Better Know a State: See the Nation, Through the American Guide Series
It's July, the month we start by celebrating this nation's independence, get out and enjoy wide open spaces, and when summer vacations start in earnest, the month when you might be embarking on a family road trip, or planning that last-minute getaway. To keep the spirit of adventure going all month long, may I humbly offer this look into the Writers' Project Series Guides to the United States.
Born out of the Federal Writers' Project (FWP)—itself part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA)—American Guide books were published for each of the states then in the union (forty-eight), and viewed as a whole, they stand as a fascinating historical document of the country as it began to emerge from the Great Depression. The Library holds 296 titles in the series, and many can also be found digitally on Hathi Trust, Google Books, or the Internet Archive. It's worth noting that the program also published regional and city guides, including New York City Guide: A Comprehensive Guide to the Five Boroughs of the Metropolis–Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Richmond, and guidebooks on Alaska, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C., too. What about Hawaii, you ask? —Hold that thought for the moment.*
In addition, while the American Guide series was in production, Victor Hugo Green published his Green Books—practical annual directories aimed at African-American travelers, which listed "hotels, restaurants, beauty salons, nightclubs, bars, gas stations, etc. where black travelers would be welcome." K Menick from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture wrote about these guides, as well as WPA photographs, art, and the Writers' Program, all of which are found on the Library's website.
Though the individual American Guides differ in length, they all follow a singular format, and include the same basic aspects: essays on history, peoples, and industry; descriptions of major cities; documentary photographs; and a section on "tours"—stop-by-stop excursions with maps, perfect for a populace setting out to see the country behind the wheel of a large automobile. See the U.-S.-A. in your li-brar-y!
In the Irma and Paul Milstein Division of U. S. History, Local History and Genealogy, I've been examining these books over the last few months, for a series on our Twitter (and occasionally, Facebook) called "Better Know a State", celebrating statehood anniversaries with an image collage from each Guide. Below, fun facts and select image collages collected along the way, representing all fifty states. Enjoy the ride.
The Fifty States (Plus Two)
Disclaimer: the Guides were created in the late 1930s and reflect sentiments of that time, including use of language unacceptable by 2017 standards. A number of the Guides have been re-issued, with revisions to address this and other concerns, in the decades since.
n.b.: Unless otherwise noted, links open the title's NYPL catalog record.
Alabama issued this Guide during the Jim Crow era. A revised edition edited by Alyce Billings Walker was published in 1975, and a third variation, The WPA Guide to 1930s Alabama—which references the 1975 text and includes a new introduction by Henry H. Jackson III as well as the 1941 text—came in 2000. The Guide shows Alabamans at work in industry (steel, coal, cotton and wood mills) and the Farm Security Administration.
The biggest state's Guide is credited, somewhat inexplicably, to one author. Features sections on Alaskan misconceptions and state legends, and Chinook expressions. Alaska did not have many roads when this Guide was written, making it unusual in a series devoted to car travel.
Technically, Arizona was the youngest state when this Guide was published, having gained statehood in 1912; the Grand Canyon State Guide offers a view from prehistory to the present, with essays on Native American pueblos and Jesuit missions to photographs of plateaus and the Barringer Meteorite Crater.
Covers Arkansas geography and culture in addition to political and economic history. Includes portraits of Arkansans and eighteen tours across the Ozarks to the Gulf Coastal Plain.
Striking photographs, essays on "the movies", and tours through Yosemite, Sequoia and Death Valley set the California Guide apart; it ends with an entry on the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939. NYPL's Milstein copy was formerly owned by Carl Van Vechten, and has his original book plate.
Logging, marble quarries, steel mills and foundries. Cripple Creek, Cattle Country, the Continental Divide. Ouray, Zebulon Pike, and unnamed San Pablo beet field workers. Includes seven tours of Rocky Mountain National Park and three tours of Mesa Verde National Park.
Connecticut distilled its merit into a timeline, covering "firsts" over 400 years. The section on industry is now a time capsule, as manufacturers relocated in the decades following publication.
Be magically whisked away to Delaware with this Guide, which features eight major cities, twenty-seven tours, and 549 pages of photographs and essays on the second-smallest state.
A comprehensive Guide to the Sunshine State, from the then-newly finished southernmost segment of U.S. Highway 1 to Tallahassee, with stops at the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement (St. Augustine) and Seminole lands in the Everglades, all decades before Disney.
Georgia peaches, and a historical narrative stretching from the Prehistoric Cornfield at the Macon Plateau through the colonial and Civil War eras to the 1930s. Historically black colleges and universities are mentioned, if briefly; appendices include a list of Georgia counties and the individuals for whom most of them are named.
Though a territory of the United States from 1898 to 1959, Hawaii was not covered by the FWP; this book follows much the same format as the WPA Guides and offers a visual and narrative history of the islands.
The "Land of Lincoln" devotes eight pages of this Guide to the sixteenth President, and over 100 pages to the Windy City.
With twenty-two pages dedicated to archaeology and Native Americans, and fourteen cities covered in depth, the Crossroads of America demonstrated that it was more than just a place to pass through. Includes essays on the state's institutions of higher education.
From its first peoples, to a capital in Iowa City, and onward through its history, Iowa's is a concise Guide with views of an agrarian state served by thirteen railroads. Written in celebration of "the centenary of the organization of Iowa Territory".
Rock chalk! Basketball, farming, journalism, theatre, art, and architecture. With an introductory essay by Kansan writer William Allen White.
The fifteenth state, and one of four constituted as a commonwealth, Kentucky's Guide examines the place of coal in the local economy, the lives of African-American Kentuckians, and musical traditions.
Louisiana's Guide exemplifies a convergence of people, cultures, and cookery, from Shreveport to Port Eads. Features a ten-page section on cuisine.
Special pieces on maritime heritage and Maine folklore. Vacationland's Guide, while full of charm (the "High Roads and Low Roads" tour and cultural landmarks sections, for example) it also offers a two-page essay on "Racial Elements" that applies some insensitive terminology when describing the state's residents.
From Charm City to the Rockets' Red Glare, and everywhere from the "Old Line" to the Eastern Shore. Features special sections on Annapolis and Baltimore.
Highlighted by reproduction engravings and other illustrations of the state in its pre-photography past, the Massachusetts Guide is densely informative, with quaint section titles like "Enough of its History to Explain its People" and "Williamstown: Buckwheat, Barley, and Gentlemen".
From Ann Arbor to the Upper Peninsula, from Grand Rapids to Mackinac Island, from Holland’s Tulip Festival to sand skiing (yes, that's a thing), the Michigan Guide is long, but comprehensive.
Minnesota's Guide groups photographs and illustrations at the beginning of the book. Look for the chapter headers and other drawings by George Wallace of the Federal Art Project of Minnesota.
"Mississippi is a large community of people whose culture is made different by the very land that affords them a common bond", notes this Guide's introduction, encouraging readers to understand the state as eight "distinct geographical units". With commentaries on "White Folkways", "Negro Folkways", and cotton, the Choctaw, and William Faulkner.
Missouri's Guide was sponsored by the State Highway Department, and it emphasizes vehicular tourism and pavement types; there is a focus on brewing, agriculture, and the Mississippi River's influence. Look for photos from Piaget studio, Thomas Hart Benton murals, and Mark Twain references.
The Library's copy of this Guide includes the original "tours map" endpapers inside the front cover. It offers eighteen excursions, in addition to ten trail tours of Glacier National Park.
What's the only state with a unicameral legislature? Nebraska. Eight featured cities; eighteen tours.
Reno, prospecting, and Las Vegas before Ben Siegel. Nevada's Guide features two sections on jargon—for mining slang and livestock industry lingo—in addition to photographs that highlight the state's wildlife and recreational options.
A view of the Granite State, through essays on its colonial past, and photographs of landscapes—including the Old Man of the Mountain, before it collapsed—and architecture.
From lore (the "Jersey Devil") to labor and industry in the Garden State, this Guide also offers a dash of drama: the 1939 and subsequent editions note that "some facts in New Jersey labor history … were stricken from the original manuscript … at the instigation of the Dies Committee Investigating Un-American Activities."
Self-describing their state as a "blend of three cultures—Indian, Spanish, and American," this Guide examines the impact of them all. With tours of "the most accessible places" and featured sections on Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Taos.
Turns out, there is more to the Empire State than just the Big Apple. Eighteen featured cities and forty-four tours (including four on Long Island); published during the 1939–1940 New York World's Fair.
What's a "Tar Heel", you might be wondering. North Carolina's Guide explains: the sobriquet originates in a "designation attributed to [British General] Cornwallis' soldiers, who crossed a river into which tar had been poured, emerging with the substance adhering to their heels". Profusely illustrated with portraits of North Carolinians, landscapes, historic illustrations, and architectural photography.
Very few copies of this first edition exist; the Library has one of them, complete with foldout map of the state and its tours.
Only a few Guides have illustrated chapter headings, including Ohio. Sections spotlight the state's settlement, and the role of religion, arts, the press, and industrial output. Fun fact: a sizeable muskrat farm was listed as a notable attraction outside tiny Salem, Ohio.
Oklahoma had been a state for a mere thirty-four years when this Guide was published. Special sections focus on Choctaw, Cherokee, and other Native Americans; with an essay by Edward Everett Dale.
Directly addressing the spirit of the time, Oregon's Guide offers a section on social welfare and the impact of the Depression on Oregonians. Bonus: recipe for huckleberry griddle cakes.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania declared that it had a "rich offering to display to those who seek to know America", and in 660 pages, the twenty-one-person project staff describe it, from geology to Gettysburg, from the Continental Congress to the Golden Triangle, and from Lake Erie to the Delaware Water Gap.
Published by New England powerhouse Houghton Mifflin, Rhode Island’s Guide shows a state that’s small but mighty, and highlights maritime history and Christian and Jewish communities.
This Guide’s recipes for Cracklin’ Bread and Peach Leather reflect the importance of food traditions in the eighth state.
Highlighted by numerous "line drawings" throughout, composed by women artists—Sada Jones, Mary Giddings, Waneya, and Mary Sturis. Don't miss the Mitchell Corn Palace, built 1921 by theatre architects Rapp and Rapp.
Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to the Great Smoky Mountains, plus Nashville, folklore, native flora and fauna, and rail travel in and out of Chattanooga.
Everything is bigger in Texas, and this Guide valiantly attempts to highlight all of it. With a “social life” essay on Texas-style R&R.
Distinctive and fascinating, with sections on Joseph Smith and the Church of Latter-Day Saints, and seventy-one pages on National Parks; Utah also published Origins of Utah Place Names, which you can find in the Map Division.
Dorthy Canfield Fisher wrote in the introductory chapter of this book, “Presumably nobody who reads this book knows Vermonters”, and what follows is a seven-page essay on the unique traits of the state’s residents.
Traces state history from colonial exploration to the segregated 1930s. Look for the section on architecture.
Great across-the-fold landscape photographs, and fun facts, such as: the Hoquiam public library once held fifty volumes in Swedish.
Almost heaven: West Virginia invited readers to explore the wild, wonderful landscape. Includes a brief description of The Greenbrier resort, before it functioned as a protective underground bunker to house Congress in the event of a nuclear apocalypse.
More than just dairy, Wisconsin's Guide showcases the state's political history, modern architecture (from Taliesin to Holabird and Root), and its role in the national labor movement.
Wyoming's Guide also celebrated the state's fiftieth birthday, and covered everything from native peoples to natural wonders.
The nation's capital! This one weighs in at four pounds, and, at 1,140 pages, is also the longest Guide. Legend has it that Franklin Delano Roosevelt disapproved of the book's length and heft.
“Nobody knows in America
Puerto Rico's in America! “--Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story
The preface to this Guide notes "a major purpose of this Guide … [is] introducing to Americans on the mainland their 1,800,000 fellow-citizens of Puerto Rico." A portrait of the island in industry, architecture, recreation, and history.
From NYPL Online:
Menick, K. "Schomburg Treasures: The Green Book”. March 24, 2015.
The Green Book in NYPL Digital Collections.
Navigating The Green Book, a public domain remix by Brian Foo of NYPL Labs.
Photos from the Works Progress Administration in the Milstein Division on NYPL Digital Collections.
Christine Bold, The WPA Guides: Mapping America, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.
Susan Rubenstein DeMasi. Henry Alsberg: the Driving Force of the New Deal Federal Writers' Project, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., .
Andrew S. Gross. "The American Guide Series: Patriotism as Brand-Name Identification." Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory 62, no. 1 (2006): 85-111. Via Project Muse.
Wendy Griswold. American Guides: the Federal Writers' Project and the casting of American culture, Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, .
Jerrold Hirsch. Portrait of America: a Cultural History of the Federal Writers' Project, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
Jerre Mangione. The Dream and the Deal [electronic resource]: the Federal Writers' Project, 1935–1943, Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1996. (Available from home with valid library card or onsite at NYPL.)
David A. Taylor. Soul of a people: the WPA Writer's Project uncovers Depression America, Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2009.