Click to search the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library Skip Navigation

Better Know a State: See the Nation, Through the American Guide Series

Share

Shelf of American Guide Books in the Milstein Division, view of spines
Some of the American Guide Series books. Author photo.

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.

Introduction

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published for each of the states then in the union (forty-eight), and viewed  as a whole, they stand as a fascinating historical document of the country as it began to emerge from the Great Depression.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; a Guide to the Deep South | Hathi Trust

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.

A Guide to Alaska: Last American Frontier.

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.

Arizona, the Grand Canyon State. | 1956 ed. on Hathi Trust

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.

Collage from Arkansas Guide
Collage: Arkansas Guide.

Arkansas: a Guide to the State. | Hathi Trust

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.

California: a Guide to the Golden State. | Internet Archive

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.

Colorado: a Guide to the Highest State.

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: a Guide to its Roads, Lore, and People. | Hathi Trust

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.

Delaware: a Guide to the First State. | Hathi Trust

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.

Florida; a Guide to the Southernmost State. | Internet Archive eBooks

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: a Guide to Its Towns and Countryside.

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. 

*Hawaii and its people.

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.

Idaho: a Guide in Word and Picture. | Internet Archive

Idaho's Guide was the first published in the series, and offers numerous foldout maps, including Tours in eastern Idaho, available in the Library's Map Division.

Illinois: A Descriptive and Historical Guide. | Internet Archive

The "Land of Lincoln" devotes eight pages of this Guide to the sixteenth President, and over 100 pages to the Windy City.

Indiana: a Guide to the Hoosier State. | Hathi Trust

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.

Collage of Iowa images
Collage: Iowa Guide.

Iowa: a Guide to the Hawkeye State. | Hathi Trust

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".

Kansas: a Guide to the Sunflower State. | Hathi Trust

Rock chalk! Basketball, farming, journalism, theatre, art, and architecture. With an introductory essay by Kansan writer William Allen White.

Kentucky: a Guide to the Bluegrass State.| Hathi Trust

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: a Guide to the State. | Hathi Trust

Louisiana's Guide exemplifies a convergence of people, cultures, and cookery, from Shreveport to Port Eads. Features a ten-page section on cuisine.

Maine: a Guide 'Down East'. | Hathi Trust

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.

Maryland: a Guide to the Old Line State. | Hathi Trust

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.

Massachusetts: a Guide to its Places and People. | Hathi Trust

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". 

Map of Grand Rapids, Michigan, from American Guide Series
Map, Grand Rapids, Michigan Guide.

Michigan: a Guide to the Wolverine State.

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: A State Guide. | Internet Archive

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: a Guide to the Magnolia State. | Hathi Trust

"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: a Guide to the 'Show Me' State. | Hathi Trust

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.

Montana: a State Guide Book. | Hathi Trust

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.

Nebraska: a Guide to the Cornhusker State. | Hathi Trust

What's the only state with a unicameral legislature? Nebraska. Eight featured cities; eighteen tours.

Nevada: a Guide to the Silver State. | Hathi Trust

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.

New Hampshire: a Guide to the Granite State. | Hathi Trust

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.

New Jersey: a Guide to its Present and Past. | Hathi Trust

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."

New Mexico: a Guide to the Colorful State.  | Hathi Trust

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.

New York: a Guide to the Empire State. | Hathi Trust

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.

North Carolina: a Guide to the Old North State. | Internet Archive

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.

North Dakota: a Guide to the Northern Prairie State.

Very few copies of this first edition exist; the Library has one of them, complete with foldout map of the state and its tours.

Ohio guide chapter heading illustrations
Chapter Headers, Ohio Guide.

The Ohio Guide. | Internet Archive eBooks

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: a Guide to the Sooner State. | Internet Archive

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.

Oregon: End of the Trail. | Hathi Trust

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.

Pennsylvania: a Guide to the Keystone State. | Internet Archive eBook

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.

Rhode Island a Guide to the Smallest State. | Hathi Trust

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.

South Carolina: a Guide to the Palmetto State. | Hathi Trust

This Guide’s recipes for Cracklin’ Bread and Peach Leather reflect the importance of food traditions in the eighth state.

South Dakota collage
Collage: South Dakota Guide.

South Dakota: a Guide to the State. | Internet Archive

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: a Guide to the State. | Hathi Trust

Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to the Great Smoky Mountains, plus Nashville, folklore, native flora and fauna, and rail travel in and out of Chattanooga.

Texas: a Guide to the Lone Star State. | Hathi Trust

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.

Utah: a Guide to the State. | Hathi Trust

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.

Vermont: a Guide to the Green Mountain State. | Internet Archive

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.

Virginia: a Guide to the Old Dominion .| Internet Archive eBooks

Traces state history from colonial exploration to the segregated 1930s. Look for the section on architecture.

Collage of Washington State imges
Collage: Washington Guide.

Washington: a Guide to the Evergreen State. | Hathi Trust

Great across-the-fold landscape photographs, and fun facts, such as: the Hoquiam public library once held fifty volumes in Swedish.

West Virginia: a Guide to the Mountain State. | Internet Archive eBooks

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.

Wisconsin: a Guide to the Badger State. | Hathi Trust

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: a Guide to Its History, Highways and People. | Internet Archive eBooks

Wyoming's Guide also celebrated the state's fiftieth birthday, and covered everything from native peoples to natural wonders.

Washington, City and Capital. | Hathi Trust

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.

Puerto Rico: a Guide to the Island of Boriquén. | Hathi Trust

“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.

Further Reading:

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.

Section page, Cities, Wisconsin Guide
Section Title, Wisconsin Guide.

Other Resources:

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., [2016].

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, [2016].

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.

Comments

Patron-generated content represents the views and interpretations of the patron, not necessarily those of The New York Public Library. For more information see NYPL's Website Terms and Conditions.

Henry Alsberg

Great article. Thank you for including my biography of Henry Alsberg in the resources section. The NYPL was a great help to me in researching my book!

Post new comment