Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Sewing Rooms

Recently a neighbor asked me if I knew anything about depression era WPA "Sewing Rooms" on Ocracoke. I did not, but did a little research.

The Works Progress Administration, established in 1935 during the Great Depression, and the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps, established in 1933) were efforts by the US Congress to employ as many people as possible on projects that would provide long-term benefits to local communities. These programs established projects on Ocracoke, including digging mosquito control ditches, building bridges, planting trees, and constructing man-made dunes. I had not heard anything about sewing rooms.

According to FDR, the WPA, and the New Deal Arts Programs, (http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/pdfs/ppDIRwpa.pdf). The WPA also "employed women in sewing rooms in almost every city and small town...[and] distributed the products of WPA sewing rooms to clients on relief."

I also learned that "there was...a sewing room in Ocracoke [ca. 1938] located in a building owned by B.G.O’Neal."

Blanche, of course, remembers the sewing room in the home of Mr. Ben O'Neal, a house which at the time was otherwise vacant. Mr. Ben's house is now the Ocracoke Pizza Company building. In 1938 it sat where Spencer's Market is today. The house was eventually rented to Mr. Dan Tolson and his wife Sabra Howard Tolson, and the sewing room was moved across the lane to a room in the home of Lorena and Bert Williams (that house [now dubbed "Horatio Too"] was moved to Oyster Creek a number of years ago during construction of the Boyette House Motel [now condos]).  

Blanche remembers that about 5 or 6 women worked in the sewing room. For a short while, she says, free lunches were also served in the schoolhouse. 

Our latest Ocracoke Newsletter is the story of windmills on Ocracoke. You can read it here: http://www.villagecraftsmen.com/news012113.htm.


  1. Imagine the conversations in those sewing rooms. What a lovely image.

  2. Anonymous7:24 AM

    What an interesting topic. An internet search found an entry for a Durham NC location. it cites a building constructed by the WPA for this purpose begs the question how many buildings were built? how many decades later were sold for a song --to be come a flea market/eyesore on a busy small town bi-way . So many neglected buildings owned by small town residents waiting for a big out of town developer to buy it and suddenly change the face of the town, I mean providing an economic engine on the ground floor I guess

  3. Anonymous2:35 PM


    Just saw this reference to Ocracoke via CNN--interesting!

    Be on the lookout for Mary Lee, the great white shark.

    Looks as if she trolled into the sound a bit.



    1. As you might imagine, Mary Lee has caught the attention of islanders...but we all know that many aquatic creatures (some more frightening than others) lurk nearby, mostly undetected. The good news is that few of them have ever bothered with mere humans over the centuries.

  4. Anonymous10:53 PM

    Lest my alarm at 235p have seemed a bit too genuine, I assure its intent was merely cartoonish, though my "interesting!" sentiment was full-on sincere.

    Fascinating to see the path of the shark along the East Coast. Though the indication that it may have taken an overland route to exit Pamlico Sound seems a shade...shady. I know there are multiple creeks north of the village proper, but none of those fully bisect the island, do they?

    And to the point of sea creatures "more frightening than others," are there any in particular that islanders recommend giving a wide berth?

    Thanks, as always, Philip.

    1. Several of us commented on the shark's "remarkable transit" across the island...but, to be sure, no creeks bisect the island. Apparently the tracking device showed the shark in Pamlico Sound at one time, then next in the Atlantic Ocean. How she got from one place to the next may remain a mystery -- either Hatteras Inlet or Ocracoke Inlet.

      Pamlico Sound is home to skates and sting rays, the former more numerous than the latter...but the latter definitely to be avoided whenever possible.

  5. Anonymous10:59 PM

    Great insight into yet another WPA project. I knew the WPA employed writers, but not seamstresses. Just this past weekend, I was explaining that history to my young daughter as we strolled across two beautiful old stone foot bridges built by WPA workers back in the late '30s.

  6. Anonymous1:04 PM

    FDR state park in Georgia is a fine example of WPA projects I am sure the park has a web site and photos.