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Work Projects Administration in Maryland records

 Collection 0009-MDHC

The collection contains the records of the Maryland Work Projects Administration (WPA) as well as those of the Maryland Emergency Relief Administration (MERA) and the Civil Works Administration (CWA), its immediate predecessors. The WPA represented a shift from direct relief to work relief. The administrative records include bulletins, memoranda, policies, and procedures, as well as financial records and salary schedules. The collection also documents many WPA projects, most importantly the Maryland Federal Writers' Project. The collection also contains a large number of photographs from all three administrations.


  • 1933-1943

Use and Access to Collection

This collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies or digital surrogates may be provided in accordance with Special Collections and University Archives duplication policy.

Copyright resides with the creators of the documents or their heirs unless otherwise specified. It is the researcher's responsibility to secure permission to publish materials from the appropriate copyright holder.

Archival materials may contain materials with sensitive or confidential information that is protected under federal and/or state right to privacy laws or other regulations. While we make a good faith effort to identify and remove such materials, some may be missed during our processing. If a researcher finds sensitive personal information in a collection, please bring it to the attention of the special collections reading room staff.


29.50 Linear Feet (29.50 linear feet and 50 microfilm reels)

29.50 Linear Feet

50 microfilms

Scope and Contents

The records of the Maryland WPA and its predecessors date from 1933 to 1943 and consist of four principal types of documents. The first is administrative records produced at both the federal and state levels between 1935 and 1943. These include administrative orders, bulletins, and memoranda defining policies and procedures, financial records and salary schedules, and filing keys. The second category of documents consists of notes, newspaper clippings, and draft articles and essays used or produced by the Maryland Federal Writers' Project between 1935 and 1939. These materials were maintained in a subject file that was apparently used as a resource for producing Maryland: A Guide to the Old Line State and possibly for other writing projects not completed. The third type of record is project reports, which were produced to document various other WPA projects and the programs of the Civil Works Administration and the Maryland Emergency Relief Administration. The reports in this collection date from 1933 to 1941. The final category consists of a large photographic collection providing visual documentation of the activities of the WPA and its predecessors in Maryland from 1934 to 1943.

Administrative History

The stock market crash of October 1929 initiated a period of widespread economic depression accompanied by high levels of unemployment. The economic hardships that resulted severely taxed the resources of private, local, and state agencies attempting to meet the basic needs of the suddenly-impoverished population. When the efforts of several federal advisory committees failed to relieve the ever-mounting distress caused by unemployment, Congress took decisive action by passing the Emergency Relief and Construction Act, approved by President Hoover on July 21, 1932. This act provided a stop-gap measure of advancing loans to states for both direct and work relief.

As the crisis mounted, the need for direct federal participation in the relief efforts became increasingly apparent. In May of 1933, soon after Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed the presidency, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration was established by an act of Congress. The FERA granted funds to state and local relief agencies for direct and work relief and established and enforced the policies, procedures, and regulations governing the appropriation and use of funds by the regional and state divisions. The Maryland division of the FERA used federal funds primarily to sponsor a variety of construction projects, such as the building of an athletic stadium at Morgan College (now Morgan State University) in Baltimore.

On November 9, 1933, the Civil Works Administration was established by Executive Order for the purpose of placing approximately four million unemployed persons directly on the federal payroll. Its programs proved so expensive, however, that the CWA was abolished in March of 1934. About 90% of the jobs created by the state offices of the CWA during its brief, four-month existence involved manual labor for road construction and repair, construction of schools and other public buildings, maintenance of parks and playgrounds, pest control, and water and soil conservation. When the CWA was liquidated, its employees and uncompleted projects were transferred to the new Work Division of the FERA.

While both the FERA and the CWA constituted a more direct federal involvement in the relief effort than the previous advisory committees, both were still relatively decentralized in their organization. Although the two organizations were technically separate, the Federal Emergency Relief Administrator and all state administrators served concurrently as Civil Works Administrators at their respective levels. Responsibility for initiating and approving projects in both agencies rested almost entirely with the State administrators.

In accordance with President Roosevelt's desire to shift the emphasis of the federal relief programs from direct relief to work relief, the Works Progress Administration (later renamed the Work Projects Administration) was established by Executive Order on May 6, 1935. The WPA differed from its predecessors in two respects: its program was restricted to financing work relief and eligibility was restricted to persons on the state relief rolls.

The work relief programs of the WPA can be divided into two broad areas: construction projects employing predominantly blue-collar workers and professional and service projects employing white-collar workers. Approximately 75% of the WPA projects were construction projects, most of which were carried on within the Division of Engineering. Projects carried out in Maryland and other states included the construction or repair of more than 650,000 miles of highways, roads and streets; the construction of around 40,000 public buildings and repairs or improvement of about 85,000 existing buildings; the construction or improvement of thousands of parks, playgrounds, and other recreational facilities; and the collection of thousands of tons of scrap metal and rubber for the salvage campaign. With the threat of war in Europe and the Pacific, large numbers of WPA workers were transferred to defense construction projects or defense training programs.

The remaining 25% of WPA projects came largely under the purview of the Division of Professional and Service Projects and employed white-collar workers. That division's programs included recreation, education, and Federal Project No. 1. In Maryland, the Recreation Division sponsored recreational groups for children and adults and published bulletins and brochures on a variety of topics providing ideas for activities and crafts. Education programs consisted primarily of nursery schools, support staff for public schools, and adult education classes.

Federal Project No. 1 included the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, and the Federal Writers' Project, of which the Historical Records Survey was a part until it was established as a separate unit in October 1936. The Federal Theatre Project never developed in Maryland. The Maryland Federal Art Project, headquartered in Baltimore, put artists to work painting murals and frescoes in public buildings. Workers were also employed by the Baltimore Museum of Art to create exhibits and catalog artworks. The Federal Music Project in Maryland was categorized as general adult education and employed musicians in dance bands, orchestras, and choral groups which gave free concerts and provided music for Division of Recreation activities. The Historical Records Survey worked throughout the state; one significant project involved indexing records in the Baltimore City Archives. Headquartered at the Enoch Pratt Library, the Maryland Federal Writers' Project produced two volumes. The first was a little known guide to the United States Naval Academy. The second, Maryland: A Guide to the Old Line State, was a detailed travel guide. Because Federal Project No. 1 was terminated before the Guide was complete, Oxford University Press in New York agreed to publish it in 1940. Approximately 15,000 copies were sold at $2.75 each before it finally went out of print in the late 1950's. Federal Project No. 1 was the only project directly sponsored by the federal government (as opposed to being sponsored at the state or local level and only funded at the federal level) to continue operations after June 30, 1937. On June 30, 1939, it was also terminated, but with the exception of the Federal Theatre Project, the arts programs were continued as state-sponsored projects, just as all of the other WPA projects were administered.

On December 4, 1942, President Roosevelt sent a letter to the Federal Works Administrator declaring that the WPA rolls had decreased to the point where a national relief program was no longer necessary. All WPA programs ceased operation on June 30, 1943 except in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, where operations continued until November 30, 1943.


The records of the WPA in Maryland have been divided into five series:

Series 1
WPA Administrative Records
Series 2
Maryland Federal Writers' Project Subject Files
Series 3
Other WPA Projects in Maryland
Series 4
Predecessors of the WPA in Maryland
Series 5
Maryland WPA Photographic Collection

Custodial History and Acquisition Information

The records of the WPA in Maryland were transferred to the University of Maryland College Park from the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore sometime prior to 1955. Additional material was acquired in 1964. It is uncertain whether the Maryland WPA photographic collection was acquired with the first two acquisitions of records or if they came into the possession of the University of Maryland at another time.

Existence and Location of Copies

The textual records in this collection are only available on microfilm.

Related Material

Slave narratives from this collection (found in the series "Maryland Federal Writers' Project Subject Files, 1935-1939" under the subject area "Blacks -- Slave Stories" are also available online at the Library of Congress through the Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 project. Selected images from the Maryland WPA are available online via Digital Maryland.

Processing Information

When removed from storage for processing, the records of the Maryland WPA had not been arranged in any way and most were not in folders. The records were surveyed and the four series identified. Documents were then separated into the appropriate series, placed in acid-free folders and boxes and sent to be microfilmed; 50 reels of 35 mm microfilm of the collection were then prepared.

Photographs found among the Maryland WPA records were separated and placed with the rest of the Maryland WPA Photographic Collection. The Photographic Collection was not filmed; a separate inventory is available.

In October 2011, photographs featuring WPA subjects that had previously been removed to the Subject Photographs - Print File collection were returned to the WPA photograph collection. These photographs were processed January-March 2012.

Guide to the Work Projects Administration in Maryland records
Processed by Lisa Pruitt, Stacey Campbell, and Patricia McCracken.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Library Details

Part of the Special Collections and University Archives

University of Maryland Libraries
Hornbake Library
4130 Campus Drive
College Park Maryland 20742