The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was established by Congress in early 1933 as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. As the country faced the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s, several government initiatives were developed to provide relief. This relief was often accomplished through job creation. Although many of the programs resulting from the New Deal (particularly those established later in the decade) were rather controversial, the work undertaken frequently resulted in significant and enduring gains for the American people. Programs like the Federal Writer’s Project and the Federal Theater Project produced and documented much of the United State’s culture at the time, and the work that survives today serves as invaluable evidence of our shared experience and history.
The CCC fits the New Deal mold well. The program was designed to create vocational opportunities for single, unemployed young men between the ages of about 17 and 25. The idea was to create disciplined environments rife with constructive and beneficial undertakings to prevent these young people from falling into violent or otherwise disorderly activities. As the CCC’s name implies, the vocational opportunities centered on conservation efforts – and the program was certainly a success. From the early 1930’s through the early 1940’s, the CCC employed approximately 3 million young men in natural conservation projects including forest management and flood control. The National Park’s Service benefited immensely from their work, the results of which are still enjoyed today.
As many as 90% of the enlistees took advantage of the educational opportunities provided by the CCC. And, as demonstrated in the records held by the Still Picture Unit here at the National Archives, the CCC considered the education of enrollees a high priority. Large education halls were built in every camp and men were encouraged to spend recreational hours there. Reading rooms and libraries were also established. Teaching positions were staffed by college students, or by professionals from other New Deal agencies such as the Work’s Progress Administration. The CCC even developed curricula for adult students in need of more remedial education. This curricula included six workbooks designed to develop reading skills and six workbooks designed to develop mathematical skills, all of which were illustrated by Marshall Davis.
Marshall Davis did not enroll in the CCC as an artist – he enrolled as a laborer in search of a job. Yet, despite being untrained, he had incredible artistic ability and many of his drawings were featured in CCC publications. As people took notice of his work, he even began to receive payment for his efforts. Indeed, his skill is evident in the illustrations he created for the above described CCC reading and arithmetic workbooks. Many of the original artworks that were used as illustrations in the workbooks (and even some of the preliminary concept sketches used to create them) can be found in the Still Picture Unit at the National Archives. They are incredibly unique documents that demonstrate not only Marshall Davis’ skill as an artist but also the thought and process that goes into illustrating, depicted through the evolution of his work from concept sketch, to artwork, to incorporation in the final product.
Education has long been an important endeavor in the United States. It has been pursued and developed in many different forms throughout US history and we all have a role we can play in the education of ourselves and of our fellows. Through his skill as an artist and his contributions to the educational programs of the CCC, Marshall Davis was able to impact the lives of many Americans. But this is only one unique expression of the American dedication to education – history is filled with stories like this just waiting to be discovered… and made. So, with this legacy in mind, I wish everyone luck and success in this brand new school year! Happy learning!
Looking for additional information about the CCC? Check out PBS’s American Experience and the stories of the National Park’s Service! Marshall Davis’ story has proved somewhat hard to track down, but CCC ART – Artists of the Civilian Conservation Corps – Marshall Davis by Kathleen Duxbury was consulted in the writing of this blog. Find out more about the records featured in this post in record groups 12-CLA, 12-CLR, and 35-GE!