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Milwaukee Handicrafts Project Gave Women Work During The Great Depression

Courtesy of Milwaukee Magazine
Women binding books for the Milwaukee Handicrafts Project.

During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” sought to ease the pain of many Americans and put them back to work. His Works Progress Administration (WPA) employed millions of Americans to rebuild essential infrastructure like parks, roads, and housing.

But the vast majority of these jobs went to unskilled men and most opportunities for women required an education. A program here in Milwaukee worked to change that. The Milwaukee Handicrafts Project hired unskilled women to mend text books, build furniture and sew dolls, among other things.

"The women who had come there for work were actually women who had never worked before outside the household, a lot of these women came from conditions that were very impoverished. So even using more familiar tools, like scissors, they weren’t really familiar with," says Matthew Prigge, who wrote about the program for this month's Milwaukee Magazine

One of the main goals of the program was to bring women off the local welfare rolls, which was successful. According to Prigge, more than 90% of women in the program were able to support themselves through their wages. And unlike some other programs through the WPA, the Milwaukee Handicrafts Program was racially integrated. Black women were intially made to work at another site apart from white workers, but that soon changed. 

"Elsa Ulbricht, who was the head of this ... she wanted everybody to work in the same place, she didn't want this to be segregated in any way. And that was really through her will that allowed that to happen," says Prigge. 

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.