My interest was piqued after reading the entertaining perspectives of 1930’s San Francisco via the WPA writers’ project, so I dove in and grabbed a handful from the stacks at the library. None of them are worth reading cover to cover, but I did pick up some tidbits and amusements. The librarian who handed them over gave me an “are you insane” look and asked if I was reading these as travel guides or as history. I tried explaining what a great resource these WPA guides are and he got a bored look on his face then pronounced that the WPA program still existed and was still paying writers. I wish!
WPA Guide to California– This was a later edition (1984) that contained a somewhat snarky introduction saying that much had changed since 1939, “often for the worse,” citing Cannery Row’s and Fisherman Wharf’s tourist attractions and that Daly City now had tract homes instead of being covered by fields of lettuce, artichokes, pansies, and violets. The intro also revealed that Tillie Olsen was a contributor, among others (Kenneth Rexroth, Madeline Gleason, etc.).
- The Hollywood section lists out actual house addresses of celebrities of the time, including Wallace Beery (816 N. Alpine Drive), Edward G. Robinson (910 N. Rexford Drive), Greta Garbo (250 N. Cliffword Ave), Joan Crawford (426 N. Bristol Ave.), Groucho Marx, Marion Davies, Charlie Chaplin, Fred Astair, Ginger Rogers, Shirley Temple…
- The SF library used ot have a “piano for the use of patrons wishing to try out selections.”
- The Mint on Buchanan was scaled by “two schoolboys by daylight by means of a drain pipe” who slipped into an open window and threw out a copper plate just to see if it could be done (Jan 1939).
- North Beach in SF used to be known as the Latin Quarter.
- Pescadero was once “the whitest town in the State; when the S.S. Columbia was wrecked near Pigeon Point, most of her cargo of white paint drifted ashore and, salvaged by the inhabitants, was used lavishly.”
WPA’s New York city guide; a comprehensive guide to the five boroughs of the metropolis–Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Richmond
- Wait, Staten Island is officially known as “Richmond”?
- Richard Wright was a contributor!
- The accommodations section lists out prices of hotel rooms per day – $2.00 up to $8.00 (Hampshire House, 150 Central Park South)
- The traffic rules section cracked me up. “SIGNAL LIGHTS (1) Green means go. (2) Red means stop… (5) when light turns red drivers shall stop at nearest intersecting street.” Also, “PLAY STREETS. These streets are set aside for children to play in; no traffic is permitted except vehicles having business in such streets.” And “HORNS. Horns must not be sounded except to warn a person or animal of danger.”
- In the foreign meals section, they helpfully list out common dishes under each heading. Tortillas are explained as “corn pancakes.”
- Once again, the distinction between “legitimate theaters” and “motion picture theaters.”
Massachusetts’s WPA state guide, the 1971 edition.
zzz boring, nothing to even call out here. They go town by town alphabetically trying to squeeze out a few lines per town. Louisa May Alcott is denigrated by saying she wrote “sentimental” novels.
Kansas, A Guide to the Sunflower State; compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Work Projects Administration for the State of Kansas.
No credit is given to the writers and none is due. This, too, was a snoozer. The only note I made was on climate, where they said “topcoats and overcoats necessary Sept 1 to June 1.” Oh really? Also a lot of regulations around fishing, saying it was prohibited to have more than 2 poles and a line, or dynamiting, poisoning, ice fishing or “any manner of taking fish except with artificial lures or baited hooks.”