*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.
SSA. TVA. PWA. WPA. CCC. SEC. FHA. REA. FDIC. Is your head spinning yet? These are just a few of the initialisms associated with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, initiatives designed to lift the United States out of the Great Depression. Before we figure out what these mean, what they accomplished, and how they relate to Evansville and Indiana, we’re going to have to take a brief (I promise!) look at why they were needed.
In the 1920s Americans lived riotously, as if they had all the money in the world, as if money were no object. It wasn’t called the Roaring Twenties for nothing. While we may today think of banks as rather staid financial institutions, that wasn’t true in the 20s. As consumerism drove the stock market to incredible heights, banks, believing that this would continue, speculated with investors’ funds—it seemed as though everyone lived far beyond their means. It couldn’t last….and it didn’t.
“During the 1920s, the U.S. stock market underwent rapid expansion, reaching its peak in August 1929 after a period of wild speculation during the roaring twenties. By then, production had already declined and unemployment had risen, leaving stocks in great excess of their real value. Among the other causes of the stock market crash of 1929 were low wages, the proliferation of debt, a struggling agricultural sector and an excess of large bank loans that could not be liquidated. Stock prices began to decline in September and early October 1929, and on October 18 the fall began. Panic set in, and on October 24, Black Thursday, a record 12,894,650 shares were traded. Investment companies and leading bankers attempted to stabilize the market by buying up great blocks of stock, producing a moderate rally on Friday. On Monday, however, the storm broke anew, and the market went into free fall. Black Monday was followed by Black Tuesday (October 29, 1929), in which stock prices collapsed completely and 16,410,030 shares were traded on the New York Stock Exchange in a single day. Billions of dollars were lost, wiping out thousands of investors, and stock tickers ran hours behind because the machinery could not handle the tremendous volume of trading.”
After the market completely bottomed out, there was a bit of a recovery, due almost solely to the fact that up was the only available option. The recovery wasn’t much, and the economy continued to tank. People were suddenly destitute, and panic set in. Frantic to recover something, anything, they set upon the banks, demanding to withdraw all from their accounts. These runs on the bank completely overwhelmed the system, and banks were forced to close. “By 1932 stocks were worth only about 20 percent of their value in the summer of 1929. The stock market crash of 1929 was not the sole cause of the Great Depression, but it did act to accelerate the global economic collapse of which it w as also a symptom. By 1933, nearly half of America’s banks had failed, and unemployment was approaching 15 million people, or 30 percent of the workforce.”
To learn more about the Great Depression, go check out and watch https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/1929-stock-market-crash.
As if to add insult to injury, Mother Nature contributed to the misery with widespread drought in the Great Plains in 1930. Crops failed, and the land, which had been massively over-farmed, began simply to blow away. “Although the “black blizzards”, as the Dust Bowl storms were also known as, originated in the Plains area and mostly menaced only the states in the area, some dust storms were so big and so powerful that they traveled hundreds of miles. One such violent storm that occurred in spring of 1934 was 2 miles high and managed to travel 2,000 miles to the East Coast, reaching New York, Atlanta, and as far north as Chicago.” It was estimated that “the average dust storm from the 1930s carried more dirt than was dug out to create the entire Panama Canal. … During 1935, the dust storms became so dangerous that many families in the Dust Bowl area were forced to leave their homes and travel far away to seek refuge. They fled their homes not only due to the violence of the storms, but also because the conditions left them unable to work and survive, so they were forced to find work elsewhere. Approximately 200,000 farmers left the Dust Bowl area and relocated to California. Unfortunately, most of them were not able to find work, and even those who did were paid very little, so most of them were forced to live in makeshift settlements that were known as “Hoovervilles.” But these 200,000 migrants represented only a small proportion of all the people who were forced to find a new home. The Dust Bowl period saw the largest migration numbers in American history, with approximately 3.5 million people in total moving out of the affected states (Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, Colorado and New Mexico).” John Steinbeck wrote about this exodus in his 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath, which was also produced as a movie in 1940, with Henry Fonda as the leading character, Tom Joad. Rice Library has a number of print copies of the book as well as the movie on DVD. Film maker, Ken Burns, has also produced a documentary entitled The Dust Bowl, also available in the library.
The president at this time (pre-1932) was Herbert Hoover. His stance was what I’d term hands-off: government had no role in directly intervening in the economy or in providing jobs and other economic assistance to its people. So…stock market crash, runs on banks, devastating weather conditions, panic, and a president who does not seem to care (at least, as judged by his policies). The stage is now set for the main topic of this blog.
Enter Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945), who won the first of his four terms as president in 1932.
Happy days are here again,
The skies above are clear again,
So let us sing a song of cheer again,
Happy days are here again.
All together, shout it now,
There’s no one who can doubt it now,
So let’s tell the world about it now,
Happy days are here again.
This was the song that was playing when Roosevelt accepted his party’s nomination for president. It surely was a sentiment that most Americans at the time did not believe. Upon accepting his nomination, he said, “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.” His inaugural address promised that America would once again be great—his famous line was, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Roosevelt dove straight in. “The next day, Roosevelt declared a four-day bank holiday to stop people from withdrawing their money from shaky banks. On March 9, Congress passed Roosevelt’s Emergency Banking Act, which reorganized the banks and closed the ones that were insolvent. In his first “fireside chat” three days later, the president urged Americans to put their savings back in the banks, and by the end of the month almost three quarters of them had reopened.” Raymond Moley (1886-1975), political scientist and key Roosevelt advisor, noted, “A Depression is much like a run on a bank. It’s a crisis of confidence. People panic and grab their money. There’s a story I like to tell In my home town, when I was a little boy, an Irishman came up from the quarry where he was working, went into the bank and said, “If my money’s here, I don’t want it. If it’s not here, I want it” (Terkel, p. 251).
Next Roosevelt made good on his campaign promise to repeal the 18th Amendment. What’s that, you say? Prohibition. That’s right, FDR made it legal to produce and consume alcohol again. Notice that emphasis on the word “legal.” Americans had never stopped producing and consuming alcohol, they just did so illegally. Organized crime was able to capitalize on this underground industry, providing bribes for officials willing to look the other way. It was clear “just how unbridled bootlegging was and the difficulty of controlling illegal liquor in the 48 states. The number of liquor-producing stills seized went from 32,000 in 1920 to 261,000 in 1928. The bureau estimated that 118 million gallons of illicit wine and 683 million gallons of beer were produced in 1930. At least nine million gallons of industrial alcohol meant to be non-drinkable were diverted by gangsters, for cocktails served in speakeasies.” From a strictly economic standpoint, this was lost revenue—millions of dollars of tax revenue were not being collected. “And sure enough, Prohibition’s repeal did indeed generate higher liquor-tax revenues. As a percentage of federal government revenues, liquor taxes jumped from 2 percent in 1933 to 9 percent in 1934 to 13 percent in 1936. Repeal did not fully compensate for lost income-tax revenues, nevertheless it promised a sizeable stream of additional revenue.”
To learn more about the First Hundred Days, go check out and watch https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/new-deal
With banks stabilized, and new (actually, renewed) tax funds from alcohol, FDR could move on to the many ambitious New Deal projects and agencies he created. All 9 of those listed in the first line of this blog were established within his first 2 years in office. Let’s tackle them chronologically. Sometimes more than one agency worked on a project.
CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) was put into action on April 5, 1933. The CCC was designed to put young men to work on public land projects such as forests and parks. “The CCC ‘boys’, as they were called, received training, education, shelter, health care, food, and a monthly pay of $30 – $25 of which was required to be sent home to support their families. More than 3,000,000 men were enrolled in the CCC between 1933 and 1942. This enrollment included jobless World War I veterans and the employment of Indians on reservation land. … The National Park Service describes, in part, what was achieved by the CCC program: “Nationwide, the CCC operated 4,500 camps in national parks and forests, as well as state and community parks, planting three billion trees, protecting 20 million acres from soil erosion, and aiding in the establishment of 800 state parks. The CCC advanced natural resource conservation in this country by decades…” Other accomplishments of the CCC included the restoration of 4,000 historic structures, the construction of 3,100 fire lookout towers, the building of 1,500 cabins, the installation of 5,000 miles of water lines, the creation of 4,600 fish rearing ponds, the improvement of 3,400 beaches, and 6.5 million man-days devoted to firefighting.”
Other area CCC projects were completed at Brown County, Clifty Falls, and Spring Mill state parks, as well as restoring and developing portions of the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Lincoln City, IN.
TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) was created May 18, 1933 “to further the economic development of an impoverished, mountainous region covering most of Tennessee and parts of six surrounding states. … It built dams up and down the river system for flood control and power generation….The TVA engaged in many other activities, as well, such as malaria prevention, reforestation, forest fire suppression, erosion control, fertilizer development, agricultural education, advice to farmers and wildlife habitat protection. … A key purpose of TVA was to provide electricity to rural areas underserved, or even ignored, by private power companies.”
Related to this photo are the 170,000 acres of recreation area called the Land Between the Lakes (Kentucky Lake, shown here, and Barkley Lake, created by the U.S. Corps of Engineers.) TVA had initial control of LBL when it was established in 1964 (clearly outside of the New Deal era), but since 1998 it has been operated by the U.S. Forest Service.
PWA (Public Works Administration) was set up by the June 16, 1933 National Recovery Act. “The agency was to “prepare a comprehensive program of public works.” These public works were to include projects related to highways, buildings, natural resource conservation, energy, flood control, housing, and more. … The PWA started with $3.3 billion, “the largest amount ever allotted to a public works scheme” at the time and this was supplemented by subsequent appropriations acts. Over its 10-year life, the PWA would radically transform the nation’s major infrastructure. By 1939, it had contributed over $3.8 billion towards the construction of 34,000 projects. … The PWA was not devoted to the direct hiring of the unemployed. Instead, it administered loans and grants to state and local governments, which then hired private contractors to do the work (some PWA money also went to federal agencies). This arrangement was intended to increase demand for labor and construction goods, and thus act as a catalyst for economic recovery (this type of policy action is usually called “stimulus,” or “priming the pump”). The PWA, like the WPA, let state and local governments take the lead in choosing which projects they wanted built, what designs to use, and who to contract with. Costs were shared roughly half-and-half, but this varied by time, place and project.”
The WPA also funded another bridge over Pigeon Creek, this one on Fifth Avenue, now Fulton Avenue, but it was razed in 2000. Howell Library, at 1506 Delmar Avenue, closed in 1993 but was a WPA construction. In Indiana, it funded the construction of the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, a number of buildings on the campuses of Indiana University and Purdue University, the Glover Cary bridge between Owensboro, Kentucky and Indiana, and portions of the fairgrounds in Indianapolis. A listing and description of WPA projects in Indiana can be seen here.
FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation). Not all New Deal projects involved construction. This 1933 group was founded to bolster banking security, to prevent the type of panic that caused bank runs. It insured “depositors for at least $250,000 per insured bank. … When banks failed, depositors regularly lost their savings, bringing personal hardship and even disaster. Between 1930 and 1933, for example, Americans lost $1.3 billion from 9,000 bank failures (about $23 billion in today’s dollars). … In contrast to this pre-New Deal history, “Since the start of FDIC insurance on January 1, 1934, no depositor has lost a single cent of insured funds as a result of a failure.””
SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission). Another New Deal project not involving construction was the SEC, designed to “ride herd” on Wall Street. The “Securities Exchange Act of 1934 [was] signed into law by President Roosevelt on June 6, 1934. The law created the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and gave the SEC the power to “register, regulate, and oversee brokerage firms, transfer agents, and clearing agencies as well as the nation’s securities self regulatory organizations” (e.g., the New York Stock Exchange). The law also gave the SEC “disciplinary powers” and the authority to “require periodic reporting of information by companies with publicly traded securities.””
FHA (Federal Housing Administration). The National Housing Act, signed into law on June 27, 1934, created the FHA. “In order to revive mortgage lending for housing construction, home purchases and home improvements, the FHA provided federal guarantees of repayment to mortgage issuers—such as banks and savings & loan associations—who submitted to federal standards. FHA regulations were responsible for the standardization of the 30-year, low interest mortgage. To further facilitate the flow of capital into housing, the FHA encouraged the development of a secondary market in which mortgages could be sold to investors. … Section 207 of the National Housing Act also authorized mortgage insurance for “low-cost housing projects…to encourage the investment of private funds in the large scale production of housing of adequate standards of sanitation, safety, and amenity, and at rentals within reach of families with small incomes.””
WPA (Works Progress Administration, later the Works Projects Administration) Roosevelt signed this into existence on May 6, 1935. “The WPA was the largest and most diverse of the New Deal public works programs. It was created to alleviate the mass unemployment of the Great Depression and by the time it was terminated in 1943, the WPA had put 8.5 million Americans back to work. The majority of WPA projects built infrastructure, such as bridges, airports, schools, parks, and water lines. In addition, the Federal Project Number One programs undertook theater, music, and visual arts projects, while other service programs supported historic preservation, library collections, and social science research. The WPA also employed women in sewing rooms and school classrooms and cafeterias, and in the later run-up to war it improved many military facilities…. The WPA employed people directly.”
Other WPA projects in Indiana included the Spring Mill State Park Inn, an expansion of the New Albany Public Library, a picnic shelter at Turkey Run State Park, and the Amphitheatre and nature center at McCormick’s Creek State Park.Not all WPA work, as noted earlier, involved construction. The Federal Writers’ Project “was created in 1935 as part of the United States Work Progress Administration to provide employment for historians, teachers, writers, librarians, and other white-collar workers. Originally, the purpose of the project was to produce a series of sectional guide books under the name American Guide, focusing on the scenic, historical, cultural, and economic resources of the United States. Eventually the new programs developed and projects gun under the Federal Emergency Relief Administration were absorbed by the writers’ project.” Indiana, A Guide to the Hoosier State (see Resources Consulted) is an example of one of these guidebooks. Indiana’s book was sponsored by the Indiana State Teachers College (now Indiana State University). Another writers’ project was the American Life Histories–interviews with over 10,000 Americans across a wide swath of ethnicities, occupations, and regions. Another important contribution was the Slave Narratives, “more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. These narratives were collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.” Ralph Ellison, Margaret Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow and John Cheever, and poet May Swenson are among noted authors who worked under the Federal Writers’ Project.
REA (Rural Electrification Administration) Created on May 11, 1935, “the goal of the REA was to bring electricity to America’s rural areas. While cities had enjoyed electric power for many years, in 1935 “fewer than 11 of every 100 U.S. farms were receiving central station electric service.” The main problem was that the power companies were unwilling and/or unable to string wires over long distances, across farmland and back country, at an affordable price. The REA was initially expected to provide direct relief to the nation’s unemployed, but very few of the unemployed in rural areas had the needed electrical trade skills. It was also expected that the REA would be a grant-making agency and that it would work closely with private power companies. However, with private power companies unenthusiastic about the idea of extending their power lines across rural America at affordable rates, the REA quickly developed into an agency that made loans to state and local governments so that rural areas could develop their own electric power supply.” It was known to have done projects in Nebraska, California, Iowa, Colorado, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon, New Mexico, Idaho, and Georgia.
SSA (Social Security Administration) If you know of no other New Deal program, you surely know about Social Security, although you may not have realized it was created during this time period. “President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law on August 14, 1935. The law was wide-ranging. While most Americans know Social Security for its old-age pension system, the act also addressed unemployment benefits, aid to dependent children, maternal and child welfare, public health services, and aid to the blind. It launched what would be called ‘the welfare state’ or ‘the social safety net’ of the postwar era.”
This is but a small sampling of New Deal initiatives–all told, there were some 69 programs/agencies created, 7 of which survive today. Four of those remaining were discussed in this blog: TVA, FDIC, SEC, and SSA. The others were the Soil Conservation Service, National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and the Federal National Mortgage Association, aka Fannie Mae. And let’s be clear—not everyone was thrilled about the New Deal and all of these programs. Conservative thinkers felt FDR was going too far, leading America into socialism. Others thought he wasn’t doing nearly enough, that he was “still in bed” with capitalists. The Supreme Court, at that time with a conservative majority, opposed Roosevelt’s reforms, and he threatened to add additional, liberal justices—to pack the court with those more reform-minded. (This did not happen; the threat alone caused the justices to vote in FDR’s favor, but it also harmed his reputation.) Finally, the Depression, despite all of FDR’s efforts, did not truly end until America’s entry into WWII. Still, if you were down and out and hurting, the New Deal’s alphabet soup made for a tasty and nutritious meal.
Indiana, a guide to the Hoosier state, compiled by workers of the Writers’ program of the Works Projects Administration in the state of Indiana. New York, Oxford University Press, 1941. UASC Regional Collection F524.3 .I5
Leuchtenburg, William E. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940. New York: Harper & Row, 1963. General Collection E806 .L475 1963a
Terkel, Studs. Hard times; an oral history of the great depression. New York, Pantheon Books, 1970. General Collection E806 .T45