Monday, April 26, 2021

WPA Sewing Rooms: Pleasantville NJ

"Give a man a dole and you save his body and destroy his spirit.  Give a man a job and pay him an assured salary, and you save both body and spirit."  --Harry Hopkins, architect of the WPA

This quote could be applied to both men and women during the depression.  On Wednesday I posted some tidbits about WPA Sewing Rooms.  

WPA Sewing Poster

But let's not get nostalgic or sentimental about the New Deal and sewing. 

There was a backlash against married women working during the Depression.  Unfortunately many women had been deserted by their husbands in what was called "the poor man's divorce." 

I had noticed in my local newspaper a lot of articles about our city funding WPA sewing rooms.  Women were given a salary of $35/month (in contrast to men who earned $41.70/month) which was paid for by the WPA.  But local municipalities were required to pay a portion for all the WPA projects.  Often, the local towns or counties were expected to pay for materials and rents of the sewing rooms.  It often put the women in precarious positions when funding was being renewed.  Case in point:  Pleasantville, New Jersey.

In late November/earlyDecember of 1936, the city council and mayor of Pleasantville decided that they could not fund the two local sewing rooms; the rooms employed about 112 women.  The women did not take this decision passively.  They decided to literally fight city hall.

In a move that appeared to have surprised the local politicians, the  women organized and staged a sit-in at city hall.  "We want work not relief," the women told the politicians.  They chose to use strike tactics to fight for their jobs and made headlines not only in the United States but in Canada as well.

Article published in British Columbia, Canada.

The women refused to leave city hall, even sleeping there at night:

Part of the reason for the cuts may have been political.  Republican Mayor Thomas Crawford had just lost his bid for re-election:

"They can stay up in city hall until they rot or Hell freezes over.  We've done everything to show them we are sympathetic and that we just don't have the money.  But they won't listen.  I have only one more month to serve, and nothing to worry about, so to Hell with em."

The community of Pleasantville rallied behind the women.  Merchants sent the women food, hot meals were provided by the local Democratic headquarters.  WPA workers from other areas made signs for the women:

For two night 88 "pickets" slept in the City Hall, often with their children.  After that they took shifts while some of the women picketed the homes and workplaces of the council members, including the mayor who worked at a local pharmacy.  

And then the women began to picket other areas.  The chose to picket establishments that were known businesses that supplied illegal gambling.  Placards with slogans like "Open Gambling Allowed but No Works Sponsored. Why?" and "The Politicains Can Still Eat.  How about Us?" were held up by the women.

Local detectives said they didn't find illegal gambling at any of the establishments but newspaper reporters were skeptical.  At one store, the proprietor told reporters that he had been closed for five weeks.

"But how about the people we see in the back room--there must be 75 inside?" asked a reporter.

The man was somewhat embarrassed.  "Well it's closed anyway, the chief just told me to close it up."

I wish I could tell you a satisfying ending for this story.  It appears that the WPA Sewing Rooms remained closed and in fact, other sewing rooms in Ocan City and Hammonton were also closed in New Jersey that year.  In fact, it seems like whenever there was a budget crunch, WPA Sewing Rooms became the first cut that local municipalities made.

1940: Whiteworth, Texas

The mayor of Pleasantville had been quoted as saying "we've done everything to show we are sympathetic..."  Unfortunately sympathy doesn't pay for rent or put food in the mouths of children.  A record number of children were placed in orphanages or foster homes during the Depression.  By the time the Depression was wound down, about 200,000 children were "vagrants" outside the system.

We can completely understand how these women chose to fight for their jobs and their families.  

Hope you will have a safe and happy day!


  1. What a sad chapter of our history.

  2. Men think they know so much, and think they are worth so much more than us, but they are wrong. They would be nowhere without us!