Federal Project Number One – Creativity in the Great Depression


“It was a chance for a lot of young writers—or young people who didn’t think of themselves as writers yet—to find their voice and connect with a creative community that had really been splintered by the Depression.” David A. Taylor, author

TheFederal Project Number One (known as “Federal One” for short) was created in 1935 as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).  This revolutionary and controversial New Deal program extended the relief to artists, actors, writers, and musicians. FDR felt that funding the arts would not only put legions of unemployed artists back to work, but their creations would also entertain and enrich the larger population. The programs not only put artists to work, but also nurtured the younger artists embarking upon a career in the arts.

The Federal One projects were highly popular with audiences and critics, and the reviews were generally positive.  Perhaps the biggest champion of Federal One was Eleanor Roosevelt, who felt strongly that American society had not done enough to support the arts. She viewed Federal One as a powerful tool with which to infuse art and culture into the daily lives of Americans. The First Lady persuaded FDR to sign the executive order creating the Federal One projects, commended the projects in her columns and speeches, and defended them against congressional critics.

  • The Federal Writer’s Project (FWP) employed writers to produce a variety of publications. The FWP’s most famous effort was a series of guidebooks for states, cities, and localities such as Death Valley.
  • The Federal Music Project (FMP) provided jobs for thousands of musicians who performed for millions during the lifetime of the project.
  • The Federal Art Project (FAP) had painters and sculptors create works of art and teach studio and art history classes.
  • The Federal Theatre Project (FTP) was created a “free, adult, uncensored” federal theater. In addition to theater productions the FTP also established radio units, dance and vaudeville and circus productions, and children’s theater companies.
  • The Historical Records Survey employed historical archivists to collect an conserve historical records across the country.

Not surprisingly, Federal Project Number One was a popular target of the New Deal’s Congressional opponents. Some Conservatives criticized the program for government involvement in the arts, while others were opposed to the various forms of censorship that took place.  Members of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) proclaimed that the programs were infiltrated with communists.   The programs were scaled back by the late 1930s and officially ended in the middle of World War II when the WPA was dissolved.

Adams, Don, and Arlene Goldbard. “New Deal Cultural Programs.” Webster’s World of Cultural Democracy. Web. 26 Mar. 2013. <http://www.wwcd.org/policy/US/newdeal
“Federal Project Number One.” The George Washington University. Web. 26 Mar. 2013. <http://www.gwu.edu/~erpapers/teachinger/glossary/federal-project-number1.cfm>.



What would it be like to be a younger artist getting ready to make her or his way in your chosen field, only to be faced with the economic challenge of the Great Depression?  How would you channel your imagination into an original work that not only displays your creativity but also helps tell the story of the most severe economic crisis in American history?  Here is your chance!

It’s the late 1930s, and you have accepted a position in one of the programs created through FDR’s Federal Project Number One.  You (and a fellow artist/writer/musician/actor/historian, if you choose) have chosen a specific program that fits your amazing artistic abilities and are ready to plan, write, and produce a fantastic collection of art that explains something about the Great Depression.   Your work can be on a very specific aspect of the era (such as a single government program, one individual or group of people, or an event such as the Dust Bowl) or about the Depression in general.  Select ONE of the choices below, consult the rubric, submit your choice to FDR online, and create! DO A PROJECT FORMAT THAT YOU HAVE NOT DONE BEFORE!

Federal Writers Project – The most common (and longest lasting) projects of the FWP were guidebooks of the 48 states and Washington D.C.  This idea has peaked your interest, and you want to undertake an overview of Wisconsin during the 1930s to describe how the economic crisis is affecting the Badger state.  Your work can be in the form of a printed or online pamphlet, or written and recorded as a podcast.

Federal Writers Project – Creative writing was encouraged through the Federal Writer’s Project.  Many famous authors made their mark during the Depression era, including Ralph Ellison, Eudora Welty, and Richard Wright.  Story telling and poetry were used to depict the trials and tribulations of life during the thirties.  As a budding young author, you have decided to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) and write a short story or a collection of illustrated poems that help tell the story of the era.  Let those creative juices ooze all over the paper!  Submit your work as digital document.

Federal Music Project – Throughout the Depression, music was used by many to express their frustration with the challenging times, find a diversion from the crisis, or look forward to better times ahead.  You have chosen to work for the Federal Music Project by developing a ballad that describes that discusses the life and times of people living through the Depression.  Once you have written your lyrics, put the words to a tune, record your song, and share it with the rest of the country (by submitting the lyrics and recording).

Federal Art Project – The Great Depression was something that had to bee seen in order to be completely understood, and the Federal Art Project employed professional photographers to use images to tell the story of the WPA.  As one of these photographers, you have been given the task of developing a scrapbook that uses photos and writing to describe life during the crisis.  Using instagram, canva, a presentation program,  mixbook (or another method of making a digital scrapbook), develop your photojournal and share it.

Federal Art Project – WPA murals are one of the great legacies of the New Deal, and you have accepted a commission to develop a mural that depicts various aspects of the Great Depression and New Deal.  While many murals portray a single scene from society, your mural will represent a collection of images from the era.  Each image or section of the mural should be annotated with a few sentences in order to describe the importance of the scene.  The mural should be hand-drawn (there wasn’t any clip art in the 1930s), and you can submit the finished product in paper of scanned form.

Federal Theater Project – Not only did the Federal Theater Project hire thespians and playwrights, but it also entertained much of the nation, usually for free.  Many Americans heard the theatrical works on the radio, broadcast by all of the major networks.    As a stage performer, you look forward to sharing your acting with the nation.  Write a scene from the Depression that emotionally describes the challenges and government response to the crisis and record your work for broadcast, either as a radio show or as a live video performance.

Historical Records Survey – Historians need to work too, don’t they?  Select a specific topic of interest to you (and your fellow historian) and curate a collection of resources from the Depression era that helps to explain your chosen topic, including an overview of the resources.

You will notice that there aren’t any specific length requirements for the assignments – FDR will leave that up to you.  Make sure you consult the rubric for guidelines on content, primary sources, resources, creativity, and effort. There is a single common rubric for all of the choices!





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