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Useful Work for Unskilled Women
A Unique Milwaukee WPA Project
Mary Kellogg Rice

"I have just come back from one of the most interesting mornings I have ever spent. Milwaukee has a handicraft project for unskilled women which gives one a perfect thrill. The interesting thing is that in spite of the fact that these women have had few educational advantages and were so unskilled they were rejected on the sewing project, they are developing both taste and skill. Their wooden toys for the federal nursery schools and dependent children's home are not only well made but so well painted and finished that you long to have them in your own nursery. The cost of materials on this project has been kept at a minimum, but the ideas have been invaluable and have evidently been given in full measure."—Eleanor Roosevelt, "My Day" syndicated newspaper column, November 12, 1936

The Great Depression was a time of economic insecurity, hopelessness and privation. Franklin Roosevelt, elected president in 1932, promised "bold persistent experimentation" to alleviate suffering and calm social unrest." He directed the Works Progress Administration, known as WPA, to provide highly labor intensive work for individuals on the relief rolls, work that would compete as little as possible with private industry. For skilled individuals, work was quickly organized, but the problem of finding useful work for the unskilled, particularly women, was difficult. The project praised by Mrs. Roosevelt was a successful answer to the problem.

It was Elsa Ulbricht, a member of the art faculty of the Milwaukee State Teachers College, now the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, who conceived the idea of a light manufacturing project employing unskilled women, who would be taught to produce articles needed by schools, hospitals, homes for dependent children and other tax-supported institutions. Unemployed graduates of the Art Education Department of the Teachers College would be hired to design the articles, make prototypes and teach the workers to produce them.

Mary Kellogg Rice traces the project from its inception in 1935 through the last days in 1943 in her book, Useful Work for Unskilled Women.

A talented senior art student, Mary June Kellogg, was selected by Elsa Ulbricht to assist her in planning such a project and, if the plans were approved, to be the art director and to share responsibility as general supervisor of the project. When the plans were approved in the fall of 1935, she began work on a difficult undertaking. She brought to it ingenuity, creative imagination and a keen sense of design.

With the help of the talented young designers and teachers, unskilled women were soon producing articles requiring easily learned skills using donated materials. Scrap cloth from the WPA Sewing Project was braided in strips and sewn into rugs. Donated magazines were the source of material for scrapbooks. The teacher selected articles of interest; the women mounted them onto pages that they bound into scrapbooks.

With the arrival in several weeks of a wide range of craft materials, the designer teachers were free to design articles to meet the specific needs of institutions. Within one year the workers were producing in quantity a wide selection of useful articles, some of which Mrs. Roosevelt mentioned in her column.

The way the project evolved and developed in its relationship with the institutions it served is the subject of this book.

Mary Kellogg left the project in 1942 to marry Edward Rice, an American Foreign Service Officer serving at that time in China. Their first post together was Manila where she received a United Nations grant to work with the Philippine government in the postwar reconstruction of village industries. She organized and operated a workshop in Manila for the retraining of village weavers. Throughout her husband's long career, they traveled widely in Europe and Asia. She pursued her interest in the art of crafts, particularly in woven and printed textiles. Her husband's latest post was as Diplomat in Residence at the University of California at Berkeley, where she became interested in Japanese printed fabrics. Her interest led to a book she co-authored, Shibori, the Inventive Art of Shaped Resist Dyeing: Tradition, Techniques, Innovation (Kodansha International Ltd., copyright 1983, 1999.)

Useful Work for Unskilled Women received a 2004 Wisconsin State Historical Society Book Award of Merit. The award is given to authors of books which make a valuable contribution to our knowledge of Wisconsin history.

Distributed for the Milwaukee County Historical Society


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January 2005

146 pp.  9 1/2 X 10
5 illus., 33 color photos, 125 b/w photos

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Paper $24.95 t
ISBN 978-0-938076-18-6
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