Boondoggles and Shovel Leaners
January 1, 1970Boondoggle – what a great word. It arose in the Great Depression of the 1930s after a teacher in New York, rescued from joblessness by a work program, testified that he taught children to make “boon doggles,” which were items like woven leather belts and key fobs. Mocking newspaper headlines gave it a new meaning. Forever after, boondoggle became synonymous with government inefficiency and works of little value. It was especially applied to the jobs programs of the New Deal, the sea change in the government’s relationship with its citizens instituted under Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was inaugurated seventy-five years ago -- on March 4, 1933.
The WPA – the Works Progress Administration – was the New Deal’s signature jobs program. It lasted for eight years and spent eleven billion dollars, which was real money in those days. Most of its eight and a half million workers were laborers whose principal activity, according to their critics, was leaning on their shovels when they were supposed to be working. What they actually did was bring America into the twentieth century with new roads and bridges, airports, water systems and more, all while working under rules that scrimped on machinery and materials.
The WPA was far more than just construction projects. Laborers weren’t the only people out of work. Creating jobs for people whose skills were all over the map produced some interesting results – and a lot of boondoggling charges. But Harry Hopkins, the incorruptible, sharp-tongued social worker who headed the WPA, told the critics, “Hell, they’ve got to eat just like everybody else.” Thus you had entomologists arranging butterfly displays at the San Diego Zoo. You had herb gardeners in New Hampshire growing peppermint and chamomile to sell to pharmaceutical companies. You had teachers in dance, music, art, and even the creation of the infamous “boon doggles.” Bookbinders worked with glue and thread to restore tattered books in libraries around the country. Native Americans carved tribal histories on totem poles. Women in Kentucky on horse and muleback delivered books and magazines to folks on remote farms, and in Louisiana they poled flat-bottomed boats to reach the eager recipients. Cobblers mended shoes. Seamstresses sewed dresses.
Hopkins knew the pitfalls of spending public money. “Don’t forget, whatever happens you’ll be wrong,” he told his theatre project head, Hallie Flanagan. It was Flanagan who put a young acrobat named Burt Lancaster to work in one of the WPA circuses. Orson Welles worked for the WPA, and gave the country a version of Hamlet set in Haiti. Jackson Pollock drew a WPA salary when he was a young artist starting out. Studs Terkel, Richard Wright, John Cheever and James Baldwin were among its writers.
The WPA also set its sights on expanding recreation. Great names of golf, like Bobby Jones and A. W. Tillinghurst, designed golf courses that the WPA built. The agency created winter sports complexes from Belknap Mountain in New Hampshire to Mt. Hood in Oregon. Anglers gave trout fishing instruction. Swimming pools appeared throughout the country.
The sheer sweep of these activities demands that we take a new look at the WPA. Treating workers as resources and not as a commodity was a new direction for America. In return, not only did they physically modernize the country, they gave us sport and fun and culture – and a much richer heritage than we would have had without them