Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Works Progress Administration and the Historical Records Survey in Maryland, 1937-1941

Putting America Back to Work:

The Legacy of the National Research project, the Federal Writers Project, and The Historical Records Survey

in Maryland

Whittaker Chambers & Alger Hiss

Alger Hiss (1904-1996), born into privilege in Baltimore, did not need a job during the Great Depression (1929-1940), but his nemesis, Whittaker Chambers, did.[1]

Between 1929 and 1940 National unemployment remained above 14% with the highest rate in 1933 at 24.9%. With the New Deal came the prospect of Federal jobs for unemployed liberal arts majors like Chambers who was a struggling translator and author in 1937 without sufficient income to support his family. Living in Baltimore on Mount Royal Terrace,[2] he found employment in Washington as an editor with the National Research Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) investigating employment in the railroad industry. The National Research Project created in 1935 was one of the many employment agencies created by the New Deal, the goal of which was to investigate new industrial technologies and their effects on employment.

Lewis Hine: Engineer, Pennsylvania Railroad, c 1930 / VINTAGE / STAMPED! / LH025.

This photograph by Lewis Hine sells today for $2400, many times the monthly salary of either

Hine or Chambers when they worked for the National Research Project.

While the photographs of Lewis Hine, the chief photographer of the National Recovery Program, are well known, the project Chambers edited has received considerably less attention. It was one of a number that contributed to the understanding of unemployment on the railroads and associated industries that Lewis Hine documented through his remarkable photographs.[3]

Chambers's time with the National Research Project provided him with a living wage for fifteen weeks, a time in which he also gathered (perhaps created?) evidence against his erstwhile friend Alger Hiss.[4] All that time he lived in Baltimore and commuted to his job in Washington on the B & O Railroad, but, given the nature of his editorial work, he probably also worked at home, the equivalent of teleworking today.

The resistance to “handing out the dole” especially to those who were on the liberal spectrum of Americans (Chambers later argued without evidence that he received some financial support from the Communist Party in 1937-38) was widespread.[5] While gathering considerably useful information, the National Research Project found it necessary to reduce the work force on the project for which Chambers was hired and he was “furloughed without prejudice.”[6] The evidence he helped edit, lives on, however and can be found in the widely consulted Historical Statistics of the United States.[7]

The “Stuff” of the Federal Writers Project of the WPA was prodigious and employed many authors including Zora Neale Hurston, shown here, and John Steinbeck. Who contributed to the initial publication of Maryland in the American Guide Series is as yet unknown. It fell to the staff of the Maryland State Archives to update it for publication by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 1976.

Another WPA undertaking that affected employment in Maryland was the Federal Writers Project. The “Stuff” of the Federal Writers Project of the WPA was prodigious and employed many authors including Zora Neale Hurston, shown here, and John Steinbeck. Who contributed to the initial publication of Maryland in the American Guide series is as yet unknown. It fell to the staff of the Maryland State Archives to update it for publication by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 1976.

A Poster advertising the Historical Records Survey

Another employment project of the Works Project Administration (WPA) of the “Second New Deal,” 1935-1941, is the Historical Records Survey (HRS). The HRS was to have a profound effect on the cataloguing and availability of an important segment of the American Memory which otherwise would have been lost to neglect, left deteriorating in court house attics and basements of the nation. Through its auspices a whole generation of Archivists would be trained and a wealth of documents illuminating every corner of American History would be unearthed and in time made accessible. Indeed more budding archivists would be employed in the task of documenting America than ever before and ever since.

Morris Leon Radoff with the Maryland Hall of Records in the Background

Courtesy of the Maryland State Archives

Maryland would benefit enormously from the careful inventorying and explanation of its record heritage by the work of the Historical Records Survey under the guidance of Morris Radoff whose experience with the Survey would lead to his appointment as Maryland State Archivist in 1939.

Radoff had been let go by Johns Hopkins University, perhaps because he was a Jew, but possibly because he was discovered bringing bourbon to class. Regardless of the reasons for his dismissal, he was unemployed and in need of a job in 1937, when he was hired by the Historical Records Survey in Maryland to work out of the Baltimore office. There as a scholar of the French Renaissance, who in 1931 published his first article on the origin and usage of the word “nincompoop”, he proved an able editor and manager of the inventory goals of the Survey.[8]

Radoff supervised a staff of the Maryland Historical Records Survey that between 1936 and 1940 encompassed 344 people. Most worked for less than a year for the Survey, which like Whittaker Chambers’ job and all the employment projects of the New Deal, were intended to be temporary until the economy was revived and near full permanent employment returned to private industry.

Despite the high turnover in staff, the results as edited by Radoff were accurate and comprehensive for all the 23 counties of Maryland and Baltimore City.

In Baltimore City alone, not only did the HRS meet the high standards set by the Survey, they also included a multi-volume indexed item inventory of almost every scrap of paper found in the storage rooms of City Hall which would prove of immense benefit to the future histories of the City such as the recent Baltimore by Matt Crenson.[9]

Historical Records Survey forms from St. Mary’s County Maryland

The State Archives published an updated version of these forms in 1963 in the award winning The County Courthouses and Records of Maryland, Part Two: The Records. Pay particular attention to the description of the content of the records and especially “Decree Record” JFF No. 3 which has no index. Today that volume and the others on the list are housed at the Maryland State Archives with their content described, and those particular volumes on line available to researchers

The guidelines for inventorying the records found in the attics and basements of courthouses and churches were straight forward and carefully laid out in simple to complete forms. An example among thousands of pages is the inventory of the records in Maryland’s first county, St. Mary’s. Take note of the informative description of this particular series and of “Decree” volume J.F.F No. 3 circled in red.

A typical scene in the basements and attics of the Nation.

At least they had a sufficient number of masks to go around


The conditions for undertaking the survey, however, were less than ideal. Records were largely ‘stored’ in cluttered chaos and unhealthy environments. Sorting out what they found and describing it accurately was a daunting task. Nevertheless they persevered, producing not only an inventory of what they found, but also describing the records in an organized framework that included introductions to why they were created in the first place and a general description of their contents to guide future researchers.

In Maryland and elsewhere, the inventories provided by the HRS were instrumental in prying loose those records from their jumbled and inhospitable storage for deposit in appropriate archival storage. That objective was not an easy one to accomplish. The clerks of court and local historians resisted the move of the original records to a central safe and appropriate location.

It took the persuasive powers of Dr. Radoff who promised photostatic and microfilm copies of the most heavily coveted records to get everything to safety in Annapolis. On becoming Archivist of Maryland in 1939, Radoff used the HRS inventories to good effect, while his microfilming of a large segment of the inventoried records would lead to unpredictable consequences of widespread benefit.

The Maryland State Guide to Government Records entry for Saint Mary’s county “Equity Record” J.F.F. N0. &

the page for St. Mary’s County land records, both of which are on line

With the advent of the Web and the relatively inexpensive means of posting scans of the microfilm online, property mapping and all of the land records were made available through http://plats.net and http://mdlandrec.net. Indeed both projects proved more comprehensive in Maryland than anywhere else in the Nation because the HRS and Morris Radoff had done their work so well. In addition, without the HRS inventories, indexes, and identification of records such as those related to Slavery, including manumission of slaves and estates containing slaves, such worthwhile projects such as Maryland’s Legacy of Slavery Project would not have been concievable.[10]

The genius of Dr. Radoff and others like him, lay in taking the HRS inventories and expanding on their value to historians and the public at large. In 1963 he and his staff published their extension of the HRS analysis of Maryland Court records in the widely acclaimed and useful The County Courthouses and Records of Maryland. The Records Part Two.[11]

The work inspired by the Historical Records survey is far from over, however. While the Maryland State Archives incorporated the HRS and subsequent inventory of the records into its extensive online Guide to Government Records and Special Collections, it still remains the task of the Archives to better explain and provide informed access to the records in its care. For example, take the inventory of the “Decree” volumes found in the St. Mary’s County Courthouse in 1941. Further descriptive work is required including an index to all names and specific examples of the contents of the volumes.

In addition to including names and specific topics in the descriptions of individual volumes it is also important to to link the records to any secondary works that cite them, thus further encouraging future research and writing. In other words the online guide needs to be interactive between what the archival staff and any Federal Employment Project has time to do, and the work of those who use the records. As Dr. Radoff proved in person, anyone can be a helpful archivist if given the opportunity to be so.

The 1859 drawing of Point Lookout development by E. G. Lind,

Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society

The J.F.F. No. 3 entry in the inventory sheet is a case in point. The very first case in the volume cries out for a fuller description and a link to the work of author and editor Edwin Beitzel, the premier historian of St. Marys County.[12] This first case entered in the volume not only provides insight into the previous history of what became a well known prisoner of war camp during the Civil War, but also the development that preceded it, and the failed efforts to establish a disabled Union soldiers home there after the war.

The Point Lookout resort as a Prison Camp and Hospital during the Civil War, 1862-1865,

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Just the exploration of the case involving Point Lookout as recorded in over two hundred handwritten pages, leads to the work of a prominent Baltimore architect E. G. Lind and the Baltimore builder, W. H. Allen, who executed the Lind & Murdoch plans for Point Lookout as a “bathing” resort on the eve of the Civil War. Indeed the development provided a Hotel and cottages that housed such prominent Baltimore residents such as Reverdy Johnson, Jr., a Baltimore lawyer and trustee of Johns Hopkins Hospital.[13] The case also helps to understand the failed efforts of Delphine P. Baker and her many Congressional Friends after the War to establish a Disabled Soldiers Home for Union Soldiers at Point Lookout.

Clearly the work begun by the Historical Records Survey and continued by the Maryland State Archives remains unfinished. Some of us hold out the slight hope that the Federal Government will resume its infusion of Federal Funds for archival employment, providing jobs and focusing on useful explanations of the records.[14] To a degree that happened in the expansion of the National Historical Publications commission into the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, but to date adequate funding has not been forthcoming. Now that it is needed more than ever to offer employment and a means for putting the unemployed to work, a stimulus package for Archives could be launched, especially if the importance of such work is made clear to Congress as they consider the next round of funding for reviving an economy in deep trouble.


[1] For Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers see the writings of Alistair Cooke, A Generation on Trial: U.S.A. Vs. Alger Hiss. New York: Knopf, 1950, Allan Weinstein, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case. New York: Random House, 1997, Samuel Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1997, and most recently, Joan Brady, Alger Hiss: Framed: A New Look at the Case That Made Nixon Famous, 2017. It is distinctly possible that Chambers created in whole cloth, a brilliant , completely fabricated story of Hiss’s guilt as a spy which caused Hiss to lose his job. Hiss’s son Tony in Laughing Last, and stepson Timothy Hobson at a conference on Hiss and Chambers in 2007, defended his stepfather. According to a CBS news report

Timothy Hobson, Hiss' stepson, said Whittaker Chambers, whose bombshell allegations against Hiss broke the case open, had lied about his personal relationship with Hiss and had never visited the Hiss home as he claimed. Hobson, 80, said that during the time Chambers claimed to have visited the home, he was recuperating from a broken leg and met every person who came calling. Chambers was a former American communist party member who spied for the Soviets during the 1930s. He defected before World War II and accused others of being spies, but his claims did not attract FBI interest until after the war. He joined Time magazine in 1939 and as a writer and editor was a severe critic of communism. He died in 1961. "It is my conviction that he was in love with Alger Hiss, that he was rejected by Alger Hiss and he took that rejection in a vindictive way," Hobson said. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/author-hiss-innocent-of-espionage/

[2] Tanenhaus cites only Mt. Royal Terrace, but the Chambers family lived at several addresses in Baltimore and it is more likely they lived at Auchentoroly Terrace while he commuted to Washington.

[4] Lewis Harstrom, Alger Hiss, Whittaker chambers and the Case that Ignited McCarthyism, 2013, p. 145.

[5] Perhaps the most outspoken critics of the New Deal were a native of Bladensburg,, Maryland, John T. Flynn and the curmudgeon of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_T._Flynn for a summary of Flynn’s career and the extensive literature on the life of Mencken. Mencken excelled himself in attacking the triumphant FDR, whose whiff of fraudulent collectivism filled him with genuine disgust. He was the 'Fuhrer,' the 'Quack,' surrounded by 'an astonishing rabble of impudent nobodies,' 'a gang of half-educated pedagogues, non constitutional lawyers, starry-eyed uplifters and other such sorry wizards.' His New Deal was a 'political racket,' a 'series of stupendous bogus miracles,' with its 'constant appeals to class envy and hatred,' treating government as 'a milch-cow with 125 million teats' and marked by 'frequent repudiations of categorical pledges.' Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997), p. 740.

[6] Harstrom, ff., and Tannenhous, p. 156. “Owing to a reduction in work volume, the National Research Project was releasing newer staff. As of February 1, he would be “furloughed without prejudice”.

[7] A statistical abstract supplement. Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1957. 1957. Especially Chapter W.

[8] See: Edward C. Papenfuse, Recent Deaths, Morris Leon Radoff, 1905-1978, in The American Archivist, April 1979, pp. 263-264, Marchia D. Talley, Morris Leon Radoff: The Man and the Monument, The American Archivist, Fall, 1981, pp. 327-339, and Aubrey C. Land, et. al., Law Society and Politics in Early Maryland (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970),

[9] Crenson, Matthew A. Baltimore: A Political History. 2019

[11] Radoff, Morris L., Gust Skordas, and Phebe R. Jacobsen. The County Courthouses and Records of Maryland. The Records Part Two. Annapolis: Hall of Records Commission, 1963.

[12] For example see: Beitzell, Edwain Warfield, Pointlookout Prison Camp for Confederates. 1972 and the Chronicles of St. Mary’s County, https://www.stmaryshistory.org/cpage.php?pt=14

[13] Edmund G. Lind’s obituary in the Baltimore Sun (July 16, 1909) fails to mention the Point Lookout development that he designed. Without looking at the estate inventories for Reverdy Johnson, jr, and the St. Mary’s county land records, both of which the HRS inventoried and the Maryland State Archives preserved, it is not certain how long Reverdy Johnson, Jr. held his lease to a cottage in the Point Lookout development. The drawing of the Point Lookout resort seems only to exist at the Maryland Historical Society although it once was an exhibit in this case.

[14] See “The Historian and Local Records: The Need for a Fresh Approach to an Old Problem” in the AHA Newsletter, Volume IX, Number 3, May 1971, pp. 24-28, and “Preserving the nation’s Heritage Through A National Historic Records Program” in the AHA Newsletter, Volume 11, Number 1, February 1973, pp. 19-23.

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