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WPA Projects at the Howe Press

Perkins’ partnership with the U.S. Government during the Great Depression.

Maps Project staff

From 1935-1938 the Howe Press ran two Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects during the Great Depression designed to create instructional materials for students who were blind (Waterhouse, 26). The Works Progress Administration (WPA, renamed in 1939 as the Work Projects Administration) employed millions of Americans, mostly men, to work on public works projects during the Great Depression. Established in 1935, by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as part of the Second New Deal, the WPA ran until 1943 providing federal emergency relief to millions of Americans.

Between 40 and 50 men and women were employed as part of two WPA projects managed at the Howe Press. This includes 15 who were blind, and 14 former pupils of Perkins (Farrell, 30). The first of these projects (WPA Project Number 7251) involved designing and embossing 350 geographical and historical maps which were to be distributed to schools for the blind throughout the country (Byron, 62). The tactile historical maps were thought to be the first of their kind and were based on a historical atlas used at Harvard University (Farell, 30). The maps project was officially sponsored by the Massachusetts Division of the Blind, but the work was initiated at Perkins and was under the direction of Perkins staff, particularly Edward J. Waterhouse and Howe Press Manager Frank C. Bryan (Byron, 62). Charles W. Holmes, a graduate of Perkins, ensured the accuracy of the braille which got checked in plate form by workers who were blind before going to print. 

The second project was overseen by the WPA (Project Number 9506) also employed 40 workers, but this time the task was to design and make “appliances, and diagrams for use in the education of the blind” (Byron, 62). This project helped fund a variety of tactile learning tools for students who are blind or deaflbind. Models of local buildings in Watertown, the Mayflower ship, the Pantheon, and a baseball field are just a few examples of some of the architectural models made in this project. Most of these models were designed to be taken apart and could include numbers and instructions in braille, as well as embossed diagrams (62, Byron). A local Watertown church is constructed so that the roof and first floor can be taken off to reveal all levels of the building and explore the interior layout.  Models for math and geometry curriculum, and as reported in the 1938 Perkins Annual Report, “the newly-established Mathematics laboratory at Perkins was almost entirely equipped by the WPA” (Waterhouse, 55). Models were available for loan to other schools for the blind upon request  (Byron, 62). 

The WPA had several national programs that both benefited and employed people who were blind and visually impaired. These projects included sight-saving eye testing projects for children, adult education, trachoma clinics, a new school building for students who are blind, and surveys of the population that could be used to better serve them and facilitate employment (Gillet, 114-116). The WPA project to manufacture Talking Book players provided jobs to people who were blind or visually impaired, while also loaning the machines out to this community through the Library of Congress (Gillet, 116). Other projects to provide employment included braille transcription work that provided braille books for state schools and public readings rooms (Gilbert, 116). 

Perkins’ work with the WPA created both jobs and educational resources that served blind and low vision individuals. In fact, many of the WPA models are still available for student use at Perkins. Today the United States Government continues to work with Perkins on projects that deliver resources or services. The iCanConnect program is an example of just such a partnership. It provides people with both significant vision and hearing loss who meet low-income eligibility requirements with free equipment and training to help them stay connected with friends, family, and their community. Equipment includes devices such as smartphones, tablets, computers, screen readers, and braille displays. Also known as the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program (NDBEDP), iCanConnect is a national program administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which designates local organizations to serve individuals. Perkins leads the program in 22 states and is responsible for the program’s national marketing and outreach.

Perkins student exploring tactile models
Two tiled images of a Perkins student exploring models created by the WPA project. The first image shows a young man in a tie and casual jacket. He is exploring a model tall ship with his fingers. The ship is part of a model depicting a “New England waterfront” that has the ship resting between two docks with small buildings on them. There is another small boat that, like the ship, rests on a solid substance that has the appearance of water. The second photograph shows the same student touching a model of a baseball diamond. The diamond is covered in a turf-like substance, the white borders of the field raised. There is a baseball dugout behind home plate. 

Works cited

Byron, Frank C. “The Howe Memorial Press.” One Hundred and Fifth Annual Report of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind, 1936, p. 57-58. Internet Archive.

Byron, Frank C. “The Howe Memorial Press.” One Hundred and Sixth Annual Report of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind, 1937, p. 62. Internet Archive.

Farrell, Gabriel. “W .P. A. Maps.” One Hundred and Fifth Annual Report of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind, 1936, p. 30-31. Internet Archive.

Gillett, Corinne Frazier. “The WPA and the Blind.” Outlook for the Blind, Watertown, Massachusetts, Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind. Vol. 35, no. 3, 1941, pp. 114-116. Internet Archive.

Waterhouse, Edward J. History of The Howe Press of Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, Massachusetts, The Howe Press of Perkins School for the Blind, 1975. Internet Archive

Waterhouse, Edward J. “W .P. A. Project 1937-38.” One Hundred and Seventh Annual Report of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind, 1938, p. 55. Internet Archive.

Suggested citation

Hale, Jen. “WPA Projects at the Howe Press.” Perkins Archives Blog, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown MA. January 13, 2021.

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