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American Women: Resources from the Manuscript Collections

Federal & Private Literary Patrons

"Autumn," poem by Helen Keller. October 27, 1893. Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

Women have been both supporters and recipients of literary patronage efforts in the twentieth century. Women poets, novelists, and playwrights are represented in the papers (2,000 items; 1876-1969; bulk 1908-38) of musician and philanthropist Marian MacDowell (1857-1956) and in the records of the MacDowell Colony (35,000 items; 1869-1970; bulk 1945-68), an artists' retreat in Peterborough, New Hampshire, which she founded in 1908 in memory of her husband, composer Edward A. MacDowell (see topical essay “The House that Marian Built”).

Helen Keller (1880-1968) saved among her papers (2,000 items; 1908-54) manuscripts by authors who were blind.

Files relating to Jessie Fauset, Eslanda Robeson, and other African American writers may be found in the records of the Harmon Foundation (37,800 items; 1913-67; bulk 1925-33), established in 1922 to acquaint the public with the work of black artists and writers and to recognize the achievement of blacks in the arts, business, science, religion, and race relations.

Included in the Records of the United States Work Projects Administration (409,000 items; 1524-1947; bulk 1935-42) are more than three hundred thousand documents relating to the Federal Writers' Project (FWP), a New Deal work relief initiative that provided jobs to unemployed writers and other white-collar workers who could qualify as writers or editors.37 Among the women employed by the FWP were several who later achieved national literary prominence, including Zora Neale Hurston, May Swensen, Mari Thomasi, and Margaret Walker.

More than half of the FWP records relate to the American Guide program, which generated a series of travel guides providing the basic history of each state. Also carried out were projects relating to Folklore, Social-Ethnic Studies, Negro Studies, and Ex-Slave Narratives, as well as special, smaller studies such as one on food preparation and consumption— “America Eats”—and one titled “The Lexicon of Trade Jargon,” which covers various occupations, including many dominated by women.

Much of the FWP material consists of field reports, oral history transcripts, and unpublished draft essays, which are a treasure trove of information on women, family life, slavery, work, and racial and ethnic customs in the United States. The data were collected in the 1930s, but they capture memories of informants from the mid-nineteenth century forward and preserve oral traditions that date to even earlier generations. Thousands of life stories were recorded with the aim of celebrating the country's multiculturalism and countering the rise of fascism sweeping Europe at the time. A quick search of the Folklore Project uncovers life histories of an Irish maid from Massachusetts, a woman textile worker in North Carolina, and a Vermont farm wife. These three and many others have been reproduced on the Library's web site, American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.

Manuscript Resources Referenced

The following collection titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content, including finding aids for the collections, are included when available.


  1. The other one hundred thousand documents relate to the Historical Records Survey (HRS), a WPA project to inventory state and local records. Of possible interest to women's historians in the HRS material are transcripts of Mormon life histories and diaries relating to family life in Utah. Back to text