Hopkins had high ambitions for the CWA, which he signaled right away. The United States had mobilized 4.7 million soldiers, sailors, and marines to fight in the world war. Summoning governors and mayors to a November 15 conference in Washington, he told them he intended to employ almost that many—4 million—within one month. Immediately, they started jostling for a share of the goodies. From coast to coast, in towns and cities crumbling from neglect, with thousands upon thousands of jobless families on relief, officials looked at their public buildings, playgrounds, streets, and—Ickes’s expectations notwithstanding—sewers and called back engineers they had laid off for lack of funds to start drawing up improvement plans. In farm states, officials mapped rural road improvements as a source of jobs for idle farmers. The planners moved quickly. In Massachusetts, when the state’s CWA coordinator called a meeting to explain what projects would be eligible, the mayors of Worcester and Lowell walked in carrying already completed applications, and left the same day with approvals.
By now Hopkins and Ickes had developed a clear rivalry, although it was still in its mild stages. Hopkins was impatient with Ickes’s careful style, while Ickes took Hopkins to be impetuous. Hopkins knew that Ickes dismissed the projects under his control as insubstantial and was determined to change that, to make them more than the works “of minor character” that Ickes had forecast in his diary. To ensure that they would have lasting value, he created an engineering division charged with helping develop project applications and shepherding through to completion the projects that were funded. Its head was John Michael Carmody, a former president of the Society of American Engineers, who had his pick of experienced supervisors to oversee state and local projects since it was estimated that half the country’s engineers were out of work.
CWA reviewers processed applications with astonishing speed. Indiana, for example, had 122 projects approved on November 20 and 109 more the next day. Less than a week later, on November 26, 920 projects had been approved for Indiana and 48,500 men were already at work there.
Half the workers came from FERA’s work relief rolls, which at the time numbered about 1.9 million. The remainder were new hires, who clamored for CWA jobs in part because they needed them, but also because Hopkins had rejected means tests, so people applying did not have to prove how poor they were in order to be eligible. From the beginning there were more applicants than jobs. CWA offices in North Carolina took 150,000 applications during the first week. In Chicago, 70,000 appeared on a single day. Within two weeks of the program’s beginning, about 1 million workers were on the payroll, and the Bureau of Printing and Engraving had to work three shifts just to print their checks. To distribute them, Hopkins commandeered the disbursement system of the Veterans Administration, which was the largest such system in the nation. More than 800,000 workers received checks on the CWA’s first payday, November 23.
Still, despite the rapid pace of hiring, Hopkins missed his initial target; CWA workers in mid-December numbered just over 2.6 million. Nonetheless, with Christmas approaching in a winter that would prove to be one of the worst in memory, hundreds of thousands of families suddenly had the means to fill their larders and put something under the tree. Moreover, field reports testified to the program’s popularity. Lorena Hickok, a former Associated Press reporter and a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, was one of sixteen field investigators dispatched by Hopkins under FERA to file no-holds-barred reports on conditions around the country. “Go out around the country and look this thing over,” he told her. “Tell me what you see and hear. All of it. Don’t ever pull your punches.” Among those reporting were the young Martha Gellhorn, who would go on to cover the Spanish Civil War and briefly marry Ernest Hemingway, and Lincoln Colcord, who had been born on his father’s schooner rounding Cape Horn and, with his sister, spent most of his youth at sea before becoming a poet, journalist, and maritime historian. Their reports supplemented the hard data that FERA’s research division was providing. They put faces on the numbers, providing vivid anecdotal evidence of the human devastation wrought by the depression. Hickok’s October 30, 1933, dispatch from Dickinson, North Dakota, was an example. She had met some farm families in a church there: “Of the men I saw this afternoon none had any income except a little here and there from cream checks. And this will soon be stopped, for their cows are going dry for lack of food. For themselves and their families they need everything. Especially clothing.”
One man told her everything he owned was on his back. “His shoes were so far gone that I wondered how he kept them on his feet. With one or two exceptions none of the men hanging about the church had overcoats. Most of them were in denim—faded, shabby denim. Cotton denim doesn’t keep out the wind very well. When we came out to get into the car, we found it full of farmers, with all the windows closed. They apologized and said they had crawled in there to keep warm. The women and children are even worse off than the men. Where there has been any money at all, it has gone for shoes for the children and work clothes for the men. The women can stay inside and keep warm, and the children can stay home from school.”
The field reports brightened once the CWA was under way. Hickok wrote from Sioux City, Iowa, to report on the city engineer’s astonishment at the changed attitudes of relief recipients: “You just can’t believe that these are the same men who were listlessly and unwillingly doing their time a week ago on work relief projects to get their grocery orders.” Moving north, she relayed the comment of the Wisconsin State Journal that the “click of pick and clink of shovel are Christmas bells to many at this time.”
There were stories of rejuvenated buying power, of workers thrusting cash and not chits across store counters to buy what they required, of shoes disappearing from store shelves so fast that factories reopened in order to replace them. Louise Armstrong, who headed her county CWA office in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, later wrote, “We saw a little less of sorrow and discontent and a little more of happiness in the faces in the office. Christmas during CWA was a cheerful episode.”
But not everybody was convinced. Al Smith, for whom opposing Roosevelt had become a full-time job, called the CWA a smokescreen for the Public Works Administration’s ponderously slow start. He charged that it would do no useful work, encourage idleness, and disrupt local wage scales. “Half way between a lemon and an orange is a grapefruit, and half way between a public work and a relief work is a civil work,” Smith said cryptically.
Hopkins popped off the kind of reply that was beginning to ruffle feathers in the anti–New Deal camp. If putting 4 million people to work meant he was in the grapefruit business, he was delighted to be in it. “Al Smith taught me the word ‘baloney,’” he added, “and now he has taught me sour ‘grapefruit juice.’”
Finally, around mid-January, Hopkins was able to achieve the employment numbers that he sought. He reached his goal by focusing on small, quick-starting projects such as road and street repair, repair of public buildings, playground development, and rural road improvements. At its peak that winter, the CWA employed 4,264,000 men and women.