The WPA Guides To The States

by Valerie Jean Kramer

From 1935 to 1942, the WPA (Works Progress Administration), through it's Federal Writers' Project created a series of books that captured the country in print. Forty-Eight state guides plus territorial guide books, city guides, etc. form a wonderful resource for learning about our country. Although there have been many changes in the last 50 years, some things remain the same and the rest takes you on a delightfully nostalgic tour of a simpler world. (Fussy nit-picking note: Although the WPA may have begun in 1935, the first state Guide, Idaho, wasn't released until Jan. 15, 1937. The last state Guide, Oklahoma, was first announced in Publisher's Weekly on Jan. 3, 1942. The "State Guides" include the 48 states that existed at the time, plus Washington D.C., Alaska, Puerto Rico, and New York City, but not Hawaii.)

Each book is divided into a series of sections on such things as the natural setting, history, agriculture, industry, transportation, culture, education, religion, fine arts, media, etc. Each major city has a chapter of its own. Finally, my favorite part, about half of each book is devoted to a series of "tours" of the state. Each tour follows a particular road and describes what one sees as one travels from one edge of the state to the other giving explicit directions and mileages. For those interested in the history and archealogy of our recent past, these tours are fascinating! I've followed a number of these tours and have found many sections of road that have been bypassed by more modern higher speed highways. In many cases the old road is still present and the interesting sights or their remnants still exist if one has the guide to find them and the wisdom to seek them out.

I first became aware of the WPA Guides when I read "Travels With Charley" by John Steinbeck. In it he travels around the country in a truck with a camper on the back and his dog, Charley. (Today it seems like half the population is on the road in campers and RV's but when Steinbeck did it, it was an unusual feat.) In any event, at one point he wished that he had his books with him so he could look up some item of interest. He told just a bit about them. Thus sensitized to something interesting, I soon found, and bought, my first WPA Guide book, The Ohio Guide, since I was living in Ohio at the time. Later as I moved, I continued to buy the guides for the states in which I found myself and then for surrounding states that I might want to visit. Eventually it became "a collection" and, perhaps, an obsession.

I've enjoyed owning, reading, and using these books now for over 30 years. The first one I bought cost me about $6. Today many of them can be found for $10-50 depending on condition, and rarity. Most of them have been printed several times and many have been thru several revisions as well. Some have even been made current and can still be bought as a new book including Missouri, Kansas, and Kentucky. On the other hand, only about 3,000 copies of the North Dakota Guide were made in the first printing and the printer broke up the type after the print run! Try sites such as these:

or your local bookseller to locate current titles. Of course, the die-hard collector wants a perfect condition, 1st edition for each state. While that might be nice, it would also be bloody expensive! Don't let that discourage you though. I've always found that I can enjoy a battered second edition, third printing, or a used library discard just as much and not have to worry about damaging it while reading it or taking it on a trip with me.

On one visit to my local used book store I met Arthur Scharf who lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the time. He was the "national clearinghouse" for anything related t the WPA Guides. He bought and sold books and knew just about everything there was to know about them. He has since passed on but his job is still being done by

Marc Selvaggio, Bookseller
2553 Hilgard Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94709

(800) 356-2199

Well, I've got loads more I'd like to share about these books but today isn't the day to write it all down, I'm afraid. So, here are a few of the book covers to whet your appetite for future additions to this site. I apologize for the lack of quality. I have upgraded the scanner and will do a better job next time. Also be sure to visit the linked sites given below.

The Federal Writers' Project ( Petra Schindler Carter has written a dissertation on the WPA books and has a nice site with many more links to other relevant sites.

American Life Histories ( Library of Congress, manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. Gives lots of background on the American Guide and other projects.

The New Deal Network ( Go to the "Document Library", search under Subject, "American Guide Series" shows Minnesota and Tennessee. A bit of clicking led me to some extensive sections of the Tennessee Guide.