From 1935 to 1943, the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) produced printed materials for the benefit of the public.
The FWP’s work included the Folklore Project, which employed out-of-work writers and other qualified individuals. Their job was to record the life stories of ordinary people who represented different segments of American society.
The Folklore Project workers would ask about a person’s age, health, family, education, work, religion, political views and cultural traditions. The best interviewers were successful in persuading their subjects to share personal stories that defined different stages of their lives, and to comment on important events they had witnessed or participated in.
The notes from the interviews were edited into narratives and essays, which are available online through the Library of Congress.
New Hampshire was fortunate to be one of 24 states chosen to participate in the Folklore Project. The state operation was managed out of the WPA office at 497 Silver St. on the east side of Manchester. From this headquarters, the Folklore Project deployed workers to gather immigrant stories from the local working-class Polish, Greek and Franco-American (French-Canadian) immigrant communities. Workers were also hired to conduct interviews of native-born “Yankee” businessmen in Plymouth, Newport and Canaan.
One of the Manchester residents interviewed was a Polish immigrant identified as Katherine (this may be a pseudonym). Katherine sat for several interviews in 1938-39 with Folklore Project employee Julia Sample.
At that time, Katherine was married with three children—two grown daughters and a son in school. She worked as a housekeeper for a wealthy family in Manchester. Although no date is given, it appears that she had come directly to Manchester from Poland around 1915. She lived for a time with a male cousin and his wife. Her cousin helped her to find work in a textile factory in the mill yard, where she eventually met the man she would marry.
As Sample wrote after one of her visits with Katherine, “For almost two years Katherine worked in the mill at the same loom. For her that loom soon became a personality. Its actions varied almost as much as the New Hampshire weather. Days on end the threads would snap, the woof seemed too thick for the warp or the woof would snarl and then break, the warp too tight and unyielding. Sometimes a nut would drop and a bolt loosen or a heddle break. Always a little trouble here and a little trouble there. But there were days when the warp and the woof and the loom all worked in harmony. Those were the days when Katherine would hum a little tune under her breath and think.”
Katherine’s narrative includes many details of the warm and joyful Polish traditions that were part of the life of the immigrant community in the early 20th century. One of the stories she told was about the charming Christmas she enjoyed with her family in 1927. At the time, her eldest daughter was 8, her younger daughter 6, and her son was a baby. Her husband had a good job, and the family was living in a large apartment at Pine Island, in the south end of Manchester.
On Christmas Eve, Katherine told the children a Polish folk tale. Then everyone shared the Christmas wafer that had been blessed by their priest, and wished each other good luck and good health. They then enjoyed a special supper.
As the narrative explains, “Katherine cooks one main dish to follow the soup. Cabbage, really sauerkraut, sweetened with fresh cabbage, thickened with dried peas and mushrooms added. This with pierogi, filled with cheese and potato, and plenty of black rye bread and rye mush will be the main course. No meat is eaten at this Christmas Eve supper. A very large bowl is ready for the cabbage and Katherine will place it in the middle of the table ... Having appeased their hunger, they linger over the last course. This is fruit, pastries and a pudding made of noodles, honey and poppy seeds.”
The family opened their presents, and later attended midnight Mass where the priest emphasized “tolerance and love towards all with the thought of the brotherhood of man…”
Next week: More stories of New Hampshire people from the FWP’s Folklore Project.
Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or at