4. HOLD THE JOKES, PLEASE

The furious debate over neutrality had bypassed the WPA. But while it raged, the agency was anything but placid. It was coping with internal problems of its own, and although these lacked the grave import of war and peace, in keeping with the contest between isolation and involvement they did reflect divisions between two impassioned and vocal schools of thought within the country. Some of these were more serious than others.

In the months before war broke out in Europe, the regrowth of the WPA as a result of the Roosevelt recession had triggered a resumption of the wisecracks that had been a feature of the 1936 presidential race. Some went to great lengths to be funny. During construction of the Aquatic Park in San Francisco, jokesters told of WPA carpenters discarding half their nails because the heads were on the wrong end, until supervisors issued instructions to save them since they could be used later when work shifted to the other side of the building. The do-nothing WPA as an example of suspended animation was another popular theme: one old fellow asks another his age. “Eighty-four,” says the other. “I would have been eighty-six, but I was on WPA for two years.”

This brand of humor persisted in nightclubs and on the vaudeville circuit until it reached the point where the workers who were the butt of the jokes started feeling sorry for themselves. Their complaints reached the American Federation of Actors, which in March adopted a resolution prohibiting its 10,000 members from using witticisms about the WPA and WPA workers in front of paying audiences. “The WPA joke is a very great injustice,” said federation executive Ralph Whitehead, and compared it to a joke at a funeral. The heads of Actors’ Equity and the Associated Actors and Artistes of America, when asked if they would join the ban, said they sympathized but didn’t want to put shackles on their members’ humor.

In rare instances the WPA even displayed an ability to laugh at itself. The Theatre Project turned the tables in a lighthearted revue called “Sing for Your Supper,” which featured a skit in which the actors sang and danced as they leaned on miniature shovels. But the jokes, of course, persisted, along with other barbs. A year after workers found laugh lines about the WPA unfunny, Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers had a hit with a Jesse Stone song entitled “W.P.A.,” which rhymed the old shovel-leaning charges and put them to a foxtrot beat featuring Armstrong’s trumpet:

Sleep while you work while you rest while you play

Lean on your shovel to pass the time away

The three major radio networks banned play of the song on the grounds that it was in “bad taste,” and the complaints eventually reached Decca Records, which in the summer of 1940 announced it was withdrawing the record from the market.

But it was certainly hard not to laugh at—and with—some of the more far-fetched projects. The straitlaced Brehon Somervell, head of the WPA in New York City, defended its “record for good work” against the jokes, but in November 1938 he revealed that a $103,339 project to repair fire hydrants in Brooklyn would include painting and stenciling them and topping them off with shiny aluminum domes. “Brooklyn’s Fire Hydrants to Be Glorified by WPA,” chortled a headline in the Brooklyn Eagle.

And how could the law-abiding citizens of Indianapolis be persuaded to visit a local fire station to submit themselves to voluntary fingerprinting by a WPA worker? By suggesting that they might bump their heads and suddenly become amnesiacs, forgetting who they were. That was actually one of the arguments for a joint Indianapolis police–WPA program that had been launched in December 1937. Set up with a $5,453 WPA grant, the fingerprinting scheme sent eighteen relief workers for police instruction, and then to four city fire stations that had been pressed into service for the program. Although some 3,000 “non-criminal” prints already were on file with the police, the early turnout for the WPA program was disappointing.

“Despite invitations to the public to have prints taken and filed, there has been little response,” reported the Indianapolis News. “Apparently the fact that fingerprinting was developed originally for use in identifying criminals makes it difficult for police to extend the service to people generally.”

Nonsense, said Lieutenant Albert G. Perrott of the Indianapolis police bureau of identification, who was coordinating the program with the WPA and had trained the workers. He said criminals had it all over law-abiding citizens because their fingerprints were on file. “If a criminal is picked up dead, they check his fingerprints, find out who he is and ship him home, and he gets a nice funeral—flowers and music and everything. In many cases, the honest citizen loses out completely in a case like this. They may never get the right name on his tombstone, if he ever gets one; he may land in the potter’s field or in a lime kiln. I understand they put ’em in a lime kiln in Chicago.” After all, 60,000 unidentified bodies were discovered in the country every year.

Criminal and non-criminal fingerprints would not be mixed, said Perrott. And women were reassured that fingerprints would not reveal their age: “Wrinkles may come, hair fall out and teeth disappear, but the fingerprints do not change through the years.” The only caution he offered them was that they should refrain from having manicures before they got their prints taken, because it took gasoline to get the ink off “and there goes your nail polish.”

Despite the lieutenant’s impressive salesmanship and ample local news coverage—“City ‘Awhorl!’” read one headline, clearly pleased with itself—that lured volunteers to the fire stations in the program’s first days, business quickly fell off, and the WPA fingerprinters, who were on duty from eleven in the morning to nine at night six days a week, were rarely called upon to apply their newfound skills. Other law enforcement agencies, including the New Orleans police department and the New York State Bureau of Identification, also employed WPA trainees to take and classify fingerprints, but none of these tried to lure citizens in to give prints voluntarily.

There were any number of reasons why law-abiding people might have been reluctant to put their fingerprints on file, and within the WPA some of them were especially strong. The FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover wanted to establish a national fingerprint index, and in April 1938 he said he thought it should start with workers on the rolls of the WPA. Hopkins strenuously resisted the idea, but it resurfaced after he resigned, and Harrington was a far more malleable figure. To convince would-be critics that he was neither a fire-breathing liberal like Hopkins nor a conservative, he bragged that he had never voted in his life and therefore was free of political bias. By January 1939—within a month of his appointment—he had allowed Somervell in New York City to order all WPA educational workers who came into contact with children to be fingerprinted in order to prevent sex crimes. But many others whose contacts with children were random at most, including carpenters, printers, and clerks, reported to the WPA Teachers’ Union that they, too, had been ordered to submit to fingerprinting.

Union executive secretary William Levner called Somervell’s order a “trial balloon” for ordering all New York City WPA workers—then numbering 170,000—to provide fingerprints. In turn, he said, that could lead to labor blacklists, police surveillance, intimidation, and potential blackmail.

In Philadelphia, WPA administrator Harry R. Halloran refused fingerprinting for the workers in his education and recreation division after some 200 New York workers were caught in the fingerprint dragnet and fired, many for petty offenses long in the past. One had stolen a single item when he was twelve years old and never committed a crime since. Halloran said he believed that “intelligent selection of competent personnel is far more effective in preventing the possibility of sex crimes than fingerprinting.”

Fears that the New York program could be misused were further borne out after Somervell added workers who handled valuable government property to the list of those told to report for “voluntary” fingerprinting. One was Anthony Merendino, a non-relief construction engineer. His fingerprint record revealed that twenty years earlier he had pawned a ring he bought on the installment plan and hadn’t finished paying for. For obtaining money under false pretenses, he was convicted and sentenced to a twenty-month jail term, which he served. His WPA career had been remarkably successful. From associate supervisor of a small project, he had worked his way up to a supervising engineer, and at the time his prints were taken he had 4,000 people working under him, was making $2,900 a year, and had a job rating of 100 percent. Merendino, told he was about to be fired, resigned instead.

Both the jokes and the lurking suspicions that led to the push for fingerprinting WPA workers were fostered by the poisons spewed into the political atmosphere by the Dies and Woodrum committees. And many, indeed most, WPA workers faced additional troubles in the months preceding the start of the war in Europe. These stemmed from a drive in Congress to assert stiff new controls over the WPA, adjusting wage scales downward, curbing political involvement, and generally bringing the agency to heel.

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