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Cool Things - WPA Figures

 WPA Museum Project figures representing a couple from FinlandRepresenting a Finnish couple in traditional dress, these figures were produced as teaching aids by the Kansas Museum Project during the 1930s.

"We must preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed from destitution but also their self-respect, their self-reliance, courage and determination."--Franklin Roosevelt, 1935

Times were tough in the United States during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Unless we lived through it, most of us can't appreciate the 25 percent unemployment rate, soup kitchen lines, and parched conditions of the Dust Bowl. With no work, millions of Americans found themselves without a means of support, listless, and depressed.

The United States government eventually stepped in with relief programs such as the Work Projects Administration (WPA) which were part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal program. The aim of the WPA was to provide for the welfare of the people by creating paid work for the needy. Subsequently, thousands of men and women were sent to work building roads, bridges, parks, and even producing art.

Promoting Art and Culture

Swedish figures pictured in the 1939 catalogue for the Kansas Museum Project

Not all Americans could see the sense in paying people to paint all those "muriels" and carve those "statchews" as one writer put it; some felt the money would be spent better elsewhere. Nevertheless, the WPA hired artists, musicians, librarians, actors, and seamstresses to engage in cultural activities such as producing plays, cataloging state and municipal library collections, painting murals and making models for museums, libraries, schools and colleges. Such work was meant to promote American art and culture and give more Americans access to what Roosevelt called "an abundant life." The knowledge gained from learning these crafts was meant to enable workers to secure employment in factories or to pursue a craft on an entrepreneurial basis. In Kansas, shops for production were located in Topeka, Kansas City, Emporia, Lawrence, Mayetta, Columbus, and Wichita. More than 126 tax-supported institutions in Kansas acquired objects from the project to use in exhibits or as visual teaching aids.

The paired figure pictured above was made as part of a service to the Sedgwick County Museum Project in Wichita under the auspices of the larger Kansas Museum Project. Most New Deal administrators believed that federal art projects had the responsibility to reach out to as many Americans as possible and that the end product should be put to practical use. Therefore, these figures, made by artists and seamstresses, were put to use as visual aids in museums and schools.

Created in the latter years of the WPA (1938-1941), specifications for the dolls required that they be made in a durable and practical medium, be produced in large quantities by workers with limited training (but who could learn good workmanship and produce an attractive visual aid), and lastly that each figure meet the need for which it was designed. The 1939 catalog of the Kansas Museum Project included color woodcuts of the different dolls, such as the Swedish couple pictured at right.

Painting figures for dioramas, WPA Museum ProjectThe male and female couple pictured at top are dressed in traditional Finnish clothing, and were part of a series of "All Nations Figurines." Figures in this series were ten inches tall with bodies made from various scraps and covered in cloth. Their hands are made out of felt and their heads modeled in papier maché and then painted. The male figure is carrying Finland's national flag. A complete set of these figures included 26 pairs; institutions paid about $1 per pair. Unfortunately, the artists (who were mostly women) remain largely anonymous today.

The Finnish pair and 17 others were donated to the Kansas Historical Society by the Topeka Art Guild in 1980. They are on display in the main gallery of the Kansas Museum of History.

Entry: Cool Things - WPA Figures

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: October 2001

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.