Harry Hopkins had greeted the new year with fever and a bad case of the grippe. Both he and Barbara were sick. They gulped orange juice between visits from doctors and nurses, and tried to prevent their illness from spreading to two-year-old Diana. But both were well enough to listen to Roosevelt’s address on the radio, and Hopkins congratulated himself when he heard it. “I thot it was a grand speech,” he wrote in his diary in his strong, forward-slanting hand, employing his usual shorthand for thought—“and particularly because I had worked on it with him.”

Hopkins was one of two obvious choices to command the forthcoming army of workers. Ickes was the other. Their stylistic differences—Hopkins’s brash, freewheeling ways and Ickes’s brooding attention to detail—already coexisted uneasily under the administration’s big top. It was part of Roosevelt’s style of governance to generate creativity from the dynamic tension between rivals, and with the announcement of the jobs program those differences became both more public and more pronounced.

The morning after the State of the Union speech, the Post reported that Hopkins was most frequently mentioned as the likely appointee. Ickes, however, thrust himself into the picture by reminding reporters that he had handled the existing public works program. He was sure that Hopkins would “have a very important part” in the new program, he said, thereby promoting the inference that Hopkins would work for him.

Roosevelt, of course, gave no sign of his preference one way or the other. On the Sunday following the Friday speech, he had his secretary, Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, call Hopkins to thank him for his congratulatory telegram. The subject of the job didn’t come up; Roosevelt too was bedridden with a cold, and he confined himself to flirting with Hopkins’s wife by calling out in the background, “Tell Barbara to come down and be sick with me—there is lots of room in my bed.” When asked about it directly, the president declined to say. “I am going to get my program first and I will not settle as to who is going to run it until I get my program,” he told treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. Morgenthau, however, showed up at Hopkins’s apartment on the same day as the call from Missy LeHand, and told him he thought Roosevelt was going to give him the job.

Ickes was the next to turn up there. He arrived at two o’clock on Monday, January 7. It was a rainy day and Hopkins, still ailing, had deemed it too miserable to go into the office. (It was also the day that Roosevelt made the cover of Time magazine as its Man of the Year for the second time.) Ickes told Hopkins he had heard all kinds of rumors and was worried about who was going to run the works program. He proposed that a new cabinet position be created to oversee social services, which Hopkins would run, while Ickes would remain in charge of public works. If the new department didn’t fly, he said, Hopkins could be his deputy, but he would resign if Roosevelt asked anyone else to do the job. “He thinks Pres. has treated him badly on one or two things,” Hopkins wrote in his diary, describing Ickes’s dark suspicions. “Feels sure Mrs. Roosevelt is after him—I told him that administration was up to Pres. and I was making no suggestions.”

But if Hopkins knew anything, it was that he wasn’t going to work for Harold Ickes. And thus the rivalry between the two men escalated as Congress began to debate the new program and its costs.

The House acted quickly. It passed the emergency relief appropriations bill that contained the jobs program on January 24, less than three weeks after Roosevelt made his case in the State of the Union address. There were only seventy-eight dissenting votes. The bill promised $4 billion for work relief, and another $880 million in funds already appropriated but unspent, to wind down current relief activities.

But the Senate moved more deliberately. Senators were being asked to approve a huge spending plan with virtually no strings attached, and relinquishing the power of the purse offended them, just as it offended them not to be consulted on high-level relief appointments in their home states. Hopkins and Ickes, called to testify about the administration’s plans, were vague. They weren’t dissembling; details would emerge only under the program’s administrator, whoever that would be, and all they had in the meantime were the broad outlines. Two months were to elapse while the upper chamber quarreled over patronage and other aspects of the program, such as wage rates and total spending. It was during that time that aldermanic hearings in New York City gave Roosevelt’s opponents something they had sorely lacked—an instantly recognizable shorthand for mocking the New Deal.

On April 3, 1935, as the Senate was nearing a vote on its version of the work relief bill, a committee of the Board of Aldermen was holding the last of three hearings on the spending of FERA relief funds in the city. Outside the French Renaissance–style city hall in lower Manhattan, the day was fair and cool, typical of early spring. Inside, the heat and pressure were intense.

Criminal trial attorney Lloyd Paul Stryker was the committee counsel. Stryker was a colorful courtroom performer, and he had brought his full arsenal of theatrics to the hearings to wield against a string of witnesses. On this day they were white-collar relief recipients who had been hired to teach in various recreational projects in the city. Stryker—and some of the committee members—treated the witnesses to a barrage of disbelief and scorn when they described the subjects they were teaching.

A supervisor of dance programs testified that she oversaw classes in social, tap, folk, and eurythmic dancing. “What is eurythmic dancing?” Stryker asked.

“A natural type, simple form of dancing,” Myra Wilcoxon answered. “Any kind of dancing is eurythmic dancing.” Stryker invited her to demonstrate, but she had the sense to keep her seat and her hands demurely folded in her lap.

When a recreational training specialist testified that he was in charge of a craft school for men and women, one of the aldermen pretended that he didn’t hear and asked, “Was that a ‘craft’ or a ‘graft’ school?”

“Craft. We do not have the other,” the witness said blandly.

But for sheer historical moment, the star witness was another training specialist and craft teacher, Robert Marshall of Brooklyn. Marshall told the committee that he taught “boon doggles.”

Asked to clarify, Marshall replied—“somewhat sadly,” according to the New York Times—“I spend a good deal of time explaining it. Boon doggles is simply a term applied back in the pioneer days to what we call gadgets today—to things men and boys do that are useful in their everyday operations or recreations or about their home.

“They may be making belts in leather, or maybe belts by weaving ropes, or it might be belts by working with canvas, maybe a tent or a sleeping bag. In other words, it is a chamber of horrors where boys perform crafts that are not designed for finesse and fine work, but simply for a utility purpose.”

At the time, other aspects of the hearings drew more attention. The white-collar jobs FERA was funding included work on various arcane research projects at New York City universities. These included the compilation of a standard Jewish encyclopedia, a study of the making of safety pins, and sociological investigations into matters such as the non-professional interests of nursery school, kindergarten, and first-grade teachers, and “The Task of Educating Public Opinion Relating to Socio-Economic Problems.”

“High-spun theoretical bunk,” snorted Stryker.

Critics first focused on these research projects. Hopkins bristled on cue when reporters in Washington asked him if he was going to investigate relief spending in New York as a result of the aldermanic hearings.

“Why should I?” Hopkins retorted. “There is nothing the matter with that. They are damn good projects—excellent projects. That goes for all the projects up there. You know some people make fun of people who speak a foreign language, and dumb people criticize something they do not understand, and that is what is going on up there—God damn it!”

He went on, “They can make fun of these white collar and professional people if they want to. I am not going to do it. They can say, let them use a pick and shovel to repair streets, when the city ought to be doing that. I believe every one of these research projects are good projects. We don’t need any apologies!” Mayor Fiorello La Guardia also defended the program, saying, “Educated persons and college graduates must eat.”

But nuances like these were ultimately lost in light of the New York Times’s indignant front-page headline over the story on the hearings. “$3,187,000 Relief Is Spent Teaching Jobless to Play,” it read, and below it at the top of a stack of subheads, “‘Boon Doggles’ Made.”

Marshall had testified that the classes weren’t that popular, but the term was. With the Times headline boondoggle leaped from the obscurity of the campfire to political prominence as a way of describing work of thin value. Indeed, it would outlive work relief itself, becoming a permanent addition to the language.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!