The Textiles and Clothing Museum has a collection of objects dating from one of the most tumultuous periods of the twentieth century – the Great Depression of the 1930s. These artifacts were all made by employees of the Iowa Craft Project. Based in Des Moines, the Iowa Craft Project was a workshop created under the auspices of the WPA (Works Progress Administration; later renamed the Works Projects Administration).
Figure 1: Stamp on reverse of wall hanging. Textiles and Clothing Museum, 992.1.791.
Instituted in 1935, the WPA was part of the second stage of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. At the height of the Great Depression, the unemployment rate in the United States was almost 25% (Swanson & Williamson, 1972), and the WPA was one of the many programs that the U.S. government created to combat the problem. The WPA would be in existence for 8 years, and throughout that time employed over 8-1/2 million Americans (Kennedy, 2001).
The WPA supported a variety of craft-based workshops. Besides the Iowa Craft Project, one well-known workshop was the Milwaukee Handicrafts Project, which employed individuals for many different crafts, including weaving, screen and block printing, rug making, bookbinding, and toy making (Janik, 2016). The Milwaukee Handicrafts Project “targeted unskilled women on the relief rolls, offering jobs that would teach them how to hand produce [these] items” (Hoffman, para 3, n.d.).
The artifacts in the Textiles and Clothing Museum’s collection include hand printed wall hangings, hand printed fabric, and stitchery books.
Figure 2: Wall hanging, 1930s. Textiles and Clothing Museum, 992.1.791.
The Des Moines Register of August 27, 1939, mentioned additional types of activities that were carried out under the aegis of the Iowa Craft Project. These included bookbinding, with the newspaper featuring a photograph of one man in the process of binding Braille books. It noted that other activities done by Iowa Craft Project workers were costume making, wood carving, and “stuff[ing] fish and animals for study by school children” (“Jobless, but Iowans learn from them,” 1939, p. 48).
Figure 3: Wall hanging, 1930s. Textiles and Clothing Museum, 992.1.806.
Figure 4: Printed fabric, 1930s. Textiles and Clothing Museum, 992.1.792.
The “educational stitchery book” featured here comprises 18 samples of decorative stitches, such as feather stitch, smocking, cross stitch and intertwined running stitch.
Figure 5: Cover of educational stitchery book, late 1930s. Textiles and Clothing Museum, 992.1.648a-r.
Figure 6: Example of decorative stitches from WPA Iowa Craft Project educational stitchery book, late 1930s. Textiles and Clothing Museum, 992.1.648o.
Figures 7 and 8: Examples of decorative stitches from WPA Iowa Craft Project educational stitchery book, late 1930s. Textiles and Clothing Museum, 992.1.648e, k.
Hoffman, A. (n.d.). Designs out of the Depression: Block prints from the handicrafts revival. School of Human Ecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Retrieved from https://sohe.wisc.edu/research-development/textile-collection/textile-resources-2/featured-textiles-collection/designs-depression-block-prints-handicrafts-revival/
Janik, E. (2016). The craft project that made Milwaukee famous during the Great Depression. Wisconsin Public Radio. Retrieved from https://www.wpr.org/craft-project-made-milwaukee-famous-during-great-depression
Jobless, but Iowans learn from them. (1939, August 27). Des Moines Register, p. 48.
Kennedy, D. M. (2001). Freedom from fear: The American people in Depression and war, 1929-1945. London: Oxford University Press.
Swanson, J., & Williamson, S. (1972). Estimates of national product and income for the United States economy, 1919–1941. Explorations in Economic History, 10, 53–73.