The sight itself was not unfamiliar in Great Depression-era Milwaukee: a line of huddled and sullen people waiting anxiously for a chance at honest work for a steady paycheck. But the line of 200 waiting outside a building on the Veterans Administration grounds one wintery day in 1935 was unlike the others. It was all women.
As a whole, they were desperate and destitute. Many were hungry or afflicted by chronic maladies. Some didn’t speak English, and more couldn’t read or write in any language. But they were here for work, and the federal government had more than a billion bucks to spend and needed to hire.
They had, until recently, been considered unworthy of help from the federal government, which preferred these women to remain on local welfare rolls. And in nearly every other part of the nation, they would have. But in Milwaukee, they would be given a chance to show that they could learn a trade just as well as any man.
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It was the sixth year of the Great Depression, and the Works Progress Administration was pouring millions into Milwaukee County to alleviate the devastating effects of the crisis and remove the welfare burden from the state, county, and city by giving out government-funded jobs.
But heads of household were given priority in WPA hiring, and only one such job was allowed per home, severely limiting the opportunities for women to find government work. The positions that were open to women who qualified nearly all required specific training or experience.
In Milwaukee County, the WPA had nothing to offer the 2,600 women who applied for work as heads of household. Many had never worked outside their homes, and about 90% of them were classified as “unskilled.”
In an effort to shift these women off the meager county relief rolls, Harriet Clinton was tasked by state WPA officials with creating a WPA program, the first of its kind, that could accommodate these seemingly unemployable women. Clinton was used to breaking barriers. She earned a journalism degree from Columbia University and had worked as a reporter in Milwaukee when it was still a rarity for women to break into the newspaper business.
Clinton knew the city well and was familiar with the often-dreadful conditions of city hospitals and institutions. Her initial idea was to have the women work at clipping artful images from decorative wallpaper to be pasted into scrapbooks for distribution in these otherwise gray and stolid places.
To direct the project, Clinton reached out to Elsa Ulbricht, a faculty member at the Milwaukee State Teachers College. Born in Milwaukee in 1885, Ulbricht had earned a degree from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn before returning to Milwaukee to teach art. Ulbricht shared Clinton’s enthusiasm for finding places for women in the workforce, but promptly rejected the offer to lead what she saw as a “make work” project – an enterprise that leveraged marginally useful tasks to shift the burden of people from the county to the feds.
Ulbricht had a grander vision for the project. She was confident that, with the proper guidance and training, the women could learn to produce items that were not just practically useful but genuinely artistic as well. She wanted the worker to benefit as much from making the item as its user would from using it. This kind of project, she told Clinton, led by a team of artisan instructors, was something that she would take charge of.
Clinton agreed and, with a pair of former students, Ulbricht spent the summer of 1935 designing a project to employ 250 women over the next year. What they mapped out would end up running for the next seven years, giving over 5,000 Milwaukee women a chance to make a living with their hands.
On Nov. 6, 1935, the Milwaukee Handicrafts Project (MHP) opened its doors. Despite the day’s bitter cold, the nearly 200 women first assigned to the project lined up just before 8 a.m. outside a building on the VA grounds – near the present-day site of Miller Park – where the county had given the project a workspace. Mary Kellogg Rice, one of the two students who had designed the project with Ulbricht, recalled that on that first day many of the women, unable to afford streetcar fare, had walked miles to the job site. As a whole, she remembered, they appeared “gaunt and undernourished … weary and hopeless.”
While Ulbricht had expected women with at least a base experience in sewing, she was given a group assigned at random off the county relief rolls. Many had never even used scissors before. By the end of that first, frigid day – which ended early when the electricity at the VA building failed – it was clear the women would need training before they could even attempt the simplest of projects. Some of the women spoke no English. More still were illiterate. So many had lingering physical ailments that Ulbricht eventually added a full-time nurse to the staff.
The group was also entirely white. Although President Franklin D. Roosevelt had insisted that there be no discrimination in WPA hiring, program administrators across the nation gave preference to white applicants on the racist notion that African Americans had lower standards of living and were therefore less in need of aid. In the weeks after the opening of the MHP, the county assigned a group of 300 Black women to the project – though at an alternative job site. Ulbricht refused to run a segregated project and ordered the alternative site shuttered. With a continuing stream of new assignees, white and Black, to the project, Ulbricht was soon heading a workforce of over 800. It would remain one of the few WPA projects to integrate.
The project started out simply, making the scrapbooks Clinton had envisioned for county institutions. Since many of these places had canceled periodical subscriptions due to budget troubles, the women bound together collections of uplifting articles and stories clipped from old magazines purchased by the pound for the project. From this, a bookbinding unit was formed, and the women repaired over 6,000 textbooks for city schools. Lovely block-printed covers made for these and the scrapbooks lead to a block-printing unit that produced artful works to be used in schools for art and design instruction.
Eventually, 11 different MHP units would emerge, each led by an art student or teacher who designed the products and guided her team in their construction. While the federal government paid the women’s wages, the project needed to self-sustain on material costs, and many of the early projects were made mostly from reclaimed goods. When a sewing unit was created, its thread came from unraveling government surplus burlap. Other materials were salvaged from local factories – yarn from rugmakers, cloth scraps from an overcoat manufacturer.
Regulations also stipulated that MHP products could only be sold at cost to tax-supported institutions. With local schools tapped of funds and a series of WPA-sponsored nursery schools just opened in the city, there was a huge demand for products for children. A woodworking unit designed and built thousands of toys. A dollmaking unit created dolls that could stand and sit with specially designed clothes that helped teach children to dress themselves. The unit produced dolls with both light and dark complexions, so that both white and Black children could have a toy representative of themselves. The dolls became so popular that the unit could not keep up with demand.
At the MHP’s first anniversary, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the worksite during a trip to Milwaukee and wrote in a nationally syndicated newspaper column about the “perfect thrill” she got in seeing the progress the women had made. Afterward, requests to visit the works were so frequent that a worker was assigned full time to guide tours of the facilities. MHP products were featured in art shows across the country, and a display of project creations was one of the highlights of the 1936 Wisconsin State Fair, with nearly 2,000 people waiting in line to go through the WPA tent. The project would also be featured at the 1939 World’s Fair, with two MHP workers spending six months in New York City showing their work to hundreds of thousands of visitors.
As was Ulbricht’s intention, the MHP was as useful to its workers as it was to the institutions buying its products. Throughout the project’s run, between 90% and 95% of its workers came from the relief rolls. Workers earned $60 per month (about $1,100 in 2020 money) and quickly found that their newly acquired skills put them in demand for other WPA projects and private sector work, as well.
But the value of the work was not just financial. “When I am [at work],” one woman said of her time on the project, “I forget all my troubles.” A woman named Rose Desotel wrote in a letter of thanks to Ulbricht that “[the work] seemed rather difficult at first, but not anymore. I wish I could express myself more plainly, just what this means to me, but words fail me.” Odessa Grant, a Milwaukee woman working in the block-printing unit, also wrote Ulbricht to thank her. “The money paid me has been a great help,” she wrote. “But there are other benefits. These benefits couldn’t be calculated in dollars and cents.”
Despite the successes of the MHP, the elimination of the WPA in 1941 spelled the beginning of its end. The county continued the project but was unable to offer nearly the same level of financial support, and a series of layoffs thinned its ranks. By the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, there were only about 300 workers left on the project. The MHP lingered until 1943 when, with material shortages and able workers needed for the war effort, its doors were closed for good.
But the legacy of the Handicrafts Project would last for decades in toys and books used in city schools, furniture made for libraries and universities, and dolls that are still prized by collectors today. Hundreds of Handicraft Project-made artworks, prints and artifacts remain in the collections of the Milwaukee Public Museum and the UW-Milwaukee Archives.
Its legacy is also human: 5,000 Milwaukee women, a group as diverse as any workforce the city had yet seen, who might never have been given a chance had it not been for Elsa Ulbricht’s belief that they deserved it as much as anyone else.
Milwaukee historian Matthew J. Prigge wrote “A Grand Old Leaf” in the June 2019 issue.