The Ohio Guide

Federal Writers’ Project. The Ohio Guide. New York; Oxford University Press, 1940 (1946 printing).

There is a good chance that your local library may have The Ohio Guide, which was compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Work Projects Administration (WPA) and originally published in 1940. This book is part of the American Guide Series, which ended up covering ALL 48 states along with many cities and regions. If so inclined, reading it should not be limited to historians and academics.

The Ohio Guide is broken up into three main parts; historical and cultural essays, articles about major cities (and Oxford, which is described as a typical Ohio college town), and 23 driving tours one could take (following the pre-Interstate national and state highways). There are also eight collections of photos, that come across now as propaganda of ideal communities. (My favorite being ‘The Farm’ and ‘In the Towns’).

Approaching its 70th birthday, The Ohio Guide is more of a historic document than textbook. Not a modern academic study, there are no citations for any of the information provided. We are told in the Preface that it has been well researched. That said, the writing is much more lively than one would expect from a government document. Though it was anonymous work, you could tell the writers were getting some kicks out of subject matter. They did not play-up the early art scene in Ohio, as noted in the short blurb about painter George Jacob Beck:

“…came to Cincinnati in 1790 as a scout in Wayne’s army, and began to paint landscapes of Ohio and Kentucky country. […] Like other painters of his day and later, Beck married the daughter of the innkeeper in whose tavern he was running up bills.” (125-126)

Also, as was the fashion of the time, you will also find many barbs thrown at Victorian architecture throughout the text.

I could go on for a great distance about the different aspects of this work, but I thought I would point out a few essays that jumped out. 1). If you want a quick summary of the The Guide and a history of pre-1940 Ohio (in about 20 pages), read the “History” essay, which compactly covers all aspects of the rest of the book. 2). As can be expected from the time, the “Economy” section includes a very detailed history of Labor in Ohio. 3). The arts essays, in particular “Literature,” list and discuss the works of a treasure trove of long forgotten Ohio artists.

The Ohio Guide is not a sentimental tour of Ohio. The writer’s use a matter-of-fact tone in outlining the accomplishments and the ills of society. Though race relations are only briefly touched upon, troubles are not omitted from The Guide:

“Ten percent of Ohio Negroes have a standard of living comparable to that of the average white; the other 90 percent cluster in wretched tenements or are cast out to farm the painfully sterile land of city outskirts.” (81)

While names of individual contributors have since become known, I like that The Ohio Guide is presented as a work by the People describing what Ohio is (or was in 1940). And, let me repeat myself, the writing does not suck!

One other item, though I have not personally seen it, there is one other Ohio-specific guide the Federal Writers’ Project, The WPA Guide to Cincinnati: A Guide to the Queen City and Its Neighbors

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