Sewing Heritage: Women, Sewing & the WPA


2858085484 ef248615e3 d Sewing Heritage: Women, Sewing & the WPA

Folks, it’s time for a little sewing history lesson…

The Works Progress Administration (rename Work Project Administration in 1939) was created in 1935, and employed millions of people–especially in the rural West and Appalachia and other mountain regions–following the catastrophic downturn of the U.S. economy resulting in the Great Depression. What many people don’t know about the WPA is that a sizable number of people put to work during this time were women, around fifteen to twenty percent of WPA-participants. They were considered unemployed heads of household for a variety of reasons, including abandonment or a husband’s death or disability–and the lack of jobs caused many men to seek jobs far afield, thus allowing women to participate in WPA programs as their only source of family income. Almost every single female WPA participant, with the exception of the very small Professional Division, was involved in a sewing project of some sort. Later in the program, bookbinding was added to the WPA program, and women were engaged in that activity as well. Interestingly, while the WPA made the intentional decision to pay women and men the equally for the same work, sewing–and eventually bookbinding, were the lowest paid positions available. Since most women at that time were still sewing by hand, they received training in using sewing machines. Once they became skilled with the machines, they were put to work making clothing, bedding and supplies for hospitals and orphanages.

The poster above, from the Library of Congress catalog, was used to advertise the positions using sewing skills available to women in Ohio via the WPA. Note that “Power Machine Operator” is highlighted at the top of the poster.

~Sarah

Note: I am likely going to make “Sewing Heritage” a semi-regular series here. I’m personally interested in the subject, and have been for some time—even prior to our post of the same title. I have both a B.A. and an M.A. in Women’s Studies and my focus was on history (at one point, I seriously considering getting a PhD and going into academia)–and for a long time I was very interested in women and the small craft and big-time garment industries, both in the U.S. and abroad, past and present. Anyway, I figure that this is as good of place as any to share both a bit of my knowledge on this topic and some of my finds (the LOC image library is amazing). Let me know what you think!

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7 thoughts on “Sewing Heritage: Women, Sewing & the WPA

  1. Sewing heritage will be a wonderful addition to the site! I may have send you some interesting tidbits relating to archeology. I once dug up a thimble we dated from 1670-1690 from the partial makers mark still visible. A highlight, for sure :)

  2. Yes please, I’d like to see more of this! I’ve been working with the Living New Deal project at Berkeley, documenting WPA public art projects in my part of California (well, two of them, anyway). I had no idea sewing was part of the WPA ambit.

  3. I recently came across a square wall hanging with a horse printed on the front and done in a very 40s graphic style. It was most likely given as a gift in 1940 or 1941 when its owners were born in Grinnell, Iowa. On the back, it has written the following:

    PRINTED BY
    HAND BY THE
    IOWA
    CRAFT
    PROJECT
    3091/2 3RD STREET
    DES MOINES
    IOWA

    Would anything anyone has read on this subject be pertinent?

    Thanks,
    Jennifer

  4. Thank you for the info on the WPA. I had no idea that the WPA had women/sewers. My da almost missed WWII as he had to stay at the CHROME Plant and train women to run tha plant, the Canadian version of Rosie the Riveter.
    Thank you for sharing.

  5. Pingback: Labor History: Marine Cooks and Stewards Union and the WPA Sewing Projects Strike « .rebel grrrl academy: revolution in the shoproom, the classroom, the streets & the hips.

  6. Like many others who have commented, I had no idea there was a WPA sewing project. As I was doing genealogy work several days ago, I found the 1940 Census for the entire town (village) from where my ancestors settled in Nebraska after they emigrated from Bohemia and Moravia. Two women from this village had their occupation entry as “WPA Sewing Project, seamstress.” I was compelled to learn about this, which is what sent me to the internet, and how I found your site. Thanks for the work you do on this. It seems women’s work is consistently devalued. The shirtwaist workers in the textile industry were paid so little, as with all “women’s professions,” such as teaching, nursing, etc. Undoubtedly, the WPA Sewing Project was a remarkable resource for the women who were enrolled in it. The two women were also listed as head of the household. It would be interesting to know more about the selection process. There also was a “WPA Road Project.” Two men were “team leaders,” and about eight men whose occupation was “Road Crew.” Thanks for placing the poster on your site. Were any other posters created for the Sewing Project?

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