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.
News 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.
HABS 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.
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.