Girls in Home Economics - NYA Program - 1938

Perhaps the most complicated and most discussed question that has faced NYA in the out-of-school program is: "What are the best types of work that can be planned for girls from families on relief?" Studies were made; conferences were held.

These facts stood out blatantly: there are few employment outlets for girls with sixth, seventh, and eighth grade educations. There are thousands of NYA girls in this group. Fourteen percent of the women employed in the United States are in professional occupations, which are a sealed door to these girls.

Eighteen percent of employed women work as typists, stenographers, file clerks, bookkeepers, and cashiers; these jobs demand skills for which the background of most NYA girls inadequately prepares them.

Almost 10 percent, work in what the census terms "trades," which include the work of saleswomen and clerks in stores. Any department store employment office will testify that the girl without a high school diploma has small chance of getting a job.

Factory work and domestic and personal service are the chief job opportunities for unskilled girls with poor educational backgrounds. While many girls work for a few years, the labor of American women today is still basically that of homemaking; and NYA has met the question of the employment of girls in a realistic way.

When girls can compete for clerical or semi-professional jobs, they are given work experience and training in those fields. For the rest—the majority of NYA girls—work projects are planned which will give them opportunities to be better homemakers. Sewing is the most common occupation. There is a decided movement to expand NYA sewing room activities.

Many projects now offer related work in marketing, meal planning, cooking, hygiene, first aid and home care of the sick, and childcare and training.

Kentucky: Cannel City is a run-down rural village in the Kentucky mountains. There is a NYA sewing room here, to which 25 girls from relief families from miles around come to work 50 hours a month for $10. We talked with several of these girls, whose earnings are the sole cash income for their impoverished families.

Every two weeks, they work three six-hour days and one seven-hour day. Because many of the girls walk from eight to fifteen miles for this work, their days in the sewing room are arranged consecutively, and they stay with relatives or friends at night until they have worked their four days.

We took a mule trip up the creek beds to where many of these girls live. There are no roads except the main county highway. Large families exist on the food they can raise on two or three acres of poor land; five bushels of corn is a rather good yield for this worn-out mountain soil.

The woods have been depleted of timber and game. A few mountaineers raise scrub pigs and chickens. A cow is a rarity; the land cannot produce food sufficient for a family, much less feed for cattle. On its land a family raises corn, beans, oats, and potatoes.

In dilapidated cabin after cabin we found that the typical food for the day was oats for breakfast; potatoes, beans, and pork at noon; potatoes, beans, and pork at night. When the pork gives out, potatoes, beans, and oats must suffice. We met one woman who had just walked ten miles to "swap" three eggs for some salt.

The NYA sewing room is a new world to girls from these mountain families. In Cannel City, the sewing project is housed in a room in an abandoned hotel. NYA boys renovated this room. There are five good sewing machines for the girls to use. They make children's garments for distribution to youngsters who do not have enough clothing to go to school.

In January these girls completed 130 articles of children's clothing, including underwear, coats, suits, dresses, shirts, and overalls. NYA boys have made a loom for this workshop and girls are reviving a traditional craft of the mountains. One paid full-time NYA supervisor is in charge.

We were very humble before the girls' pride in this sewing room, as they showed us the machine covers they had made, the rag rugs they had woven on the loom, and the curtains they had designed and sewn.

Wisconsin: One of the best-organized and best-equipped sewing rooms we have seen is in Milwaukee, where 250 girls in shifts of 70 work ten half-days a month. Milwaukee County has furnished this workroom with 61 portable electric and 22 treadle sewing machines.

The county pays the salary of one chief supervisor and NYA employs five assistants. Last year over 40,000 articles of clothing were finished in this sewing room and delivered to Milwaukee County institutions and to needy children in public schools.

The institutions and schools provide all materials. We saw warm, well-tailored women's winter coats and children's snow suits made there. We watched girls working on an order of 600 dresses for the Milwaukee Home for Dependent Children.

NYA girls in this sewing room learn every process in the making of garments—from cutting, basting, sewing, and fitting, to finishing. Many were acquiring skills of value in factory as well as home occupations.

When a new, totally unskilled girl comes to this sewing room, she is usually started on infants' layettes, for which there are always orders. From simple hemming she progresses to more skilled sewing.

A weaving department has been installed on this project as an educational rather than as a production asset; during the year, 44 rugs and 168 yards of upholstery material have been woven on two looms lent by the Wisconsin Workshop for the Blind.

If girls are incompetent, they are dropped. All the 250 NYA workers in this sewing room, we were told, are studying either in the Milwaukee Vocational School or in social centers. In October, a check-up revealed that the 191 girls then working on this project were enrolled in 258 different study courses.

Many of these girls, on their own time, make clothing for themselves, and rugs, curtains, pillows, table runners, and luncheon sets for their homes.

Louisiana: In New Orleans we spent a morning with 60 NYA girls who are learning the essentials of homemaking.

"A study of New Orleans girls of this background shows that the great majority will be married and running their own homes within three to five years," a supervisor told us. "Many of them who come from large families are now responsible for a good share of the cooking, cleaning, laundering, and care of younger children. Our work here is planned to give these girls knowledge and practice which will be of value in their jobs as homemakers."

First, we visited a large, airy, well-equipped sewing room where 40 girls were working on hospital supplies, and sewing, repairing, and remodeling clothing for children's institutions of the city. One girl, who told us that she had never sewed before, was hemming towels. "After I learn to do this kind of sewing, I'm going to learn how to use patterns," she told us.

Other girls were cutting children's dresses. Several were working on tailored surgeons' coats. Each girl learns every phase of sewing.

In three and one-half months the following articles were completed in this sewing room:

  • 82 doctors' coats, long
  • 12 night shirts,
  • 398 doctors' middies,
  • 18 outing night gowns,
  • 45 doctors' pants,
  • 12 cotton night gowns,
  • 1,873 mouth pieces,
  • 707 hospital shirts,
  • 70 sheets,
  • 133 bed pan covers,
  • 45 pillow cases,
  • 38 O. B. socks,
  • 100 terry towel quilted pads,
  • 101 scarfs,
  • 130 abdominal binders,
  • 50 napkins,
  • 130 breast binders,
  • 12 caps,
  • 760 linen towels,
  • 12 aprons,
  • 1,374 ring towels,
  • 256 baby gowns,
  • 130 brown linen towels,
  • 24 curtains for project,
  • 175 quilted bed pads,
  • 69 children's dresses,
  • 138 hot water bottle covers,
  • 21 Hoover dress aprons,
  • 15 track suits (shirts and pants),
  • 45 khaki trousers repaired
  • 45 khaki shirts repaired,
  • 88 aprons,
  • 100 gym suits remodeled,
  • 166 gym suits,
  • 200 Mammy dolls for Christmas presents,
  • 266 track pants,
  • 272 pr. trousers repaired.

Each week eight girls who are doing hand-sewing in a small, separate room discuss with the supervisor a wide range of subjects as they sew. Grammar and pronunciation are corrected. Some of the topics the girls most frequently ask to have discussed are "Hygiene and Grooming," "Table Service and Setting," "Should Wives Work?" "Ought I to Marry?" and "Learning to Live Together."

Under a home economics supervisor, 12 girls plan, market, prepare, and serve daily lunches for all the girls on the project. Each girl pays five cents for her lunch. This covers the cost of the food. We talked with several girls who were serving on the lunch "squad" that week.

"I've learned to cook a lot of different things than we have at home," one girl said. "Then I go home and try them out on the family." Another girl who had marketed for that day's lunch explained to us: "You know, you just don't go and buy anything. You've got to know when string beans are good. Say, there's a lot to know about buying."

All the girls on the project receive instruction in first aid and home care of the sick. They also rotate as assistants in nurseries in the city where they receive training and experience in the care and feeding of young children.

Although the principal aim of this comprehensive project is to give NYA girls sound training for better homemaking, employment possibilities are carefully watched, and several girls have found work in restaurants, lunchrooms, and drug stores.

Their experience on this project has equipped them for these jobs. Arkansas: We visited a NYA "Home Arts Practice House" in Prescott. Here girls from relief families are working part-time, learning the skills of homemaking. NYA boys made most of the furniture for this six-room house. The city furnishes water and electricity, and the Prescott Chamber of Commerce pays the rent.

Local churches and clubs donated kitchen equipment and fabrics, which the girls have made into curtains and linens. The girls clean, cook, and launder. Under a paid NYA supervisor, they study meal-planning and family-budgeting.

As their work project, they conduct a day nursery for the underprivileged children of the community. They have planted and are caring for a large garden, and in the fall, they will begin canning fruits and vegetables for use throughout the winter.

A county health nurse gives talks and leads discussions on health subjects and first aid and home care of the sick. The supervisor of this project keeps a record of each girl's progress, and when a girl shows that she is competent to hold a job as a domestic worker, efforts are made to place her.

"We're a hundred per cent. behind NYA," we were told by the secretary of the Prescott Chamber of Commerce. "It's important for boys to learn how to be good farmers or good carpenters or good masons. And it's just as important for girls to know how to be good homemakers. That's what they're learning here.

These girls are going to have better homes, better children, and the whole community will benefit because of their training in this practice home." Virginia: The city of Hopewell provided a six-room cottage for a NYA Homemaking Center, and 18 girls from relief families were assigned to this demonstration home for work and training.

These girls refinished the floors, painted the walls and woodwork, repaired, refinished, and upholstered old furniture, which had been donated, built bookcases and shelves, and made curtains and household linens for this demonstration home.

To earn their salaries, these NYA workers make children's and adults' clothing, sheets and pillow cases, and, in the summer and fall, they can fruits and vegetables, all of which are distributed by the County Welfare Department. There is one paid NYA supervisor.

City and school authorities have co-operated in teaching home economics, home hygiene, and the fundamentals of good health practices.

The supervisor recently made this report: "Already these girls are applying the practical training received at the Center. All have made clothing for members of their families; several have upholstered furniture at home; a number have made new curtains; and all have applied their new knowledge of foods at home. In a number of cases parents have been to the Center to learn more of the constructive work their daughters are doing. From the work and the training received these girls will be equipped to be better homemakers in the community."

North Carolina: In the summer of 1937, in Brevard, the County Board of Education furnished one and one-half acres of land, seeds, fertilizers, and gardening tools to two NYA boys, who raised vegetables for distribution to local families in need of food. Twelve NYA girls canned the surplus vegetables and also some fruit which the county provided.

This is a résumé of costs and products through August:

Cost to Board of Education

  • Rental of 1 1/2 acres land $15.00
  • Seeds 4.60
  • Tomato and potato plants 4.00
  • Fertilizer 12.00
  • Tools and equipment 15.00

Total Cost to Board of Education: $50.60

Cost to NYA

  • Labor: $183.00
  • Jars: $92.00

Total Cost to NYA: $275.00

Total Cost: $325.60


  • Canned vegetables—531 half-gallon jars @ 50c: $265.50
  • Beans–8 bushels @ $1.25: $10.00
  • Cabbage—300 pounds @ 1.5 c: $4.50
  • Okra–75 pounds @ 6c: $4.50
  • Rhubarb—600 pounds @ 3c: $18.00
  • Beets—12 bushels @ $2.00: $24.00
  • Squash—16 bushels @ $1.50: $24.00
  • Carrots—8.5 bushels @ $2.00: $17.00
  • Tomatoes—4 bushels @ $2.00: $8.00
  • Huckleberries—8 gallons @ 40c: $3.20
  • Apples—12 bushels @ 75c: $9.00
  • Blackberries—32 gallons @ 25c: $8.00

Total cash value: $395.70

The county authorized the purchase of 2,000 cans to be used for preserving fruits and vegetables which these same young people raised during the fall and winter.

Betty and Ernest K. Lindley, "Girls in Home Economics," in A New Deal for Youth: The Story of the National Youth Administration, New York: The Viking Press, 1938, pp. 52-59.

Return to Top of Page

WPA / Works Progress Administration
GG Archives

Brochures, Booklets, & Pamphlets


Farmers on Relief and Rehabilitation - WPA - 1937

Inventory: An Appraisal of Results of the Works Progress Administration - 1938

Rural Families on Relief - Research Monograph XVII - 1938

Rural Youth: Their Situation and Prospects - Research Monograph XV - 1938

Rural Youth - Their Situation and Prospects - Conclusions - 1938

New Deal for Youth - The National Youth Administration (NYA) - 1938

1935-05 The Drought and Current Farm Imports

1936-10-15 Report on Progress of The Works Program

Final Report on the WPA Program 1935-43

Handbook of Proceedures - 1937

Report on Progress of WPA Program - 1942

Other Information

WPA Reference Section