Unruly Seamstresses in the 1930s

Los Angeles Daily News,1936 via Calisphere

The Works Project Administration (or WPA) is best known for funding murals and highways in the Great Depression. However, it also started programs aimed specifically at women. One was the WPA sewing project, which employed thousands women creating garments for state agencies and charities.  In Los Angeles County alone, 5,000 women held jobs in its heyday. The compensation was low, but still higher than state unemployment insurance. About half of those employed were single heads of households, with an average age of 46.  (Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1938)

These jobs were lifelines for many women, but the program in Los Angeles was unstable. It contracted and expanded many times. Each contraction inspired desperate participants to political action. Above is a photo of one such protest in late 1936. Women gathered in the lobby of the local WPA office demanding reinstatement.  

Los Angeles Herald Examiner via Calisphere

More threats inspired more protests. The photo above shows a group outside the County Supervisors’ Office in early 1938.  At that point the WPA had threatened to end the sewing program entirely unless it got more state help.  In the end, over two thirds of the seamstresses lost their jobs.  (Los Angeles Times, Feb 9, 1938.) Single women without dependents were laid off first.

What can we learn from these photos of unhappy women?  First of all you can see that the WPA was a multi racial employer—there are many Black faces here.  In the photo above, older faces far outnumber the younger ones, befitting the age profile of the larger group. The difference between young and old is quite apparent in the clothing.  The older women all wear hats, while most of the younger ones are bareheaded.  Sensible oxfords predominate over flatter shoes. In the top photo (enlarge it in the source), one younger worker even wears pants.  Although everyone is neat and tidy, only one looks well off—the young woman front and center in the 1938 photo, with her stylish hat, silky scarf, and fur collar.  Perhaps she was a reporter and not a seamstress at all.

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1 Response to Unruly Seamstresses in the 1930s

  1. Judith Rickard says:

    Very interesting. I had never heard of the WPA sewing program.

    I doubt if the women with the fur and silk scarf was a reporter. Female reporters were paid very little and mostly relegated to the society pages. Maybe she came from a previously well-off background?

    And the woman in pants?!?! At that time, it must have shocking.

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