THERE WAS A news story in The New York Times recently concerning the plans of two small publishing companies to bring out elaborate special editions of drawings for the growing number of people interested in old ships. The material to be reprinted in the editions planned by both companies is a set of detailed line drawings of 19th-century American craft -- more than 400 vessels in all, including schooners, steamers, clipper ships, even canoes. One of the interesting things about these drawings is that they wouldn't have existed if it weren't for the Works Progress Administration, a public employment project of the New Deal.
The drawings were done as part of a WPA effort that Franklin D. Roosevelt, when informed of it, called "the best damned project" he had seen that month. Unemployed draftsmen, marine architects and photographers worked for 18 months finding old ships -- often junked and rotting -- and making these detailed records of them before they were gone. "At the time I went into it, interest in maritime matters was as dead as a dodo," the former director of the project, Eric J. Steinlein, told The Times. He said the drawings have been in almost constant use since they were placed in a library at the Smithsonian, and now they will be published for a larger audience.
In the same day's edition of The Times was an obituary of George Mathews, the actor, who died at age 73. Mr. Mathews had a distinctive tough- guy look, and he did play in some gangster movies. But he was an accomplished actor in many other sorts of roles on both stage and screen, and had a distinguished career. That he was able to begin it in the depths of the Depresion was another work of the WPA. He got his start in the WPA Theater in the lead role of "Processional," which played on Broadway. "He talked about it all the time," his widow, ary Hayneworth Mathews, told us the other day. "It was his beginning." In 1949 Brooks Atkinson of The Times wrote of Mr. Mathews performance in the role of Mitch in "A Streetcar Named Desire": "He thoroughly appreciates the sincerity of this commonplace man who has a wistful dream of refinement and grandeur."
In one encyclopedia entry on the WPA, it is called a "make-work" project. Often, projects of the WPA sort may deserve that pejorative. It is certainly being visited upon them a lot these days. But sometimes what is created by make-work may be more than a day's employment; it may be a measure of dignity and perhaps even a future for the "commonplace man who has a wistful dream."