Our Documentary Heritage showcases holdings drawn from the vast collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

Many Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects initiated under FDR’s New Deal resulted in a long term legacy (see “An Activist Government in Harrisburg: Governor George H. Earle III and Pennsylvania’s ‘Little New Deal'” by Kenneth C. Wolensky in this issue). This is particularly true with regard to the WPA materials contained in Record Group 13, Records of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Held by the Pennsylvania State Archives, this collection includes the records of the Federal Writers Project, the Federal Historical Records Survey, the Frontier Forts and Trails Survey, and the Philadelphia Maritime Statistics Project. Perhaps less well known are the Museum Extension Project plates contained in Manuscript Group 400, Works Progress Administration Records.

A hand-colored plate of the three Rhine maidens from the Ring of the Nibelung, a cycle of four epic music dramas written over the course of twenty-six years by German Composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883), is a typical example of the contents of MG 400. In addition to such mythological images, this manuscript group contains many depictions of historical fashion and costume, such as Revolutionary War uniforms, seventeenth-century Swedish attire, Native American garb, and the plain dress worn by New England Puritans and Pennsylvania Quakers. Supervised by Professor Irving C. Boerlin of the Pennsylvania State College (now Pennsylvania State University), the Museum Extension Project also provided small replica models of aircraft, ships, and machinery, as well as exhibits, charts, maps, and posters used as visual aids in classrooms, shops, and government training centers that provided instruction for engineers, vocational education defense units, civilian pilots, maritime cadets, civilian defense teams, and production managers.

A museum assistance program was also part of the Museum Extension Project. Based in Philadelphia, it was sponsored by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Academy of Natural Sciences, Atwater Kent Museum, and University of Pennsylvania Museum. The objectives were to assist publicly-owned and operated museums in preserving, repairing, cataloging, and indexing artifacts and exhibits, providing museum guides and lecturers, reconstructing and preserving museum collections, and preparing and arranging new models and exhibits. Manuscript Group 400 contains a total of five cubic feet of materials, of which three cubic feet are Museum Extension Project plates.


The editor acknowledges Willis L. Shirk. archivist, Pennsylvania State Archives, for contributing this installment of Our Documentary Heritage.