The Ohio Guide

In response to the massive unemployment that gripped much of America during the Great Depression, President Roosevelt instituted a massive federal recovery project known as the “New Deal.” One of the cornerstones of this project was a new agency called the  Works Progress Administration (WPA) whose mission was to establish public works jobs not just for out-of-work-laborers, but also for writers, actors, artists,  and musicians who could no longer find employment. The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) was thus created under the umbrella of the WPA.

One of the primary goals of the FWP was to create the American Guide Series, a collection of travel guides that would promote tourism in individual states. The Ohio Guide was printed in 1940, and it included sections on the art and architecture of major cities, literature and music from around the state, and most interestingly, driving tours which guide the reader to points of historic and cultural influence throughout Ohio.

Along with the text, over four thousand images were collected or created between 1935 and 1940, though only a handful were ultimately used. Thanks to the yeoman’s work done by the staff and volunteers of the digital services division of the Ohio Historical Society, all 4, 829 images are online and key-word searchable.

Courtesy Ohio Historical Society

This project will make use of both the digitized Ohio Guide Photograph collection (State Archive Series 1039 AV) and the manuscript material collected and created for the text of the Ohio Guide (State Archives Series 1159) to explore historical memory and landscape change in Ohio.

The first task is to conduct a “rephotographic” survey of the locations documented during the initial project. First initiated by photographer Mark Klett and his team in the late in 1970s as he retraced the route of nineteenth-century western photographers, rephotography has become a valuable tool for earth scientists and historians  to gauge change in the landscape.  Shooting in the same location, with the same camera angel and lighting conditions, photographers can create a revealing portrait of environmental change.

Rephotography can do more than help us measure change in the natural world, however.  Not only was The Ohio Guide itself part of a large government effort to lift the country out of a depression, but many of the scenes it documented were of projects created by other New Deal agencies.  By revisiting the sites of parks, roads, bridges, art instillations, and schools created during this era of large federal intervention, I hope to gain further insight into the legacy of the New Deal in Ohio. How well have public works held up?  Have they faired better or worse than private enterprises described in The Guide?  As the pubic debate over the appropriate size of government grows, we would do well to learn from previous generations’ struggles with the same questions.

Beyond the photographs, The Guide gives us an opportunity to see what writers and editors thought were important aspects of the Ohio historical landscape in the late 1930s.  By retracing The Guide, particularly the tours, I can see if contemporary Ohioans memorialize the same things as their earlier counterparts.  Do the same landmarks exist?  Which sites’ historical importance has been elevated and which has been forgotten?  For history is not, as the saying goes, “one damn thing after another” but how the story of those things get told. Part of this project will be to explore those stories.

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