“It made different human beings out of them”: The Application and Resistance to Craft Ideology in Midwestern Work Projects Administration Programs

Allison Robinson, University of Chicago

During the Great Depression, the United States federal government faced an unparalleled labor crisis that that hurt blue collar and white collar workers alike. The government instituted the Work Projects Administration (WPA) to create labor training and job opportunities for the unemployed; it tasked the Women's and Professional Service Division to create such opportunities for women with and without professional training. To fulfill this charge, the Women’s and Professional Service Division created a hierarchical system by which one group would train the other. WPA programs across the country hired white collar professionals to perform skilled labor and train working class men and women in their field. “Production-for-use” was one such category in which white collar professionals prepared unemployed women for factory work. My paper argues that a group of second generation craft adherents that reimagined the possibilities for such programs. Drawing from midwestern settlement houses, program administrators imbued their programs with theories of craft and its power to educate the working class. In the process, they also repurposed skill-based hierarchies of labor from the craft movement that inspired the design and operation of their WPA programs. Using the Milwaukee Handicraft Project as a case study, I argue that Elsa Ulbricht, the program director, reinterpreted theories about the pedagogical power craft as she designed and implemented the program. This foundational choice set the stage for tensions between WPA administrators, program administrators, and workers over the practical definition of skill and the classed and racialized hierarchy that emerged on the factory floor.

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 Presented in Session 214. Questioning Racial Hierarchies at Work