Teach PA History
Dear Mrs. Roosevelt
Background Information for Teachers

After the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the country fell into a deep economic depression known as the Great Depression. Pennsylvania suffered the third greatest job loss in the country, when the industrial production fell by more than 50 percent and 270,000 manufacturing jobs were lost. Pennsylvania had the largest number of families seeking relief in the country–324,000 in 1932.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932. As a solution to the nation's economic crisis, he offered a solution he called the "New Deal." Under his leadership a network of "alphabet agencies" were created by the federal government to provide direct relief to the public in the form of public works programs, public housing, and federally funded arts and theater projects.

His wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, was often his "eyes and ears" since he was confined to a wheelchair following his illness with polio. People saw in her someone who cared for the common people, and they responded in an outpouring of letters. Many of the letters were from children.

Although Mrs. Roosevelt could not personally answer all of her mail, she did respond to them all in some way.

1. Sometimes she sent some of her own money to help. For example, in 1934, a young high school boy wrote her and asked for a pair of football shoes. He thought perhaps she had an old pair of her sons that he might have. Instead she sent him a check for $15, which was more than enough to cover the cost of shoes.
2. Sometimes she would send a letter to her husband with a note penciled in such as: "How should I answer, or will you?"
3. She forwarded some letters to the appropriate government agencies that could help and asked them to keep her informed as to the results.
4. When she was worried about the number of young people who had to drop out of school because of a lack of money, she talked to her husband about creating the National Youth Administration (NYA), which helped young people stay in school by providing them with jobs. As a result, many of them were able to attend college to better their situation.
5. Many young people wrote about the poor homes they lived in with roofs leaking. Some wrote that their family was losing their homes because the father was out of work. Eleanor worked hard to see that affordable housing was built for families. One such program in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, became known as Norvelt, because of her active interest in the project. ("Nor" comes from the last three letters of her first name and "velt" for the last four letters in her last name.)
6. She used her lectures, radio talks, newspaper columns and articles, press conferences, and her many travels all across the country to make the public aware of her views on social injustice. She became a powerful voice speaking out for those disadvantaged in America.
7. She took a personal interest in many people who wrote to her. One example is of a young woman who apologized for her poor handwriting because her back was "bent sideways." Eleanor arranged for a specialist to examine the woman and for surgery on her back. She visited her in the hospital, helped her get a job after she recovered, went to her wedding, and became the godmother of her child.
8. She supported the projects of her husband's New Deal. One of these was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which provided meaningful jobs to about 3 million men. The "CCC Boys" worked to improve the environmental condition of the land. These men worked in state and national parks planting trees and creating walking paths and worked on projects to prevent soil erosion (the wearing away of the soil). They also constructed many rural roads and bridges.
9. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) helped to put artists, writers, and teachers to work across America.

Further Reading

Cohen, Robert. Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from Children of the Great Depression. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

This book contains nearly 200 letters from children to Eleanor Roosevelt telling what it was like to be poor and growing up during the Great Depression.

Fleming, Candace. Our Eleanor: A Scrapbook Look at Eleanor Roosevelt's Remarkable Life. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2005.

This book contains many primary sources including children's letters to Mrs. Roosevelt. It explains her life in photos, newspaper clippings, and quotes.

Freedman, Russell. Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery. New York, NY: Clarion Books, 1993.

This Newberry Honor book is an excellent biography of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Freedman, Russell. Children of the Great Depression. New York, NY: Clarion Books, 2005.

This book contains primary sources, photographs, and text telling the story of the Great Depression from the point of view of children.

Web Sites

New Deal Network–Dear Mrs. Roosevelt

The New Deal Network is an educational guide to the Great Depression of the 1930s. The New Deal Network is sponsored by the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute and the Institute for Learning Technologies at Teachers College/Columbia University and funded in part through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. This link to the website discusses how children were affected by the Great Depression. Included are letters to Eleanor asking for clothes, money, bicycles, and "luxuries".

The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project

The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers is a university-chartered research center associated with the Department of History of The George Washington University. This website contains valuable information about Eleanor Roosevelt, including how she handled the volumes of mail that she received.


Stories From the Mines (PBS Documentary Video, 2000) Video recording The Molly Maguires (Paramount Pictures, 1969/1970) Video recording October Sky (Universal Studios, 1999) Video recording

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