Buttermilk Vans, Icemen, and Lots of Hats: Washington Circa 1936

An old WPA video shows the capital bustling through the Great Depression.

Saddle stores, buttermilk vans, icemen, open-top streetcars, and hats, lots and lots of hats: this was Washington D.C. in 1936.

Our friends at National Journal dug up this gorgeous footage of Depression-era Washington last month. Filmed in 1936 by the Works Progress Administration, "Dawn Strikes at the Capitol Dome" calls itself an "impressionistic view of the city." Like other WPA recording projects, the video is devoted (mostly) to documenting "normal" American life, from lunch breaks to crowded streets.

In its attention to the commonplace, the film (if not its title, the style of narration, or the score) seems peculiarly modern. The narrator eulogizes the "restless stirring" of the streets some 25 years before Jane Jacobs. He introduces the subject thus:

It is the beginning of another day -- another day to be torn from the calendar of time. But a day not to be forgotten, for the camera has recorded that day's drama, and the beauty and the comedy of the streets.

Everyday Washington, the narrator booms, is "as distinct from official Washington as day is from night."

Source: Moving Image Archive.

About the Author

  • Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.