New Deal Salem

A couple of years ago I complained about the lack of WPA murals in any of Salem’s public buildings: this struck me, as an impression and little else, as a lack of New Deal investment in Depression-era Salem. I’ve had time to survey the paper trail now and boy was I wrong: Salem benefited tremendously from the work of New Deal agencies, and not just in terms of its infrastructure but its culture as well. So this post will serve to set the record straight. I don’t think there is a Salem neighborhood that lacked a WPA project: there was work on different installations around Salem Harbor, at two Salem islands (Winter and Baker’s), downtown, in Forest River Park in South Salem and at Greenlawn Cemetery in North Salem. And so many agencies worked here, fanning out from a major field office in Barton Square with 300 Federal employees at first, and then a smaller office situated in a renovated Old Town Hall. Whether it mitigated the impact of the Great Depression effectively is another inquiry, but the Federal government certainly had a presence in Salem in the 1930s, and left its mark.

New Deal Building Collage

New Deal Greenlawn Collage

New Deal Collage 4

New Deal Machine ShopNews clips from Works Progress Administration Bulletins, 1936-39, Boston Public Library; National Youth Administration Photos and Records, NARA.

Well of course parking lots, wharves, and cemetery plots were necessary and I think the timely renovation of Old Town Hall was key, but my favorite WPA agencies were those charged with more historical and cultural endeavors, most especially the Historical Records Survey (HRS) and the Historic Architectural Buildings Survey (HABS). Salem was fortunate in that it had a demonstrated commitment to the preservation of historic records and buildings, in the forms of the long-established Essex Institute and concurrent initiative to establish the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, but the HRS was instrumental at documenting essential records of American history across the US at their most endangered moment. It was originally part of the WPA’s Federal Writers Project, but it spun off on its own and then became a unit of the Research and Records Program in 1939, charged with compiling indexes to major genealogical sources such as vital statistics, cemetery internments, military records, and newspapers. The reports of the HRS are nothing short of heroic (Salem actually needs one now; I have no idea of the location or state of many of its public records) but little interesting items were also published in the 1930s, showing how historical research was interwoven into daily life. And as for HABS: is it impossible to underestimate the value of its photographs, measured drawings, and documented details of Salem’s built landscape, and with over 600 entries Salem was particularly favored by these dedicated professionals, working away in large field office in Boston.

New Deal HRS (2)

New Deal HRS Collage


NEW Deal HABS Boston (2)

New Deal 29 Washington Square (2)

WPA LastHABS records, Library of Congress.

Another WPA cultural agency that seems to have been very active in Salem during the later 1930s was the Federal Theatre Project, which staged a succession of productions at the Empire Theatre on Esssex Street and several benefits around town—several premieres, no less. I can’t discern similar activity on the part of the Federal Art Project in Salem, though I suppose Salem artists could have exhibited at the Federal Art Gallery on Newbury Street in Boston. As I was researching the FAP, I did learn that it was not the chief administrating agency of all of those lovely Post Office murals which started me off on my charge years ago, but rather the Fine Arts Department of the Treasury Department. Another cultural agency which was under the aegis of both the WPA and the Federal Art Project was the Index of American Design, which commissioned artists (over 400) to create watercolor illustrations (over 18,000) of intrinsically American decorative art objects, including several Salem items.

New Deal Theatre Collage

New Deal Theatre Now and Then LOC (2)

Federal Art Project collage

IAD Collage

Federal Theatre Project and Federal Art Project Posters from the Library of Congress; Salem Index of American Art renderings from the collection at the National Gallery of Art.

Finally, I don’t think I can conclude this survey of the New Deal’s contributions to Salem’s physical and cultural landscape without a brief mention of the Massachusetts volume in the American Guide Series produced by the Federal Writers Project:  Massachusetts: a Guide to its Places and People (1937). This book was a bit controversial in its time as it was one of the first American Guide books and it definitely revealed a pro-labor perspective in its first part, which introduces readers to the Massachusetts people and their institutions. It certainly reflects its time and its intent, but regardless, the second part of the book contains absolutely amazing walking and driving tours of Massachusetts cities and counties. I actually drive around with it in my car! There are several walking tours of Salem and they are much better than that stupid Red Line thing we have now; we should just arm all of our visitors with a copy of the WPA map to the city and they would be far better served.

Massachusetts Guide Collage

12 responses to “New Deal Salem

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  • Pamela Baker

    Salem does have a lot to be proud of. Hope you get you WPA Murals and recognition – long overdo!

  • dccarletonjr

    Three cheers for a BOLD, ACTIVIST, federal government! By the way, I think the existence of Salem Maritime NHS itself can and should be accounted a New Deal legacy as well…

    • daseger

      I don’t know—it was kind a separate process; I put “concurrent” here…….Missed Emily Murphy’s talk on its founding back in March; I will defer to her!

  • Carol J. Perry

    When I was a little kid I remember going to the Empire to see a kid’s show hosted by a giraffe called “Joop the Giraffe.” It was my first theater experience and I’ve often thought it must have been a WPA project.

  • Nanny Almquist

    Thanks so much for this post. I was especially interested in the Massachusetts Map of Historic Buildings. I tried several ways to capture the image and enlarge it enough to read, but the resolution wasn’t good enough. Any idea of how I could get a higher resolution image. I’m willing to pay if necessary.

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Such an interesting piece about the good works of the WPA in Salem during the Depression years. Amazing what these programs did throughout the whole area. A few examples from my neighborhood:

    In 1934 Lynnfield, a backwater with around 1,500 souls, was given the grand sum of $13,583.70 that they used to make gravel sidewalks on major roads and start a numbering system on streets throughout town.

    A new post office was built in Wakefield that matched the magnificent next door Lucius Beebe Library, designed by architect Ralph Adams Cram a few decades before.

    WPA workers built the remarkable stone wall around the existing Pine Grove Cemetery, said to be the “second longest contiguous stone wall in the world, second only to the Great Wall of China.”

    Many recreational facilities that still exist including the Gannon Golf Course in Lynn and Breakheart Reservation in Saugus.

    And so it goes…

  • Helen Breen

    Pine Grove Cemetery in Lynn I should add.

  • Brian Bixby

    My urban sociology class some years back relied on the WPA’s guide to New York City. Although on one occasion it definitely led me astray: a number of the historic buildings it mentioned on Staten Island were moved from their original sites to a common one.

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