Women’s Work: The WPA Milwaukee Handicraft Project
By Jacqueline M. Schweitzer, Honorary Curator of American History
This is the inspiring story of a work program that brought fame to Milwaukee, while breaking gender and color barriers during the Great Depression, told through a collection of toys, textiles, books and photographs at the Milwaukee Public Museum. The Milwaukee Handicraft Project (MHP), a Works Projects Administration (WPA) program operating from 1935 until 1942, employed over 5,000 women and minorities. The museum’s large collection reflects the ingenuity and skillful craftsmanship of MHP products. The story behind their design and creation is an uplifting tale of empowerment during one of the darkest periods of our nation’s history.
When the stock market crashed in October of 1929, few people realized the extent of the financial depression to come. Milwaukee, like the rest of the nation, suffered under the strain of financial woes. "The number of wage earners in Milwaukee County plummeted from 117,658 in 1929 to 66,010 in 1933 – a 44-percent decline in just four years" (Gurda 1999: 277). To combat nationwide unemployment, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act in 1935, setting aside five billion dollars for work relief programs, including the WPA (Rice 2003: 1).
Harriet Pettibone Clinton, District Director of the Women’s Division of the WPA in Milwaukee County, was determined to create a work program to absorb the high number of unskilled women who were listed on unemployment relief rolls. WPA jobs offered to women provided lower pay and were often gender specific, and limited to sewing, childcare and clerical work (Hopkins 1998: 227). Overall, women represented only 12-18% of WPA employment roles at a time when they comprised 25% of private industry employment (WPA 1943: 44). Clinton had an idea to change these statistics by employing women to make handicrafts, such as scrapbooks using wallpaper clippings (Rice 2003: 8).
Harriet Clinton had an acquaintance in mind, who possessed the skills and ambition to make this idea a reality. Clinton contacted Elsa Ulbricht (1885-1980) a member of the art education faculty of Milwaukee State Teacher’s College, now the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Ulbricht was intrigued by Clinton’s idea but disgusted at the thought of women making something as trivial as a wallpaper scrapbook (Rice 2003: 8). Ulbricht, a passionate craftsperson and teacher, stated, "it would have been inexcusable and futile for me, or anyone, to expend valuable time and effort or to dissipate federal money on work which had no educational significance or did not contribute to the cultural development of the individual and the community" (Ulbricht 1944: 6). Elsa Ulbricht hoped that aside from the economic and social benefits of the project, workers and purchasing institutions would acquire an appreciation for design from Milwaukee Handicraft Project products (Rice 2003: 61).
While Elsa Ulbricht focused on developing a socially responsible project, Harriet Clinton ensured that the Milwaukee Handicraft Project adhered to the strict rules of the WPA. Each WPA project was required to have a local sponsor who would be responsible for 25% of the project’s operating cost (WPA 1943: 9). All WPA projects were required to hire people who were certified by local agencies as being in need of relief. Only one family member in a household, preferably the male breadwinner, was allowed to be certified for relief work under the WPA (WPA 1943: 18). Those who were hired by the WPA worked between 120 and 140 hours over a four-week period and were paid a subsistence wage by the federal government (WPA 1943: 23). In Milwaukee, WPA workers could expect to be paid between $55 and $94 a month depending on the skill level of the work (WPA 1943: 23). Frank Baker, president of the Milwaukee State Teacher’s College, agreed to sponsor the Milwaukee Handicraft Project and allow Elsa Ulbricht, a member of his staff, to direct the project in addition to her regular coursework (Rice 2003: 7-8).
Ulbricht recruited two of her students, Anne Feldman and Mary June Kellogg to aid her in developing the MHP. Together with Clinton they proposed that the project aim "to make by hand household articles of wood, paper, yarn and cloth. The objects made will be distributed to relief families, nursery schools serving relief families and publicly owned institutions" (Ulbricht 1944: 6). Federal work relief programs like the WPA were meant to stimulate the national economy and were not allowed "to compete with private industry or to usurp regular governmental work" (Hopkins 1998: 225). To avoid competition with private industry, the Milwaukee Handicraft Project sold products to schools, libraries and other publicly funded institutions. Since these institutions needed well-made but inexpensive products, the MHP project proposal outlined the use of basic materials that could be acquired cheaply. Having satisfied basic WPA regulations, the Milwaukee Handicraft Project proposal was approved by the central WPA office in Washington D.C.
Ulbricht, Clinton, Kellogg and Feldman then set to the task of hiring supervisors to run their fledgling program. Elsa Ulbricht searched unemployment relief rolls, looking for out-of-work artists and craftsmen to act as supervisors on the project, but found only unskilled women (Ulbricht 1944: 6). All WPA projects were allowed to hire non-relief persons to act in supervisory positions, but non-relief workers were limited to less than 5% of the entire workforce of a project (WPA 1943: 7). Ulbricht decided to use this rule to hire her own students and former students. These students became "designer-foremen" who oversaw each of the eleven work units and were responsible for product design and production (Bellais 2000: 52). Mary June Kellogg was overall art director for the project and Anne Feldman was responsible for WPA administrative issues and staffing (Ulbricht 1944: 6).
With staff in place, the Milwaukee Handicraft Project opened its doors on a chilly November morning in 1935. The women who entered the project that day were of all nationalities and ages, primarily uneducated, and many did not speak English. Ulbricht remembered of the workers, "many were poorly clothed, even unkempt, and some appeared physically weak from the lack of nourishment, medical attention and insecurity suffered for so long a time" (Ulbricht 1944: 7). Many of these women had never held a job outside the home, but needed now to earn a steady income for the first time to support their struggling families. Having little or no work experience, the women were afraid that they would be unable to meet MHP work requirements (Ulbricht 1944: 7).
In addition to nervous homemakers, WPA officials sent a group of 300 African American workers, which they intended to be segregated from the other workers by providing a separate workspace (Rice 2003: 24). Kellogg recalled, “the idea that race should determine where and when one worked offended our sense of fairness.” (Rice 2003: 24) This progressive mindset resulted in an integrated workforce and made the Milwaukee Handicraft Project unique among WPA initiatives. As the designer-foremen, unskilled women and minorities began working together, both groups challenging each other to overcome their fears and create handicrafts that would eventually be purchased by institutions throughout the United States.
In the first weeks of operation, the Milwaukee Handicraft Project struggled not only to teach their inexperienced staff, but also to find supplies to create their products. Kellogg and the other designer-foremen overcame these limitations by using surplus fabric from the WPA Sewing Project to create braided rugs. A few weeks into the project the MHP added another product to its repertoire. The staff purchased old magazines from scrap dealers, which the workers used to create topical scrapbooks for hospital waiting rooms (Rice 2003: 17).
Expanding on these humble beginnings, the MHP bookbinding unit grew to produce their own original works, including children’s and art instructional books. All MHP bound books used the same simple construction method. Pages were first assembled in sections and sewn onto fabric tapes, which were then laced into cover boards (Rice 2003:75). The MHP often took orders from customers for specific products. The Milwaukee State Teacher’s College asked the Milwaukee Handicraft Project workers to illustrate and print songs which had been written by children at their training school. The result of this collaboration was a book called Come and Sing (Rice 2003: 78).
The Milwaukee Handicraft Project block printing unit grew out of the bookbinding unit when the designer-foremen decided to decorate book covers with linoleum block prints. The designer-foremen created the patterns which the workers then transferred to linoleum blocks. The background of the design was then carefully cut away to create the stamp. The carved blocks were then inked and pounded forcefully onto paper and fabric. Because the MHP was a work program seeking to provide women with many hours of work, the block prints were designed to be labor intensive. The project had more efficient block print presses, but these were used solely for large orders (Rice 2003: 89).
In addition to block printed textiles, the Milwaukee Handicraft Project created woven textiles. To limit the price of their products, the weaving unit utilized many cost cutting strategies. These included constructing their own floor and table looms from Elsa Ulbricht’s designs, and using surplus materials from industry and the military (Rice 2003:101). The Milwaukee Public Museum has examples of some of the first weavings created by the MHP made from burlap. Workers unraveled military surplus burlap bags and rolled the jute into balls to be used on the looms. Some of the most interesting pieces in the Museum’s collection are fabric samples mounted on cards, which detail weaving specifications, dyes and materials to be used; these cards acted as instructions to weave patterns created by the designer-foremen. Under the untrained hands of MHP workers, patterns such as Daylight, Cat Tracks and Maple Leaves were woven into draperies, table runners, placemats and upholstery fabric.
Some of the most attractive textiles produced by the MHP came from the sewing unit. The unit was not included in the original project plan but grew out of customer demand. A WPA nursery school administrator asked the project to create furnishings to brighten their underprivileged children’s surroundings. Using motifs such as sailboats and windmills, the Milwaukee Handicraft Project designed a set of colorful coverlets to cover the children’s cots (Rice 2003:29). Soon after creating the quilts, Mary June Kellogg and a few designer-foremen visited the Milwaukee County Home for Dependent Children. Kellogg saw a heart-wrenching scene of lonely children in drab gray "rompers," wandering about a crowded room with no toys or books to occupy their time (Rice 2003: 33). The MHP quickly rallied to make books, educational toys, dolls and six hundred quilts for those children. Kellogg recalled, "Transforming this institution demonstrated that formerly unskilled women who had been dependent on the county for subsistence could make a significant contribution to the well-being of others" (Rice, 2003: 34).
Many items produced by the Milwaukee Handicraft Project grew from local demand. In the early days of the MHP the Milwaukee State Teachers College requested new choral gowns. Once completed, the gowns attracted positive publicity for the project and created demand among the local theatre community. Soon the MHP opened a costume department and began creating custom costumes for local productions. The costume department created some of their finest, most detail-oriented, products for the State Historical Society in Madison. Inspired by National Geographic magazines and other sources, designers created watercolor designs for national costume models. Skillful hands then sewed tiny costumes with embroidered details and jewelry for the eleven-inch wooden manikins.
While the wooden manikins were not meant to be played with, MHP also developed a line of toys when the WPA Nursery School project requested an unbreakable doll. To meet this request, Elsa Ulbricht and the designer-foremen devised a clever, inexpensive method of creating a durable, washable doll. Dick Wiken, a local sculptor working on the project, carved a face for the doll that had simple but comforting features (O’Sullivan 2000: 42). The Milwaukee Public Museum collection contains one of the rare plaster molds made from Wiken’s original model. To create the durable doll face, three layers of balbriggan underwear material were dipped in cornstarch and pressed into the mold. The molded face was then dried and filled with a mixture of water-glass and sawdust; the surface was then painted and varnished, creating a durable yet soft finish (O’Sullivan 2000: 42). The entire twenty-two inch doll was constructed using washable materials including hair made of carpet warp and a cloth body stuffed with kapok (O’Sullivan, 2000: 42). The dolls even came with a six piece outfit, all for a cost of $2.25 (O’Sullivan 2000: 42). The Milwaukee Public Museum has many examples of ethnic twenty-two inch dolls developed by the project, which included Norwegian, Welsh, Italian, Polish, Scottish and Dutch dolls.
The Milwaukee Handicraft Project also developed a line of cloth toys, made entirely of scrap cloth from the twenty-two inch dolls and the WPA sewing project (O’Sullivan 2000: 44). Weighing less than two ounces, cloth balls, animals and dolls were designed for heart patients at the Milwaukee County Hospital Children’s Ward (Rice 2001:30). 1,800 of these toys were given as Christmas gifts to children on Milwaukee County relief rolls in 1939 (O’Sullivan, 2000: 44). The Milwaukee Public Museum’s collection contains many examples of cloth toys including a larger African American rag doll given the name "Honey Chile" by African American MHP workers. In addition to soft toys MHP created a line of wooden toys, each designed to be durable with no breakable protruding parts (Rice 2003: 26). Carpenters were hired from relief rolls to cut the toys, while women sanded and painted them with bright colors (Rice, 2003: 26). The wooden toys were so durable that as late as 1970 some were still being used in local schools (Rice 2003: 26).
Elementary and nursery schools were not the only public institutions to which the Milwaukee Handicraft Project catered. A line of furniture, draperies and woven and hooked rugs were created to furnish offices and dormitories. Few of these objects are represented in the Milwaukee Public Museum collection, but their creation and use are well documented by a collection of photographs given to the Museum by Elsa Ulbricht. They show offices and meeting rooms at colleges, schools and libraries furnished by the MHP. These photographs are perhaps the most informative and interesting aspect of the Museum’s collection. They depict women, black and white, young and old, working side by side creating the objects now housed in the collection. Rarely can one hold an object made seventy years ago while looking at a photograph of its creation.
The photographs also document advertising techniques used by the Milwaukee Handicraft Project to not only sell their products, but also to foster public support for the project. Photographs, coupled with original Milwaukee Handicraft Project exhibit labels, demonstrate how the MHP used a mobile exhibit, which they took to places such as department stores and the Wisconsin State Fair. The exhibit explained how the MHP was organized and then described each production unit. The MHP also gained public exposure as many high profile people visited the project, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Frank Lloyd Wright (Bellais 2000: 53). The quality of MHP designs, and the thrift with which products were created, drew national attention through articles in magazines such as Forbes and Design.
Despite local praise and national attention, the fate of the Milwaukee Handicraft Project was sealed by World War II. In December of 1941 the WPA redirected its efforts to national defense (WPA 1943: 84). In 1942, the Milwaukee Handicraft Project officially ended as a WPA project. However, Milwaukee County funded a smaller version of the project into the 1960’s (Ulbricht 1944: 7). Over the seven year history of the WPA run project, 5,000 individuals were employed (Ulbricht 1944: 7).
The MHP taught women new skills such as bookbinding, printing and doll making. This gave them the opportunity to find work outside the WPA with success. Ulbricht recalled, "… as soon as these workers acquired real skills, they were either absorbed in industry or transferred to projects where it was necessary to employ more skillful people" (Ulbricht 1944:7). One worker stated, "I have learned to do things I would never have done otherwise…and above all I have learned more of the human side of life through my sponsors, taking us as unskilled labor, bringing out that which we never knew was in us" (Rice 2003: 122). The efforts of Ulbricht, Kellogg and the designer-foremen allowed women and minorities to gain marketable job skills and, most importantly, pride in themselves.
Elsa Ulbricht, who kept MHP products and original documentation from her affiliation with the project, can be credited with rescuing the Milwaukee Handicraft Project from obscurity. In 1975, hoping to find a place to preserve her collection for future study, Ulbricht began donating these materials to The Milwaukee Public Museum. Over the past thirty years the Milwaukee Handicraft Project Collection has become one of the largest collections in the museum. Through generous donations from the community and documentary work by dedicated curators and volunteers, the Milwaukee Public Museum has become the center to study the Milwaukee Handicraft Project. It is a place for researchers and the community to learn from a WPA project that provided hope for thousands during the depths of the Great Depression.
Milwaukee Handicraft Project products can be identified and dated by the project numbers listed on the stamps found on the reverse of their products. Project number 1170 was used from November 1935 until November 1937. Project number 7040 was used from November 1937 until September 1938. Project number 8601 began being used in September of 1938 until an unknown date. Project number 10235 may also appear on stamps and must have been used sometime after 1939.
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