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American Guide Series

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Cover of the Illinois state guide

The American Guide Series includes books and pamphlets published from 1937 to 1941 under the auspices of the Federal Writers' Project (FWP), a Depression-era program that was part of the larger Works Progress Administration in the United States. The American Guide Series books were compiled by the FWP, but printed by individual states, and contained detailed histories of each of the then 48 states of the Union with descriptions of every major city and town. The series not only detailed the histories of the 48 states, but provided insight to their cultures as well. In total, the project employed over 6,000 writers. The format was uniform, comprising essays on the state's history and culture, descriptions of its major cities, automobile tours of important attractions, and a portfolio of photographs.

Many books in the project have been updated by private companies or republished without updating. Although not then a state, a guide for Alaska was published, and also for Puerto Rico (but not for Hawaii).[1]

If there had been room in Rocinante I would have packed the W.P.A. Guides to the States, all forty-eight volumes of them...The complete set comprises the most comprehensive account of the United States ever got together, and nothing since has approached it."[2]


As part of the Federal Writers' Project established under the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935 and the Works Progress Administration, over 6,500 men and women were employed around the country as writers, collecting stories, interviews, and photographs on a variety of subjects. The project attracted many unemployed writers and artists, offering a wage of twenty dollars a week.[3][4] President Franklin D. Roosevelt enlisted Henry Alsberg, a journalist and playwright to head the project.

As part of this, the FWP developed and published a series of books that served as guides to the 48 existing states. Each book's primary purpose was to not only outline the history of the individual state, but its culture and geography as well. Their predecessor, Baedeker's Handbook for Travelers: United States,[5] lacked much of what was needed to give a picture of America during the 1930s. Alsberg insisted that the new series of books paint a picture of American culture as a whole and celebrate the nation's diversity.[6] From 1937 to 1941, thousands of writers set out around the country to capture America's culture, conducting fieldwork, interviewing citizens, and observing and recording folk traditions and local customs. Writers from all over the country sought to capture American culture during the Great Depression, a difficult task given the dire circumstances. Alsberg tasked Benjamin A. Botkin, a folklorist and scholar, with running the folklore division of the project.[7] Botkin was responsible for coordinating and managing the writers, a task that was too large for Alsberg to handle, as the volume of work coming in was plentiful for the project. In this role, Botkin not only influenced the writers' folklore division but also had a great influence on their coverage of culture.[8]

The project's beginnings did not come without challenges. During its infancy, various writers' organizations pressured the project because of the parameters that were set by the FWP.[9] With the project bringing many established writers back into the workforce, the Authors' Guild of America became aggressive in the pursuit of relaxing guidelines for the writers, and also developed a disdain for the project's employment of writers with a lack of experience. With the FWP's main focus on creating jobs for the unemployed, the Author's Guild and organizations similar to it continued to criticize the amateurism of many writers on the project. The solution to this critique was a simple one: find enough work for all of the writers. The roles of the writers enlisted to work on the project not only included their initial role as writers, but also as photographers, geographers, and cartographers, allowing the creation of additional white collar jobs.[9]


The books in the series were to contain accurate and thorough accounts of American history, according to a letter to State directors on the project. Each book's primary purpose was to not only outline the history of the individual states but the following as well:

  • Geography
  • Agriculture
  • Tourist attractions
  • Ethnic groups
  • Architecture
  • Arts
  • Industry

Three different types of guides were published: state, regional, and city guides. Each guide had its own distinct features, but followed the same uniform structure.

State guides[edit]

The Pennsylvania guide highlighted the shipping industry in Chester, Pa. Highlighting different industries was a common feature in each of the guides.

Each of the 48 existing contiguous states had its own guide. The state guides included stories about the state's heritage, maps of major cities, as well as photographs of historic sites and tourist attractions. Each state's division of the FWP was responsible for printing and distributing the books. The state guides provided great detail as to each state's history. In the case of some states that had joined the union more recently as the nation grew, the guide presented an origin story or folklore account to describe its beginnings.[10] In the California Guide, writers used the story of El Dorado, the mythical tribal thief, to tell readers why settlers yearned to move to the new state in the mid-19th century.[10]

One priority for each guide was to have detailed road maps of cities and major highways throughout each state. The American Baedeker lacked them because during the time it was published, the automobile was not a common asset in everyday life in the country.[11] The state guides also exhibited industries unique to each state. Guides highlighted blue-collar industries such as shipping, mining, and oil rigging, informing readers about what drove state economies.[12] For instance, the Pennsylvania State Guide highlighted the state's shipping industry that helped grow and industrialize the city of Chester, which eventually made a comeback after the depression during World War II.[13]

The guides' main goal of highlighting aspects of the states' cultures and histories was an interesting task for the writers in charge of doing so. Several writers documented these challenges in their memos while working on the project. As the Depression went on, trying to capture normalcy became difficult. The projection of wealth in a nation that was experiencing a drastic rise in poverty was on display in many of the guides.[14] The South Carolina guide presented polo clubs as a popular form of sport and leisure, which were on the rise throughout the country leading up to the Depression.[15] Despite being highlighted as a focal point in the guide, this was in contrast to much of what many of the writers had seen during their travels.[14][16] Several writers noted in their memos how their perception of a state was changed by the culture that the Depression had created.[16] Overall the guides aimed to draw potential travelers to experience each state's culture, and projecting each state in the utmost positive light was critical to accomplishing this.[17]

Regional guides[edit]

The cover of the Tulsa guide, one of 40 city guides published.

The regional and city guides, similar to their state counterparts, kept much of the same format but had their own specific focuses. The regional guides were designed with a tourist heavy audience in mind, as some of their titles suggest. One of the regional books, Ghost Towns of Colorado, explored some of the most popular deserted towns in the western state. While the state guides provided an overview of tourist attractions in certain regions of the states, the regional guides allowed for a greater magnification of this. The regional guides also showcased the country's diversity in regional attractions, highlighting regions such as New England and vacation destinations such as Cape Cod. Three United States territories, Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico, were also included in the series, educating Americans about these more recently acquired regions.

City guides[edit]

The city guides had the most narrow scope out of all three types, as the focus was on a single location. Because of this, their maps could be in the greatest detail, not only giving an overview of a city's layout, but individual neighborhoods as well.[18] City Guides highlighted points of special interest in greater detail. In the Philadelphia guide, sites such as Carpenters' Hall and Girard College, an-all boys boarding school in the city's northern section, each had several pages dedicated to them.[19] The maps that were included in each book added value to them as material objects and not just literature.[20] With the increasing mobility afforded by the number of Americans who owned automobiles, the guides served as reliable and durable resources for travelers moving throughout the country.[20]

Impact within New Deal[edit]

Over the course of the five-year span during which FWP workers created the guides, nearly seven thousand writers, editors, researchers and historians were put back to work through working on the American Guide Series.[21] By the project's end the government had spent over $11 billion on employing the personnel on the project.[1] The guides also served as a representation on the New Deal's concern with regional interdependence and national planning, projecting a positive image of the nation during economically harsh times. Many writers were not only put back to work but other writers were able to use the project as a springboard as well, to launch their writing careers.


The guidebooks are the most well-known publication to emerge from the FWP, having been reprinted several times, as scholars and researchers have sought them out for their cultural value.[22] When they were originally published, the guides restored a sense of pride in many of their respected regions, by promoting the history of each state or city, as well as popular tourist attractions and historical sites.[23] From a literary perspective, the guides expanded the definition of American literature. They showed how American writing could cover a wide range of analysis through biographical, folklore, and related geographic content.[20] During the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, several writers and politicians called for a new Federal Writers' Project.[24] Congressman Ted Lieu and Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernandez introduced legislation to create a new project, garnering support from several writers and journalists.[citation needed]




State Title Google Books HathiTrust Internet Archive
Alabama Alabama; a Guide to the Deep South, New York: Hastings House, 1941 Google Books HathiTrust Internet Archive
Arizona Arizona, the Grand Canyon State (4th ed.). New York: Hastings House. 1956. 1940 ed. via Google Books HathiTrust 1940 ed. Internet Archive
Arkansas Arkansas: a Guide to the State, New York, 1941, OCLC 478887{{citation}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link) Google Books HathiTrust
California California: Guide to the Golden State, New York: Hastings House, 1939 Internet Archive
Colorado Colorado: a Guide to the Highest State. New York: Hastings House. 1945. 1941 ed. via Google Books Internet Archive
+ 1970 ed. via Internet Archive
Connecticut Connecticut: a Guide to its Roads, Lore, and People. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1938. Google Books HathiTrust Internet Archive
Delaware Delaware: A Guide to the First State. NY: Viking Press. 1938. Google Books HathiTrust
Florida Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State, 1939 Google Books Internet Archive
Georgia Georgia: a Guide to Its Towns and Countryside. Athens: University of Georgia Press. 1940. Google Books Internet Archive
Idaho Idaho: A Guide in Word and Pictures. Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers. 1937. Internet Archive
Illinois Illinois: A Descriptive and Historical Guide. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co. 1939. Google Books Internet Archive
Indiana Indiana: a Guide to the Hoosier State. New York: Oxford University Press. 1941. Google Books HathiTrust
Iowa Iowa: a Guide to the Hawkeye State, New York: Viking, 1938 Google Books HathiTrust
Kansas Kansas: A Guide to the Sunflower State, 1939. Google Books HathiTrust Internet Archive
Kentucky Kentucky: a Guide to the Bluegrass State. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. 1939. Google Books HathiTrust Internet Archive
Louisiana Louisiana: a Guide to the State. NY: Hastings House. 1941. Google Books HathiTrust
Maine Maine: a Guide 'Down East'. Boston: Houghton Mifllin. 1937. Google Books HathiTrust
Maryland Maryland: a Guide to the Old Line State. New York: Oxford University Press. 1940. Google Books HathiTrust
Massachusetts Massachusetts: a Guide to its Places and People, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937 Google Books HathiTrust Internet Archive
Michigan Michigan: a Guide to the Wolverine State. New York: Oxford University Press. 1941. Google Books
Minnesota A State Guide, 1938 Google Books Internet Archive
Mississippi Mississippi; a Guide to the Magnolia State, New York: Viking, 1949, OCLC 478887 1938 ed. via Google Books HathiTrust Internet Archive
Missouri Missouri: A Guide to the 'Show Me' State, New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1941 Google Books HathiTrust Internet Archive
Montana Montana: a State Guide Book. NY: Viking Press. 1939. HathiTrust Internet Archive
Nebraska Nebraska: A Guide to the Cornhusker State, 1939 Google Books HathiTrust
Nevada Nevada: a Guide to the Silver State, Portland, Oregon: Binfords & Mort, 1957 1940 ed. via Google Books HathiTrust
New Hampshire New Hampshire: a Guide to the Granite State. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1938. ISBN 9780403021796. Google Books HathiTrust
New Jersey New Jersey: a Guide to its Present and Past. NY: Hastings House. 1946. 1939 ed. via Google Books HathiTrust
New Mexico New Mexico: a Guide to the Colorful State. NY: Hastings House. 1940. Google Books HathiTrust
New York New York: a Guide to the Empire State. New York: Oxford University Press. 1940. HathiTrust Internet Archive
North Carolina North Carolina: a Guide to the Old North State. 1939. Google Books Internet Archive
North Dakota North Dakota: a Guide to the Northern Prairie State, State Historical Society of North Dakota, 1938 Google Books
Ohio The Ohio Guide, Oxford University Press, 1940 Google Books Internet Archive
Oklahoma Oklahoma: a Guide to the Sooner State, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1941 Google Books Internet Archive
Oregon Oregon: End of the Trail. Portland: Binfords & Mort. 1951. 1940 ed. via Google Books HathiTrust
Pennsylvania Pennsylvania: a Guide to the Keystone State, New York: Oxford University Press, 1940 Google Books
Rhode Island Rhode Island: A Guide to the Smallest State. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1937. OCLC 691847. Google Books HathiTrust Internet Archive
South Carolina South Carolina: a Guide to the Palmetto State, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1941 HathiTrust Internet Archive
South Dakota South Dakota Guide. 1938. Google Books Internet Archive
Tennessee Tennessee: a Guide to the State, New York: Viking, 1939 Google Books HathiTrust Internet Archive
Texas Texas: A Guide to the Lone Star State, New York: Hastings House, 1940 Google Books HathiTrust Internet Archive
Utah Utah: A Guide to the State, 1941 Google Books HathiTrust
Vermont Vermont: a Guide to the Green Mountain State. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Riverside Press. 1937. Internet Archive
Virginia Virginia: a Guide to the Old Dominion, Oxford University Press, 1941 Google Books Internet Archive
Washington Washington: a Guide to the Evergreen State, Portland, Oregon: Binfords & Mort, 1941, OCLC 5847836 Google Books HathiTrust Internet Archive
West Virginia West Virginia: A Guide to the Mountain State. New York: Oxford University Press. 1941. Google Books
Google Books
Wisconsin Wisconsin: A Guide to the Badger State, 1941 Google Books HathiTrust
Wyoming Wyoming: a Guide to Its History, Highways and People, 1941 Google Books


State City Title Google Books HathiTrust Internet Archive Other
Arkansas North Little Rock Guide to North Little Rock. 1936. OCLC 11575040. Hathi
California Los Angeles Los Angeles: A Guide to the City and Its Environs. 1941. HathiTrust Internet Archive
California San Diego San Diego: A California City. 1937. HathiTrust
California San Francisco San Francisco: the Bay and its Cities. 1940. 1947 ed. via HathiTrust Internet Archive
California Santa Barbara Santa Barbara: A Guide to the Channel City and its Environs. 1941. Internet Archive
Delaware Newcastle New Castle on the Delaware. 1936. HathiTrust
District of Columbia Washington Washington, City and Capital. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. 1937. HathiTrust
Florida Key West A Guide to Key West. 1941. HathiTrust
Florida Miami Planning Your Vacation in Florida; Miami and Dade County including Miami Beach and Coral Gables. 1941. Internet Archive
Florida St Augustine Seeing St. Augustine. 1937. HathiTrust
Georgia Atlanta Atlanta: A City of the Modern South. 1942. OCLC 1299312424. Internet Archive
Georgia Augusta Augusta. 1938. OCLC 1411325. HathiTrust
Georgia Savannah Savannah. 1937. HathiTrust
Illinois Cairo Cairo Guide. HathiTrust
Illinois Galena HathiTrust
Illinois Princeton HathiTrust
Iowa Bentonsport Bentonsport Memories HathiTrust
Iowa Dubuque[25] A Guide to Dubuque HathiTrust
Iowa Estherville A Guide to Estherville, Iowa. 1939. HathiTrust
Iowa McGregor A Guide to McGregor. 1940.
Kentucky Henderson Henderson: A Guide to Audubon's Home Town in Kentucky. 1941.
Kentucky Lexington Lexington and the Bluegrass Country. 1938. HathiTrust
Kentucky Louisville Louisville: A Guide to Falls City. 1940.
Louisiana New Orleans New Orleans City Guide. 1938. Google Books HathiTrust Internet Archive
Maine Portland Portland City Guide. 1940. Internet Archive
Nebraska Lincoln Lincoln City Guide. 1937.
New Jersey Princeton Princeton and its Neighbors.[25]
New York Albany HathiTrust
New York New York City The New York City Guide: A Comprehensive Guide to the Five Boroughs of the Metropolis; Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Richmond. 1939. HathiTrust Internet Archive
New York Rochester[25] Rochester and Monroe County. 1937. Internet Archive
North Dakota Bismarck[25]
Ohio Cincinnati Cincinnati: A Guide to the Queen City and Its Neighbors. 1943. HathiTrust
Oklahoma Tulsa Tulsa: A Guide to the Oil Capital. 1938.
Pennsylvania Erie Erie: A Guide to the City and County. 1938. HathiTrust Internet Archive
Pennsylvania Philadelphia Philadelphia: A Guide to the Nation's Birthplace. Internet Archive
Texas Beaumont Beaumont: A Guide to the City and Its Environs. 1939. OCLC 1386509.
Texas Denison[25]
Texas Corpus Christi Corpus Christi, a History and Guide. Corpus Christi Caller-Times. 1942. OCLC 2674098.
Texas Houston Houston, a History and Guide. 1942. University of North Texas
Texas San Antonio San Antonio: A History and Guide. HathiTrust
Wisconsin Portage HathiTrust


State County Title Google Books HathiTrust Internet Archive Other
Illinois DuPage Co. Du Page County: a descriptive and historical guide, 1831-1939 HathiTrust
Kentucky Union Co. Union County, past and present HathiTrust
New York Dutchess Co. Dutchess County HathiTrust
Ohio Muskingum Co. Zanesville and Muskingum County HathiTrust
Ohio Trumbull Co. Warren and Trumbull County HathiTrust
South Carolina Spartanburg Co. A History of Spartanburg County HathiTrust
South Dakota Miner Co. Prairie tamers of Miner county HathiTrust
Virginia Albemarle Co. Jefferson's Albemarle, a guide to Albemarle County and the city of Charlottesville, Virginia HathiTrust
Virginia Sussex Co. Sussex county, a tale of three centuries HathiTrust

Regions and territories[edit]

Mount Hood: A Guide (1940)
Region Locale Title Google Books HathiTrust Internet Archive Other
Northeast Bergen County Panorama. 1941. Internet Archive
Northeast Berkshire Hills The Berkshire Hills. 1939. HathiTrust
Northeast Cape Cod Cape Cod Pilot: A Loquacious Guide. 1937.
West Death Valley Death Valley: A Guide. 1939.
West Ghost Towns of Colorado. 1947.
West Guide to Alaska: Last American Frontier. 1939. Google Books
Midwest Guide to Cedar Rapids and Northwest Iowa. 1937.
Northeast New England Here's New England! A Guide to Vacationland. 1939.
South Intracoastal Waterway, Norfolk to Key West. 1937. HathiTrust
Midwest Arrowhead Country Minnesota Arrowhead Country. 1941.
South Mississippi Gulf Coast: Yesterday and Today, 1699-1939. 1939. HathiTrust
West Monterey Peninsula Monterey Peninsula. 1941. HathiTrust
West Mount Hood Mound Hood: A Guide. 1940. Google Books
Northeast New York Panorama. 1938. Internet Archive
South Ocean Highway The Ocean Highway: New Brunswick, New Jersey to Jacksonville, Florida. 1938.
Midwest; West Oregon Trail, US 30: The Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. 1939. Google Books
Insular area Puerto Rico Puerto Rico: a Guide to the Island of Boriquén. New York: University Society. 1940. OCLC 245805. HathiTrust Internet Archive
Northeast; South U.S. Route 1 U.S. One: Maine to Florida. 1938. HathiTrust


  1. ^ Project, Federal Writers' (2013-10-31). The WPA Guide to Alaska: The Last Frontier State. Trinity University Press.
  2. ^ Steinbeck, John (1962). Travels with Charley. Viking. p. 97.
  3. ^ "Introduction | Articles and Essays | American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 | Digital Collections | Library of Congress". Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Retrieved 2022-04-28.
  4. ^ "Introduction | Articles and Essays | American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 | Digital Collections | Library of Congress". Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Retrieved 2022-04-28.
  5. ^ Karl Baedeker (1971). The United States, with an excursion into Mexico : a handbook for travellers, 1893. Henry Steele Commager. New York, N.Y.: Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-71341-1. OCLC 211697.
  6. ^ Wesling, Meg (2013). "American Modernism on Display: Tourism and Literary Form in the Works Progress Administration's Guide Series". Amerikastudien / American Studies. 58 (3): 427–450. ISSN 0340-2827. JSTOR 43485899.
  7. ^ Taylor, David (2009). Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America. Wiley. pp. 76–78.
  8. ^ Taylor, David (2009). Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America. Wiley. p. 77.
  9. ^ a b Griswold, Wendy (2016). American Guides: The Federal Writers' Project and the Casting of American Culture. University of Chicago Press. pp. 42–45.
  10. ^ a b Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration of Northern California (1939). California : a guide to the Golden state. Prelinger Library. New York : Hastings House.
  11. ^ Griswold, Wendy (2016). American Guides: The Federal Writers' Project and the Casting of American Culture. University of Chicago Press. pp. 73–87.
  12. ^ Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progres Administration (1940). Pennsylvania: A Guide to the Keystone State. US History Publishers.
  13. ^ Federal Writers' Project of America (1940). Pennsylvania: A Guide to the Keystone State. Federal Writers' Project. p. 177.
  14. ^ a b Taylor, David (2009). Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America. Wiley. pp. 141–159.
  15. ^ Writers' Program (1941). South Carolina: a guide to the Palmetto state. George A. Smathers Libraries University of Florida. New York: Oxford university press.
  16. ^ a b Taylor, David (2009). Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America. Wiley. pp. 161–177.
  17. ^ Griswold, Wendy (2016). American Guides: The Federal Writers' Project and the Casting of American Culture. University of Chicago Press. p. 149.
  18. ^ Federal Writers' Project (Pa.); Pennsylvania Historical Commission (1937). Philadelphia, a guide to the nation's birthplace. Prelinger Library. Harrisburg, Penn. : Telegraph Press. ISBN 978-0-403-02864-1.
  19. ^ Federal Writers' Project of America (1937). Philadelphia: A Guide to the Nation's Birthplace. Telegraph Press. pp. 339–373.
  20. ^ a b c Griswold, Wendy (2016). American Gudes: The Federal Writers' Project and the Casting of American Culture. The University of Chicago Press. pp. 230–232.
  21. ^ Collins, Sheila. The Democratization of Culture. Oxford University Press. p. 212.
  22. ^ Yagoda, Ben (2021-07-29). "'Republic of Detours' Review: The New Deal in Travel Guides". Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved 2022-05-02.
  23. ^ Writers' Program. Virginia (1941). Virginia: a guide to the Old Dominion. Internet Archive. New York : Oxford University Press.
  24. ^ Lieu, Ted (2021-05-07). "H.R.3054 - 117th Congress (2021-2022): 21st Century Federal Writers' Project Act". www.congress.gov. Retrieved 2022-05-04.
  25. ^ a b c d e Federal Writers' Project (1938). Catalog: American Guide Series. Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. hdl:2027/mdp.39015033903686.

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