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Ancestors and the WPA


October 17, 2019

Recently, I decided to look back over the census records for my great-grandparents. On the 1940 census, I found my great-grandmother listed as the head of household and working as a seamstress. After looking closer, I noticed the industry she was listed as working in was “Govt sewing room.”

Curious, I began looking at each question on the 1940 census and decoding them. Question 22 asks, “…was he at work on, or assigned to, Public Emergency Work (WPA, NYA, CCC, etc.)?” Her response: “Yes.” This response intrigued me further. What did it mean to be at work on Public Emergency Work as a seamstress? What are those acronyms? 

A bit of historical background: on October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed, starting the Great Depression in the United States. More than 15 million Americans lost their jobs. This lasted until the early 1940s, and the questions on the 1940 census reflect those conditions. To help stabilize the banking industry, stimulate the economy, and get people back on their feet, the federal government enacted a series of programs called the New Deal.

Among the various programs, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created in 1935 and employed over 8.5 million people. There were a few stipulations: the workers had to be over 18 years old and unemployed; only one member per household could be employed with the WPA; and they had to be certified as “in need” by a local agency. Works Progress Administration projects built infrastructure, supported historical preservation, and also employed women in sewing rooms.

Between the 1940 census, and finding out that the WPA employed women in sewing rooms, I now have a pretty good start at learning about my great-grandmother and what her life in 1940 looked like. However, there is more digging I can do to get even more information. The Living New Deal organization, hosted by the University of California, Berkeley, has a lot of information on the New Deal and its projects, as well as information on finding New Deal ancestors. Additionally, professional genealogist and podcaster Lisa Louise Cooke has an article on her website about using WPA records for genealogy.

For more information on the 1940 census, the National Archives has a helpful webpage on the background of, and commonly asked questions about, that census. To find your ancestors on the census, you can use HeritageQuest Online from home with your MCPL Access Pass (Library card).

So, do you know what your ancestors were doing during the Great Depression?

Sarah M.
Midwest Genealogy Center

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