Back to Work with the New Deal

A couple weeks ago, more than forty students from F. S. Tucker Elementary visited The Wolfsonian and our rare book and special collections library as part of a field trip organized by their instructor, Iris Sanchez-Ruiz.

Group photo

Ms. Sanchez-Ruiz had been one of twenty Miami-Dade County schoolteachers enrolled in Florida International University’s Teaching American History Masters Degree Program some years back. She and another MA candidate, Rosita Maria Sosa, had taken my class on The Great Depression, New Deal, and Good War, and, for their final project assignment, had elected to curate a library installation in 2012 on the subject of Franklin Roosevelt and the labor movement.


Remembering the strength of our museum’s holdings of New Deal artifacts, Ms. Sanchez-Ruiz arranged a tour with our museum educators for her students of the New Deal era mural studies on view in the museum’s fifth-floor gallery.

Americans All Pan3

I also provided a presentation of primary source materials documenting the Roosevelt Administration’s “alphabet soup” solutions to the crises brought on by the Great Depression.


Vaughn Shoemaker cartoon for 1938 A.D., The Wolfsonian–FIU, Anonymous donor

Historians generally speak of two New Deals—the first projects enacted in a flurry of activity during FDR’s first 100 days in office, and a second wave of programs coming in response to ideas, programs, and platforms pushed by other political contenders in the lead-up to the 1936 presidential election.

The National Recovery Administration (NRA) and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) were early “trickle down” approaches to jump-starting the economy’s industrial and farming sectors.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

Neither of these approaches proved to be particularly successful, and both proved to be more than a little controversial, attacked by conservatives as “stumbling into socialism” and by leftists as a boon to big business interests.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchase


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Ultimately, the conservative members of the Supreme Court “did in” the NRA by ruling it unconstitutional. Although the Roosevelt Administration’s “Triple-A” program fared better in the courts, the policy of killing millions of piglets, plowing under crops to raise food prices, and paying farmers subsidies not to grow crops stuck many critics as crazy in a time of want and hunger.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

Other early New Deal programs rolled out more smoothly and successfully, including FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Public Works Administration (PWA).


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchase


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

The PWA put tens of thousands of engineers, architects, and construction workers back to work on government-funded infrastructure projects.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Christopher DeNoon

While organized labor and the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) railed the CCC for its poor pay and its military-style organization, it became one of the most popular programs of the first New Deal.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchased with Founder’s funds

Within months of Roosevelt’s inauguration, some 250,000 youths living in urban squalor and poverty, loitering in makeshift hobo camps, or restlessly “riding the rails” in search of work were enrolled in, housed in, and working out of CCC camps and barracks on conservation and reforestation projects established in state and national parks and forest reserves across the nation. Not only did the camps stimulate local economies by creating a demand for food and uniforms, but young enlistees benefited physically and emotionally as they put on pounds and muscle working in natural settings, learned valuable vocational skills, and took pride in knowing that $25 of their $30-per-month paychecks supported their families back home.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised Gift

By 1935, the Democratic incumbent was being challenged by various political contenders, each peddling their own personal program for ending the Depression. These included the “snake-oil salesman,” Dr. Francis Townsend, touring the country promoting his own Old Age pension “pyramid” scheme;


Cartoon by Will H. Chandler, for Mother Goose in Washington, The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

the charismatic, populist Governor of Louisiana, Huey Pierce Long, who campaigned to make “Every Man a King” with his “Share the Wealth” program before his candidacy was ended by an assassin’s bullet;


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

and Father Charles Coughlin (the “radio Priest”), who preferred right-wing politics to preaching the Gospel.


Cartoon by Will H. Chandler, for Mother Goose in Washington, The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

In the run-up to the 1936 presidential election, President Roosevelt introduced new New Deal programs, including the Social Security Administration and the Works Progress Administration. The former created a safety net for elderly and incapacitated Americans; the latter was designed to provide work for millions more able-bodied men and women in ever-wider fields of employment.


“Social Security,” a wood-engraving by Federal Art Project artist Stefan Hirsch, The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection


“W.P.A.” print by Duard Marshall, The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Though both programs helped millions of Americans in their most desperate time of need, a backlash against the WPA set in during the last years of the Depression decade against government-funded jobs and projects for “shovel-leaners.”


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

Congressional budgetary attacks on the New Deal began in earnest in late 1938 and early 1939, with conservative Southern (“Dixiecrat”) Democrats siding with Republicans in calling for the defunding of the WPA, beginning with the Federal Theatre Project.


Illustration by Victor Candell for 12 Cartoons Defending WPA, The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

With the dark clouds of militant Fascism and Nazism gathering over Europe and American factories reopened as the country geared up for war, the New Dealer reinvented himself and campaigned on the foreign policy platform of making America the “arsenal of democracy.”


Color lithograph by Hugo Gellert, for Century of the Common Man, The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

~ by "The Chief" on April 14, 2017.

One Response to “Back to Work with the New Deal”

  1. The Great Depression in Film class was one of my favorite classes at FIU!

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