When Franklin Delano Roosevelt laid out his “New Deal” plan before the American people in 1933 to help battle the Great Depression, his ideas weren’t unfamiliar to New Yorkers.
The “First New Deal,” up and running at the New York State Museum through May 4, tells the story of FDR’s strategy to deal with the severe economic downturn that plagued the country beginning with the stock market crash on Oct. 29, 1929. Roosevelt had been elected as governor a year earlier, defeating Republican Albert Ottinger. In November of 1930, with the Great Depression in full swing, he was re-elected to another two-year term after besting Republican Charles Tuttle.
“The theme of our exhibit is to demonstrate New York’s central role as a proving ground for the New Deal policies FDR enacted as president,” said museum curator Aaron Noble. “All these things, Social Security, the WPA, the Agricultural Assistance Program, they all had their genesis in the state-based programs he created as governor.”
“The First New Deal,” a relatively small presentation compared to other museum exhibits, contains artifacts from all three institutions under the umbrella of The Office of Cultural Education (the New York State Museum, State Library, and State Archives). It is in the Crossroads Corridor in the museum, where visitors are met by busts of FDR and his wife, Eleanor. Also in the glass-enclosed structure is a Stromberg-Carlson radio from 1936 and a Val-Kill footstool made after 1926 and before 1931.
The busts are the work of contemporary artist Carolyn Palmer, who created the sculptures for the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park. Palmer lives in Montgomery in the Hudson Valley.
’First New Deal’
WHAT: Exhibit about Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his time as governor of New York
WHERE: New York State Museum, Madison Ave., Albany
WHEN: Through May 4, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 474-5877, www.nysm.nysed.gov.
“She also made a set for the New-York Historical Society and then a third set, which we have thanks to a loan arranged by former state Sen. Tarky Lombardi,” said Noble. “The Stromberg is part of our collection here at the museum, as is the footstool. We’re using the radio because it’s evocative of the Fireside Chats that Roosevelt began when he was governor, and the footstool comes from Val-Kill Industries, a factory which Eleanor began with three other women. They were hoping to help farmers supplement their income, but the Depression eventually killed the factory and it was turned into a cottage where Eleanor spent a lot of time, especially after FDR’s death.”
The exhibit also consists of two large photographs of FDR and Eleanor, a collection of government pamphlets explaining his policies and a series of letters from New Yorkers to their governor thanking him for the help.
“Neither his policies as governor or president fully pulled the state or the country out of the depression,” said Noble. “Perhaps the biggest thing he did was give people hope. In his [presidential First Inaugural] speech, ‘we have nothing to fear but fear itself,’ he gave people the sense that they could endure and that they would get through this eventually. And his policies, as governor and president, did soften the blow for the neediest people out there.”
A novel approach
FDR’s approach to the Great Depression differed greatly from his predecessor in the White House, Herbert Hoover.
“Unlike the Hoover administration, which had a very laissez-faire attitude and a free-market solution, FDR was a progressive Democrat who thought government should have a response and become more involved,” said Noble. “When he was governor, he dispensed funds from the state government to the county and local level to build new roads and state parks. They were temporary programs, and some of them were replaced by the federal programs Roosevelt started when he was president.”
Acting on advice from Frances Perkins and Harry Hopkins, two later appointees to his presidential Cabinet, FDR created the New York State Department of Labor and the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration. Both new entities, despite some Republican criticism, were well received by the people.
“When the Republican legislature opposed the old-age relief bill, which was akin to Social Security, he went to the airwaves and told the people to press their representatives,” said Noble. “What eventually passed into law was a much more moderate program than what FDR was hoping for, but it did provide relief for those over 70 in New York state. It was widely popular and well received, so what we have from the Archives is various correspondence to the governor from a broad range of people, both geographically and socio-economically.”
FDR Still debated
Today, FDR continues to have his devoted fans as well as his detractors.
“His policies were radically different, and when you disrupt the status quo some people aren’t going to like that,” said Noble. “People now aren’t arguing about whether or not we should have Social Security. They might argue how to fund it, but nobody’s arguing there’s no need for it. Roosevelt was a polarizing figure, but in his time I think most of his ideas were very well received by New Yorkers.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or firstname.lastname@example.org