April 8, 1935, was a great day for historical societies and museums everywhere. That was the day Congress passed FDR’s Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, which included the Works Progress Administration (“Progress” was later changed to “Projects”), or WPA.
Regardless of how you feel about the New Deal, the WPA left generations to come a wealth of material that captured the people, places, events, and attitudes of the era. It also funded special projects and public works that otherwise may never have gotten off the ground.
An expanded Portland airport, for example. Then known as the Portland Municipal Airport, it was but an airstrip until WPA funds built the first real terminal in 1940. Perhaps that’s why these model plane builders–scads of them–held their competition there that same year. (For a real treat, don’t miss the short film clip from which this still image is taken.)
Entire schools were built, like Fifth Street Junior High School in Bangor (now the James F. Doughty School), one of two new junior highs in the city in 1940 that the WPA paid for in full to the tune of $740,000. (Students from the Doughty School participated in last year’s Maine Community Heritage Project and scanned and cataloged this very postcard for Bangor’s MCHP website.) One wonders what the condition of the buildings the students were in beforehand were like. Without the WPA, who knows when those schools would have been built?
Whether the greatest legacy of the WPA is its physical imprint of buildings and bridges, or its memorable and unique arts- and humanities-based efforts, is up for debate. But few can argue that the resulting photographs, oral histories, newspaper clippings, broadsides, films, manuscripts, artifacts, and other ephemera are a phenomenal national treasure for us all.