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Milwaukee Handicraft Project Depression-Era Artwork

Block-printed wall hanging produced by workers of the Milwaukee Handicraft Project, 1935-1943.
(Museum object #1981.184.4)

On November 6, 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, the staff of the Milwaukee Handicraft Project (MHP) opened its doors to find a “motley, careworn and harassed group of women,” poorly clothed, unkempt, and weak from malnutrition looking for jobs. The director of the project, Elsa Ulbricht, quickly put these unskilled but eager laborers to work producing functional and attractive decorative arts items like this 34”x 34” block-printed wall hanging featuring a deer, sun, evergreen trees and other motifs designed by MHP artists.

For several decades Dr. Myra Burke, an administrator for the Wisconsin Works Progress Administration (WPA), the agency that oversaw the MHP, kept this wall hanging in her possession. In 1981 she finally decided to donate it to the Wisconsin Historical Society along with another, music-themed piece.

The MHP began when Harriet Clinton, the head of the Women’s Division of Wisconsin’s WPA, saw a need to put female head-of-householders to work and created an organization to do so. She hired Elsa Ulbricht, an art professor at the Milwaukee State Teachers College, to lead the project. Miss Ulbricht’s goal was to create well-designed objects that unskilled women could make using inexpensive materials. Most of the curtains, furniture, toys, rugs, books, dolls, costumes, and other items they made ended up in the Milwaukee Public Schools, but institutions around the country also eagerly sought MHP projects.

Shortly after the Milwaukee Handicraft Project opened, Clinton asked Miss Ulbricht if she would mind hiring “Negroes.” Ulbricht's enthusiastic willingness to do so transformed the MHP's future. Once word got out the MHP would hire African Americans, unlike most WPA projects, it was swamped with workers. Eventually two shifts had to be created to keep up with the demand for positions.

The use of unskilled labor in an integrated workspace to create beautiful handmade products brought the project national attention. Exhibitions of MHP's wares occurred throughout the country, and by the late 1930s celebrities like Frank Lloyd Wright and Eleanor Roosevelt visited Milwaukee to see the facilities first hand. Though there were sometimes tensions between the white and black workers at the MHP, overall the integration proved successful. In later years, Ulbricht spoke with pride of being the director of the only integrated WPA project in the country.

In 1941 Congress disbanded the WPA, but Milwaukee County leaders so believed in the Milwaukee Handicraft Project that they continued to fund it without federal help. Two years later, however, World War II and the flood of jobs that accompanied it finally forced the Milwaukee Handicraft Project to close its doors.

[Source: Bellais, Leslie. "No Idle Hands: A WPA Handicraft Project," Wisconsin Magazine of History (Vol. 84, No. 2), Winter 2000-2001.]

Posted on September 22, 2005

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