Even a former history major that works in museums can overlook the importance of seemingly ordinary objects. When I was up in the Watkins collection taking pictures, I passed by two objects in the toy area.
A model house
And a model ship
They are both very intricate and in great condition, but I didn’t think much of them and didn’t take a picture. Later on, the curator was taking me through the collection to point out a few more things that might be interesting to write about. She took me over to the house and ship again and told me what they are. Turns out they aren’t just fancy children’s toys.
You probably learned about the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in your history classes. The WPA emerged in 1935 during the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of his New Deal to try and revive the country. Various projects were started to supply people with the jobs they desperately needed. The WPA was responsible for building and improving roads, public buildings, airports, hospitals, and parks; however art and education were not left out of the WPA program (Source). You might have seen murals, paintings, or sculptures around your town that were made by Federal Art Project artists.
In Kansas, the WPA provided classes in literacy, citizenship, housekeeping, art, parenting, and vocational training (Source). One specific program that combined art and education was the Kansas Museum Project. FDR felt WPA art projects needed to have an educational purpose, therefore the KMP made objects like dolls for museums and schools to use as educational resources (Source). We have two types of these dolls at the museum: historical dolls and pairs of dolls that represented different countries around the world.
Another project was to create small, historical dioramas that portrayed different scenes in Kansas’ history (Source). Evidently, even one of the studios that made these dioramas was located in Lawrence, KS aka where the Watkins is (Source).
SO! Where do historical models come in? Well, I can’t find anything about them beyond the fact that they were made as part of the WPA. We also know that the house is Mount Vernon and the ship is the Santa Maria (of “Columbus sailed the ocean blue” fame). However, I think we can make a logical jump and assume these models were part of this project. I couldn’t find other examples of these models so if you know of any please let me know!
So what is the point of all of this? Well, think about it. These nice but seemingly unimportant toys were created during the Great Depression to provide jobs for people desperate to survive. Their existence let someone feed their family. They were also probably made by women who were not well represented in other areas of the WPA (Source 1, 2). This means that these models might have allowed women, who still weren’t prevalent in the workplace, to bring home money to support their families. So when you think about it, those models are pretty important.
-Jilliene, Public Programs Intern