Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Despite substantive efforts by Governor Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946) during his second non-consecutive term, from 1931 to 1935, unemployment, underemployment, and poverty continued to plague the Commonwealth. The Great Depression had crippled the nation and Pennsylvania – America’s workshop – was hard hit as unemployment soared to nearly 40 percent in several industrial communities. In efforts to respond to widespread financial distress, Pinchot had called four special sessions of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania. Both the governor and state legislators agreed to infuse a remarkable $241 million in state and federal funding to create work programs and provide direct cash assistance for the indigent.

Yet, by the time Pinchot departed the governor’s office, severe economic problems lingered – so much so that communists increased their followings in several industrial locales as they advocated a Bolshevik-style revolution Russia experienced in 1917. Free enterprise capitalism, some thought, faced a sure and agonizing fate. Both Pinchot and his gubernatorial counterpart and friend in New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, believed the best way to shore up the free enterprise system was to regulate its excesses, create fundamental public welfare and public works programs, enhance federal and state oversight of the monetary system, including financial institutions and stock markets, and put money into the hands of ordinary people so that the nation might spend its way out of economic depression.

Roosevelt took such philosophies with him to Washington, D.C., in 1933, where they collectively earned the moniker “The New Deal.” (Despite his alliance with Pinchot, Roosevelt did not win the Commonwealth – one of only six states he lost – in the 1932 presidential election.) Although pleased with his administration’s efforts, Pinchot departed Harrisburg in 1935, dismayed that the Keystone State’s economy, like the nation’s, showed little sign of improvement.

With FDR in the White House promising substantial reforms, the 1934 Pennsylvania gubernatorial election proved pivotal when it came to adopting such measures. Would Pennsylvania take a conventional approach to the public sector’s involvement in the workings of the private economy, as advocated by Republican Party candidate William A. Schnader (1886-1968) who served as Pinchot’s attorney general? Or would it embrace a more proactive stance placing government at the center of ambitious economic reforms, a platform advanced by Democratic Party candidate George H. Earle III?

A political newcomer, George H. Earle III (1890-1974) faced a challenging election. No Democrat running for president had carried Pennsylvania since James Buchanan in 1856 and only one Democrat, Philadelphia lawyer and banker Robert E. Pattison (1850-1904), was elected governor since the Civil War.

Earle was born in Devon, Chester County, the son of George H. Earle Jr., lawyer, banker, manufacturer, and unsuccessful candidate for Philadelphia mayor’s office in 1911, and Catherine Hansell French Earle. Earle was directly descended from 1620 Mayflower émigrés. He graduated from the Delancey School in Philadelphia and Harvard University. An entrepreneur, he managed a sugar company with his father and later lived in Chicago overseeing several business endeavors. On January 20, 1916, Earle married Huberta Frances Potter of Bowling Green, Kentucky, with whom he had four sons. When the country entered World War I in 1917, he enlisted in the United States Navy as a boatswain’s mate, was promoted to command the USS Victor, and earned the Navy Cross, presented by President Woodrow Wilson who commended him for his “heroic and inspiring leadership.” He returned to private life after the war, founded Flamingo Sugar Mills in Philadelphia, and served as vice president and a director of the Pennsylvania Sugar Company. A Republican until the age of forty-one, Earle became a Democrat in 1932 to support – both financially and politically – Roosevelt who, after becoming president, named him minister plenipotentiary to the Republic of Austria.

As the 1934 gubernatorial election approached, leading Democrats, among them Pittsburghers Joseph F. Guffey (1870-1959), elected to the United States Senate in 1934 where he ardently supported FDR’s New Deal, and David L. Lawrence (1889-1966), named chairman of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee in 1920, sought out a qualified candidate with professional credentials, effective public speaking ability, and executive skills who embraced Roosevelt’s ideals. Just as important, this individual needed broad public appeal. They found such a candidate in Earle whose charisma and sportsman-like charm appealed to a diverse array of voters. He was an avid polo player, hunter, angler, and dog breeder. Even Newsweek noted his “galvanic vitality.” An active campaigner, he narrowly won the November 6 election, defeating Schnader by only sixty-six thousand votes out of 2.9 million ballots cast. Within a week of his victory, Earle announced the appointment of Lawrence as secretary of the Commonwealth, further institutionalizing the political powerbroker’s influence. (Pittsburghers elected Lawrence as their mayor in 1945; Pennsylvanians sent him to the governor’s office in 1959.)

Governor Earle’s inaugural address set a progressive tone for the new administration. He bellowed that “minimum wage laws, abolition of sweatshops, protection of the right of unionization, decent workmen’s compensation laws, and unemployment insurance are but a few of the lines on which this fight [against poverty and economic depression] must be won. Child labor must never return!” He caused a stir in typically staid state government when, during his first address to the state legislature, he announced, “My fundamental conviction is that life must be made more secure for those millions who by accident of birth are left at the mercy of economic forces.” Following on the heels of his inauguration, the 1935-1936 and 1937-1938 sessions of the general assembly proved to be among the most aggressive and productive in Pennsylvania’s history. State legislators introduced a record 3,514 bills during Earle’s first two years in office, many of which targeted economic recovery.

Among the bills introduced, the 1935 Child Labor Act raised the minimum working age to sixteen, established an eight-hour-day and forty-four-hour work week for sixteen to eighteen-year-olds, and declared it illegal for anyone under twenty-one to work in certain high-risk industrial occupations. As with earlier child labor legislation, the idea behind the 1935 act was that young people ought to receive an education before entering the workforce and be sheltered from hazardous occupations. This was especially relevant as Pennsylvania held claim to one of the highest rates of child labor of any state in the nation.

In industrial matters, Act 156 of 1935 abolished the dreaded Coal and Iron Police. Established seventy years earlier, in 1865, by an act of legislature, the private police force had long been loathed by residents of company-owned towns in the anthracite region who regarded the “officers” as nothing more than gun-toting thugs and hoodlums. Turning attention to public works projects, Act 282 of 1935 provided an incentive for municipalities to hire the unemployed: local governments were permitted to secure full reimbursement from the Commonwealth for the construction of sidewalks, curbs, dams, parks, and roads in which the otherwise unemployed were engaged. The Commonwealth, in turn, augmented its revenues for the program by securing reimbursement from federal programs such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and the Public Works Administration (PWA).

The landmark federal Social Security Act became law on August 14, 1935. A key provision of the law mandated unemployment compensation (UC), the administration of which was delegated to the states. With Earle’s active lobbying, the general assembly passed enabling legislation to establish UC and the new program became effective on December 5, 1936. In 1937, more than 144,000 employers began paying UC taxes to fund benefits that became effective on January 1, 1938. In February, Governor Earle presented the first UC check to Ruth Rupp, a forty-eight year old widow who had been furloughed from her job as a sewing machine operator at the Roughwear Clothing Company in Middletown, Dauphin County. Her benefits amounted to ten dollars weekly for seven weeks. In the following weeks the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, created in 1913, disbursed more than 416,000 UC checks averaging $11.43 in compensation to unemployed workers.

On April 23, 1935, newly elected state representative Cliff S. Patterson of Monongahela introduced House Resolution No. 138 to authorize a feasibility study for construction of a limited access toll superhighway extending from southcentral to western Pennsylvania. The idea garnered the support of Earle and Edward N. Jones, state director for the WPA, a federal New Deal agency. In spring 1937, Governor Earle signed Act 211 authorizing the creation of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. Federal funding totaling nearly $70 million from the New Deal’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation and Public Works Administration followed and, in autumn 1938, the first contracts were awarded to construct the landmark Pennsylvania Turnpike from Carlisle, Cumberland County, to Irwin, Westmoreland County. On October 1, 1940, “America’s First Superhighway” opened, boasting a four-lane divided design with a right-of-way width of 200 feet, maximum grade of three percent, maximum curvature of six degrees, extended exit and entrance ramps, and no traffic signals, cross streets, or railroad grades. This state-of-the art public works project employed thousands of workers and placed Pennsylvania among leaders in twentieth-century innovations. (The Pennsylvania Turnpike was later extended eastward to the New Jersey border, westward to the Ohio state line, and northward to Scranton, Lackawanna County.)

Like Pinchot, Earle used his statutory authority to call a special session of the general assembly to deal with the ongoing problems of economic depression. The 1936 special (or “extraordinary session”) yielded wide-ranging results. These included “old age assistance” in which the state Department of Welfare allocated up to $100 for the burial expenses of the indigent and the Mothers’ Assistance Law that enabled impoverished mothers to receive federal pass-through nutritional aid for themselves and their children (an early version of today’s Women, Infants, and Children’s program, or “WIC,” a federally funded initiative managed by the Pennsylvania Department of Health). Moreover, a State Planning Board was established (later the board evolved to become the State Planning Office, and then the present-day Governor’s Policy Office). The board’s main responsibilities were to collect and disseminate data on economic, employment, business, and related issues and to develop a master plan for economic and infrastructure development in the Commonwealth and its political subdivisions to ensure adaptation to twentieth-century needs and demands.

In a novel twist, heritage tourism was embraced as an economic development tool. Legislation was enacted to secure the Commonwealth’s participation in, as well as partial funding and promotion of, the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary celebration in 1937 of the signing and ratification of the United States Constitution in Philadelphia in 1787. In the fall 1936 general election, Democrats claimed their first majority in the state House of Representatives in fifty-two years and their first majority in the Senate in sixty-six years. The 1937-1938 legislative session proved equally as hands-on, if not more, than the previous year. The Pennsylvania Occupational Disease Act, signed in July 1937, extended unemployment compensation to workers afflicted with occupationally acquired diseases. In time, coverage would be available to individuals sickened by lead, arsenic, and mercury poisoning as well as silicosis and excessive levels of radioactivity. Mirroring the National Labor Relations (or Wagner Act) of July 5, 1935, in June 1937 Governor Earle signed the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Act guaranteeing employees the right to organize unions and collectively bargain with employers on issues including wages, hours, and conditions of work. The act also created the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board to police unfair employment practices and ban the firing or intimidation of workers who engaged in organizing or strike activities.

As he entered the second half of his term in 1937, Pennsylvania’s charismatic governor seemed destined for great things, says W. Curtis Miner, senior curator of popular culture and political history at The State Museum of Pennsylvania. “Earle made the cover of Time on July 5, 1937, which later titled him ‘Sugar Boy,’ and was the subject of numerous stories and articles in national magazines and newspapers,” he explains. “A profile in the American Mercury declared him to be ‘the nation’s Number One Carbon Copy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt,’ a comparison that Earle took as a compliment.” A New York Times feature exclaimed, “A Political Star Rises in Pennsylvania.” The results of a Gallup Poll conducted later in 1937 were even more encouraging: next to President Roosevelt and Vice President John Nance Garner (1868-1967), the poll showed Earle to be the most popular Democratic politician in the country and a likely successor to Roosevelt should he not seek a third term.

Tuesday, May 18, 1937, was an exceptionally busy day at the State Capitol. On that day Earle ceremonially signed the Labor Mediation Act granting the state Department of Labor and Industry the authority to mediate and arbitrate disputes between employers and employees and their unions. The day saw enactment of the General Safety Act regulating elevators, boilers, manufactured bedding, explosives, and fire hazards and giving state safety inspectors discretion to scrutinize any workplace at random. The governor also signed the Industrial Homework Act prohibiting employers from hiring workers to produce consumer products or goods in their homes, long an issue of contention among organized labor activists.

On the heels of these laws followed three related bills signed less than three weeks later, on June 2, 1937. The Illegal Recruiting of Employees Act prohibited employers from recruiting replacement workers in the event of a strike or lock-out. The Labor Anti-Injunction Act did away with arbitrary court rulings aimed at curbing worker protest by stipulating conditions by which employers could seek court injunctions against striking employees. When it came to actual hours of work, Earle endorsed the General Forty-Four Hour Week Act decreeing the maximum hours any individual could labor in one week. (A court ruling determined this act unconstitutional the following year.) Similarly, the Women’s Forty-Four Hour Work Week Act went into effect as did the Full Crew Act that mandated correlation of the number of train crew members to the size of a train; the larger the train the more crew members required to enhance safety. In July 1937, Earle reformed the Commonwealth’s public welfare system by centralizing public relief efforts in a single agency, the Department of Public Assistance, replacing the obsolete system of county “poor boards” and created sixty-seven county boards of public assistance.

How were such broad new government programs and initiatives to be paid for? Public programs are typically financed in two ways: borrowing and taxing. Both methods were utilized to finance Pennsylvania’s Little New Deal. First, Act 185 of 1935 raised the Commonwealth’s borrowing ceiling to $50 million biennially, more than doubling its bond indebtedness capacity. Second, new taxation legislation was put into place by the legislative and executive branches of government, the likes of which Pennsylvania had yet to see. New and permanent taxes were placed on transfers of personal property; amusement tickets; state certifications for deeds, bonds, and mortgages; liquid fuels; and selected consumer products such as tobacco. In addition, excise taxes were imposed on corporations and selected licensing fees were increased. And, what the General Assembly referred to as an “emergency tax” was mandated on liquor. Although a statutory framework was established for the Commonwealth to impose a graduated income tax, it was declared unconstitutional as a result of a court challenge. (Pennsylvania adopted an income tax in the early 1970s during the administration of Governor Milton J. Shapp).

New revenue streams resulting from the 1935 session of the General Assembly alone increased tax collections by the Commonwealth to more than $120 million during a two-year budget cycle. By the end of Earle’s term the amount would approach nearly a quarter of a billion dollars. As far-reaching as these reforms were, the impact of the federal government’s New Deal and the Commonwealth’s Little New Deal programs remains a keenly debated issue. Public works jobs were created; yet five years into the New Deal the national unemployment rate remained high at 20 percent and would not dip to single digits for nearly another decade. The federal Securities and Exchange Commission was established to regulate stock markets and thwart crashes as when, in October 1929, the Dow Jones Industrial average fell by half, from a high of more than 350 points to 170. The plummet in stock prices has since been known as the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The Dow didn’t return to its 1929 highs until the 1950s and would take another twenty years to reach an important benchmark of one thousand points. Entitlements, such as Social Security and Unemployment Compensation, provided benefits to recipients and continue to do so today. However, insolvency of the Social Security Trust Fund remains an issue of concern to policymakers and the public.The Wagner Act also guaranteed workers the right to join unions and collectively bargain with employers, yet its initiators never foresaw that contemporary economic globalization, free trade, outsourcing, and downsizing would abridge the size of the American industrial workforce and curb the influence of labor unions.

On three points most historians, policy experts, and students of political and social history find consensus. The New Deal enhanced federal and state presence in the lives of ordinary Americans. Many public buildings – post offices, for instance – that were constructed and federal programs – notably Social Security – that were created during the period remain vital today. The nation’s entry into World War II and the post-war economic boom effectively ended the Great Depression. To the extent that they weren’t already, ordinary Americans who lived through the Great Depression learned to be frugal out of necessity.

Yet, like all history, the meanings and impacts of people, places, and events – even the iconic New Deal – remain subject to deliberation and debate. To some, initiatives such the New Deal and, later, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society went too far and ushered in conservative reactions, such as the popularly dubbed Reagan Revolution, and political moderation, including President Bill Clinton’s 1995 State-of-the-Union declaration that “the era of big government is over.” To others, the New Deal established a social contract between the American government and its people in which a minimalist welfare state at long last became an entitlement. To yet others, the answer may be somewhere in between. Richard C. Keller, author of Pennsylvania’s Little New Deal, contends that the Earle administration enacted “the most sweeping social reforms in the state’s history.” Pennsylvanians can credit Governor George H. Earle III for notable achievements, including the building of the Pennsylvania Turnpike; the creation of the General State Authority and the Pennsylvania Department of Public Assistance; the Commonwealth’s assuming primary responsibility for the mentally ill; establishing teacher tenure; setting the first permanent milk price control; initiating unemployment compensation; calling attention to the importance of heritage tourism; protecting the Keystone State’s clean streams; enacting a new divorce code with alimony provisions stricken; reforming election laws; and instituting vast labor benefits that banned strikebreaking, outlawed sweatshops, and put an end to labor spying. But the last word belongs to Earle himself.

In his final address to the state legislature on January 3, 1939, Governor Earle declared, “One of the outstanding features of our Administration was the fact that there was enacted more liberal, social, and labor legislation, and more legislation affecting the general welfare of all citizens than ever before in the history of the Commonwealth.”


At the time…

Two nights after Franklin Roosevelt appeared in Syracuse, he made his second important political speech on a platform in Pittsburgh with Pennsylvania’s Governor George H. Earle at his side. Five years ago George Earle was a Philadelphia Republican. A polo player and dog fancier, he lived on the Main Line with other stanch, rich, conservative old families. Then Franklin Roosevelt, to whose campaign he gave $35,000, named him Minister to Austria. In 1934 Earle came home to run for Governor, although his own mother could not vote for him in the primaries because she was still registered as a Republican. His friends at the Philadelphia Racquet Club bantered him on his amateur venture in politics, and were dismayed when George Earle put up $140,000 of his own money and with the help of Joseph Guffey’s young but potent Democratic machine won by a respectable margin.

This year Governor Earle, whose term does not expire until 1939, may not contribute more than $5,000 or $10,000 to the Democratic campaign because he cannot afford it. More actively idealistic than the man he loves and serves, he has given away his Flamingo Sugar Mills to his employes. His old friends at the Racquet Club, even such former intimates as Joseph Pew of Sun Oil, no longer speak to George Earle. His boon companion nowadays is Jack Kelly, onetime oarsman and contractor who has built up a Democratic machine in Philadelphia. Biggest change, however, is that high-minded George Earle is no longer just Senator Joe Guffey’s Governor. He is one of Pennsylvania Democracy’s big men, one of the few Democratic speakers who can consistently draw good crowds who listen with a thrill when devoted George Earle says of the President: “Roosevelt is the most amazing man I ever met. I can’t tell which is bigger, his heart or his brain.” Often Governor Earle works at his Harrisburg office in the morning, then climbs into his autogiro after lunch, takes the controls, flies away to speak in a distant part of the State. Usually an ordinary airplane follows him to pick him up in case he is forced down. That does not happen often. Often he makes a second or third stop before flying home for the night. His normal speaking schedule always covers six, sometimes seven days a week. This strenuous campaigning has reduced him to 220 lb., but George Earle has boasted that he will speak three times in each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties before election day.

Time Magazine
October 12, 1936


Travel Tips

The legacy of the New Deal is still evident and available for travelers to gain a greater understanding of government relief efforts in the wake of the Great Depression.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike, the first super highway in the United States, was the Keystone State’s greatest “Little New Deal” project during the administration of Governor George H. Earle III. Those traveling be-tween Carlisle, Cumberland County, and Irwin, Westmoreland County, are literally driving on history. This first stretch of toll road provided work for about 15,000 unemployed men in 1939. In just fifteen months, they constructed seven mountain tunnels, one thousand bridges, and 162 miles of four-lane road. After the turnpike officially opened on October 1, 1940, families were excited to go for a Sunday drive on the new “dream highway.” Today, the turnpike spans 359 miles — much of it with the same pristine view of farms, forests, and picturesque landscapes — from the Delaware River to Ohio, plus an additional 172 miles that includes both northeast and western Pennsylvania extensions.

For a shorter scenic drive, Skyline Drive above the Berks County seat of Reading offers magnificent views from Mount Penn. Unusual stone wall berms were constructed in 1939 under the Works Projects Administration along two-and-one-half miles of the road. The wall begins at the famous Pagoda, mirroring a cattle castle of Japan’s Shogun Dynasty (794–1867). William Abbott Witman Jr. built the <Pagoda in 1908 as a luxury resort but sold it to Reading businessman Jonathan Mould two years later. Mould resold the Pagoda in 1910 to the City of Reading for one dollar. The landmark, with its café and gift shop, is open on weekends. Skyline Drive also passes the 120-foot tall William Penn Memorial Fire Tower. The tower’s foundation and main entrance brick and stone were originally part of the Tower Hotel, built in 1889 and destroyed by fire in 1923. The present tower was built in 1939 for fire observation.

During the Great Depression, more than a quarter-million American teenagers were living on the road, many of them illegally traveling by hopping on freight trains. The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg, Lancaster County, offers a stunning experience with its collection of one hundred railroad engines and cars, railroad artifacts, and interesting exhibits for all ages, plus an education center with programs and other resources to learn about railroading during the era. Nearby are the National Toy Train Museum and the Strasburg Rail Road, offering train rides pulled by steam locomotives. To plan a trip, visit www.rrmuseum.org, www.nttmuseum.org, and www.strasburgrailroad.com.

Parker Dam State Park, near Penfield, Clearfield County, main-tains the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Interpretive Center with photographs, documents, interpretations, and a database to learn more about the CCC and its corpsmen. Linger longer in the Pocono Mountains by staying in one of twelve cabins built by the CCC in the 1930s at Promised Land State Park in Pike County.


For Further Reading

Blatz, Perry, and Howard Harris, eds. Keystone of Democracy: A History of Pennsylvania Workers. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1999.

Cupper, Dan. The Pennsylvania Turnpike: A History. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, 1990.

____. Working in Pennsylvania: A History of the Department of Labor and Industry. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, 2000.

Keller, Richard C. Pennsylvania’s Little New Deal. New York: Garland Publishing Company, 1982.

Leuchtenburg, William E. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. New York, N.Y.: Harper Collins Publishers, 1963.

____. The New Deal: A Documentary History. Columbia, S. C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1968.

McIlvaine, Robert. The Great Depression. New York, N.Y.: Crown Publishing Group, 1993.

Patterson, James T. The New Deal and the States. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Szalay, Michael. New Deal Modernism: American Literature and the Invention of the Welfare State. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.


Kenneth C. Wolensky is a historian with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, for which he contributes to a variety of the agency’s public history programs and annual historic theme, including the seventy-fifth anniversary of the New Deal being observed through 2008. He has written and presented widely on labor, industrial, political, and ethnic history, and on historic preservation.