A Bright Light at a Dark Time: The WPA Handicraft Project

One unusual piece in our December 1 of Art, Press & Illustrated Books is a six-volume folio of textiles designed and produced by the WPA Handicraft Project in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

 

184: Applied Design: Block Printed Textiles, Milwaukee WPA Handicraft Project, 1937-38. Estimate $4,000 to $6,000.

Lot 184: Applied Design: Block Printed Textiles, Milwaukee WPA Handicraft Project, 1937-38. Estimate $4,000 to $6,000.

 

The Milwaukee WPA (Works Progress Administration) Handicraft Project focused on employing and teaching unskilled women during the Depression to support themselves and their families. The efforts were organized by professor Elsa Ulbricht of the University of Wisconsin – Madison and one of her students, Mary June Kellogg Rice. They had planned to give lessons to about 250 women, but within three weeks over 900 people came to work.

 

184: Applied Design: Block Printed Textiles, Milwaukee WPA Handicraft Project, 1937-38. Estimate $4,000 to $6,000.

Printed frontispiece for Applied Design: Block Printed Textiles.

 

Recent education graduates from the university who couldn’t find employment were hired to teach the students of the Handicraft Project. Samples of fabric designed, printed and produced by the women were compiled into portfolios to advertise their work. As the plate count in each known set differs, it is assumed that each was a unique assemblage of samples.

 

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A complex elephant print, requiring at least four blocks.

 

Orders came in from all over the country, allowing the Handicraft Project to continue operation and hire more workers. While the program was intended to benefit women, men joined as well. More than 5,000 men and women participated between 1935 and ’43. It was hugely successful and in 1944 the Milwaukee Journal called it “the project that made Milwaukee famous.”

 

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A festive reindeer print.

 

The set of six volumes offered in our December sale was created by hand and previously in the collection of the Kansas City Public Library.The stamp of the University of Wisconsin-Madison can be found on the verso of each page. These colorful little fabric samples were the result of a project that meant the difference between life and death for thousands of people during the Depression.

 

 

Interior of Applied Design: Block Printed Textiles, showing hand-taped fabric samples.

Interior of Applied Design: Block Printed Textiles, showing hand-taped fabric samples.

 

This rare and beautiful piece of history is just one of the many handmade books and objets d’art in our full catalogue.