Shhh! We're letting you in on one of genealogy's best-kept secrets: the resources of the WPA's Historical Records Survey.
Black Thursday, Oct. 24, 1929: The stock market crashes, hurtling the United States into the Great Depression. In 1932, both Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee record "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," perfectly capturing the angst of the era. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal creates a veritable alphabet soup of work relief programs — and gives birth to a little-known project of big interest to genealogists. Listen up: I'm about to let the cat out of the bag.
At their height, government programs — among them the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), CWA (Civil Works Administration), PWA (Public Works Administration) and WPA (first known as the Works Progress Administration, then renamed the Work Projects Administration in 1939) — employed a third of out-of-work Americans. Participants built or repaired 1 million miles of road and 200,000 public facilities; put on concerts and theatrical performances; painted murals on buildings in 48 states; wrote state travel guidebooks; planted 2 billion trees; and sewed 383 million coats, dresses and other garments. But most important for today's genealogists, the WPA's Federal Project No. 1 launched an ambitious undertaking called the Historical Records Survey (HRS).
Between 1936 and 1943, unemployed teachers, writers, librarians, archivists and clerks earned on average $73 a month with HRS. They visited courthouses, archives, historical societies and libraries to analyze and compile inventories of state and county records, manuscript collections, newspapers and church archives. They got dirty in cemeteries, talked to older citizens and met with archivists and librarians. (Hmmm … sounds like a genealogist's to-do list.) Their mission? To conduct a national records survey consisting of guides to every state's manuscript collections and various federal records, plus a coast-to-coast master index of the collections. The project was never completed, and only about 2,000 of the inventories were even published. But much of the work — both published and unpublished — is preserved in a variety of local, state and federal repositories. A late-1970s study found, for example, 64 HRS publications for Vermont plus 90 cubic feet of unpublished documents.