped Roosevelt (through FERA) would loan him $600 to get started.13
In the agency's attempt to deal with one of the most visible social aspects of the Great Depression—hoboes or transients (especially veterans of the late World War)—FERA collected general information that was filed in the "Transient" categories of both the "Old" and "New" subject series.
Concerned about the particular penchant of hoboes to use the railroads as a means of free transportation, FERA sought to study the issue to curb the practice. State FERA representatives frequently requested information and assistance from railroad police or special service departments within the railway industry. In the process, FERA gathered a wealth of statistical data regarding the hobo phenomenon. One transient census report compiled by Elizabeth Wickenden, assistant director of transient activities, included local, state, and federal statistics for August 15, 1934. The report estimated the total transient population at 226,741, including 135,761 "unattached" or single males, 4,395 "unattached" females, and 86,585 individuals in families.14
Correspondence Provides Personal Details about Individuals
In addition to descriptions of general hardships wrought by the Depression, the FERA central files occasionally offer specific details about individuals, including basic vital statistics and personal relationships. Many letters filed under "Applications for Employment" in both the "Old" and "New" subject series include personal information about the applicants, with a few accompanied by attached résumés.
When Abraham Abramowitz wrote to FERA's personnel director for a job on May 7, 1935, he also sent a summary of his personal and educational background. A 20-year-old recent (1935) graduate of Brooklyn College with a degree in English, Abramowitz claimed basic clerical skills (ability to type) and office experience, as well as one year of advanced mathematics and both a theoretical and practical knowledge of statistics. Work experience at Brooklyn College included cataloging books and orchestral scores for the Music Department.15
Some personal details emerge under more unusual circumstances. Letters filed under "Repatriation of Aliens" in the "Old" subject series deal with FERA efforts to assist destitute aliens who wished to return voluntarily to their countries of origin or to fund transportation for the American spouses and children of aliens being deported.
Such dependents often became destitute public charges entitled to relief money, which is why FERA generally cooperated with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to underwrite travel costs for family members who wished to accompany deported aliens. In the process, family relationships often came to light. During the deportation investigation of German national Ferdinand Andreas Christian Lohring in February 1934, the INS divulged to FERA that Lohring had married Anna Prill, another German native, on September 4, 1931, in Brooklyn, New York. The Lohrings had one American-born daughter, Eleanor, born in Brooklyn on November 29, 1931.16
General correspondence relating to transients often contain personal details as well, particularly in letters from family members attempting to locate missing persons. On January 5, 1935, Mrs. S. A. Dailey of Ardmore, Oklahoma, wrote directly to Harry Hopkins to request a list of registrants at local transient bureaus across the United States, "as I would like to find out if my husband is at any of them as he is missing and I don't know if he is dead or alive and am sure worried over it." According to Mrs. Dailey, her husband disappeared in Hugo, Oklahoma, on November 23, 1934. He was a sign painter by occupation, 57 years old, Irish-born, and well educated. She further described several physical characteristics, including a "right arm off just below [the] elbow, a 'v' scar just above right eye, [he] weighs 170 lbs. is six feet tall is graying quite a bit."17
Other transient correspondence contains specific information about World War I veterans. To help address the transient problem, FERA cooperated with the Veterans Administration (VA) to assist unemployed, homeless veterans. The VA provided shelter, subsistence, and transportation for destitute veterans and referred men to FERA for the Works Program or the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The resulting paperwork generated a variety of personal information about veterans on several forms, including official VA work applications for public relief projects, certificates of eligibility for approved applicants, and general lists of veterans who filed VA applications. (After the WPA took over from FERA in 1935, approved work applications were forwarded to the state headquarters in the WPA district closest to the veteran's hometown.)
Most VA work applications contain a range of basic statistics, including the veteran's name, race, permanent address, citizenship and marital status, age, trade or occupation, date unemployment began, and number of dependents. Military information consists of the veteran's dates of enlistment and discharge and his rank held during service.
The 1936 application for Samuel McKeand, for example, identifies him as a single, 43-year-old male from North Birmingham, Alabama, who worked as a boilermaker in civilian life. He joined the U.S. Navy on June 1, 1917, serving also as a boilermaker until his discharge on July 11, 1919. McKeand had been unemployed since 1930.
Certificates of eligibility contain briefer personal summaries—listing just the applicant's name, address, and relief district—but include more information about family and dependents. The certificate for Patrick F. Brannan's application reveals he was from Santa Rosa, California, and had a wife, Ruth (age 31), as well as a daughter, Patricia (age 10), and a son, Edgar (age 8).18
The general lists of veterans who filed VA applications provide the least amount of personal data but offer a better summary of the nature of relief work offered by FERA. Most lists include the names of the veterans, the type of jobs or positions offered, whether the veterans accepted the work assignments, and dates of employment. One list of Philadelphia applicants, for example, shows that veterans William Brennan, Jr., Charles Conrad, Raymond McCormick, Edward Connors, Duncan Ferguson, and George R. Jackson all accepted work between May 18 and May 27, 1936, in a variety of occupations, including painter, laborer, architect draftsman, clerk, transcriber, and investigator, respectively.19 The general lists usually do not include the original VA applications (these were forwarded to the local WPA projects coordinator in Philadelphia).
The sustained period of economic stagnation that resulted from the Great Depression—highlighted by chronic unemployment, food lines, and scarce creature comforts—caused economic hardships on a scale never seen before in American history. When individuals turned directly to the federal government for help, many details of their personal stories were captured in the official correspondence of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the first of President Roosevelt's New Deal relief agencies.
Letters written by ordinary citizens from all segments of American society described the trials of foreclosure, basic sustenance, and efforts to scratch out some kind of decent living. In the process, some correspondence also divulged details about individuals and family relationships. Such information and experiences, which are often difficult to discern from other, more conventional sources, form an integral part of the fabric of family history.
John P. Deeben is a genealogy archives specialist in the Research Support Branch at the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. He earned B.A. and M.A. degrees in history from Gettysburg College and Pennsylvania State University, respectively.
1 Mrs. Mae E. Sanford to Eleanor Roosevelt, Nov. 19, 1934; Appeals and Applications for Employment, "Old General Subject" Series, March 1933–January 1935 (Entry 8); Federal Emergency Relief Administration Central Files, 1933–1966 (FERA Central Files); Records of the Work Projects Administration (WPA), Record Group 69 (RG 69); National Archives at College Park, Maryland (NACP).
2 Frances T. Bourne, Preliminary Checklist of the Central Correspondence Files of the Work Projects Administration and Its Predecessors, 1933–1944, Preliminary Checklist 37 (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Service, 1946), pp. iii, 48–51.
4 Ibid; see also the online article "Civil Works Administration during the Great Depression" by Colt Justice, [http://www.helium.com/items/580881-the-civil-works-administration-during-the-great-depression] accessed on November 28, 2011. [The cited article is no longer at this location. Prologue could not find a new location as of October 18, 2017.]
5 Bourne, Preliminary Checklist 37, p. iii.
6 Ibid, pp. iii–iv.
7 Ibid, pp. iii–iv, 3–7.
8 Ibid, pp. 11–12.
9 S. M. Loey, Iowa Falls, Iowa to Bruce McClure, FERA, Apr. 21, 1934; Appeals and Applications for Employment, "Old General Subject" Series; FERA Central Files; RG 69; NACP.
10 Simon Bucharoff, Los Angeles, to Harry L. Hopkins, Dec. 19, 1934, in ibid.
11 E. L. Harrison, Portsmouth, Ohio, to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nov. 23, 1934, in ibid.
12 Clyde Raymond Carhart, Norfolk, Virginia, to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Feb. 19, 1934, in ibid.
14 Elizabeth Wickenden, Assistant Director of Transient Activities, to Harry L. Hopkins, Sept. 17, 1934; Transients; "Old General Subject" Series; FERA Central Files; RG 69; NACP.
15 Abraham Abramowitz to FERA Personnel Director, May 7, 1935; "New General Subject" Series, February 1935–1936 [Entry 9]; FERA Central Files; RG 69; NACP.
16 Byron H. Uhl, District Director of INS, to Frederick I. Daniels, Executive Director, Temporary Emergency Relief Administration, Feb. 13, 1934; Repatriation of Aliens; "Old General Subject" Series; FERA Central Files; RG 69; NACP.
17 Mrs. S. A. Dailey, Ardmore, Oklahoma, to Harry L. Hopkins, Jan. 5, 1935; Transients; "Old General Subject" Series; FERA Central Files; RG 69; NACP.
18 VA application for Samuel McKeand, Feb. 24, 1936, and certificate of eligibility for Patrick F. Brannan, undated; Transient Program (Veterans' Applications for Employment on Work Projects); "New General Subject" Series; FERA Central Files; RG 69; NACP.
19 List of Philadelphia VA applicants to FERA relief work, May 18–27, 1936, in ibid.