While the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program in which low-income men constructed trails and lodges in parks, built public roads, and otherwise improved the American environment, lasted just under a decade, it has remained an incredibly popular agency in American consciousness. Organizations push its memory, the National Park Service celebrates its past, and Americans write a surprising number of editorials about how we should revive the program. This is an unusual amount of love for a social welfare program, most of which are loathed and stigmatized in the U.S. Why are so many welfare programs villainized, even when they include a work component, while the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) invokes such pride and nostalgia?
There are several reasons the CCC has stayed so popular, but one of the more intriguing reasons is the role of the physical bodies of participating young men. In the 1930s, the CCC provided very visible, very tangible benefits. These included building up forests, but they also included building men. The CCC paid young men and their families in a time of hunger, and it provided its aid through a literal reshaping of the male body. In the process, the CCC became one of the most publicized components of the New Deal, in part because of the great visuals that newly-strong male bodies offered. The CCC publicity touted an irresistible transformation narrative: scrawny, urban male bodies into robust, able-bodied American men.The CCC used young men’s bodies as a way of addressing larger problems of the era. The Depression had, in a real sense, threatened the physical bodies of many Americans. While they could not easily cut back on rent, Americans could cut back on the elastic expense of food. Food relief provided by strained local charities was typically inadequate. Visuals of breadlines and underweight children complemented a growing collection of scientific research on underweight American bodies. The same political rhetoric that described hungry women and children as malnourished tended to describe underfed white men as weak. This language denied men’s strength and autonomy, instead portraying low-income men as effeminate and sexually perverse. The fear was that men lacking in that autonomy, and a clear place within the male-breadwinner family, might become “drifters” and “tramps.” Worse yet, as one New Dealer explained, young men without family could be “a volatile element in society” with “nothing to lose.” This put them at risk of radical politics, criminality, and homosexuality. CCC leadership believed the American family model itself to be in crisis and understood the lack of a strong male breadwinner to be literal as well as metaphorical.
The extensive manual labor and ample food of the CCC were meant to reform and rehabilitate these men, to transform them from underweight welfare clients to self-sufficient breadwinning citizens. President Franklin D. Roosevelt promoted the CCC this way, writing that “the clean life and hard work in which you are engaged … cannot fail to help your physical condition.” “You should emerge from this experience, strong and rugged,” he continued, “and ready for reentrance into the ranks of industry.”
The emphasis on the improved male body provided a way of talking about the program without having to talk welfare. CCC films focused on strapping, shirtless laborers. “The fact that enrollees gain so much weight is proof that it is good for them,” explained one corps pamphlet. While some materials certainly discussed the financial benefits, almost all discussed physical gain. It served as a way of communicating program benefits while distancing it from social welfare and workfare. In a culture that linked economic independence with masculinity and economic dependence with femininity, a focus on these young, low-income men as welfare recipients only further damaged their already besieged manhood. Instead, the CCC leadership used the idea of adding pounds to these young men’s bodies as shorthand for the transformation of a boy into a man poised as breadwinner, family anchor, and productive economic and social citizen.
The CCC often used the literal measurement of enrolled men as evidence of the improvements they could offer. Since weight gain indicated masculinity, economic success, and future prospects, these numbers were critical to the CCC narrative. Measurements, however, were wildly inconsistent. According to one study, men averaged a thirteen-pound gain during their first eight weeks in camp. The Office of the Surgeon General of the War Department said men gained an average of 6.04 pounds in their first eight weeks. Frank Persons, special assistant to the director of the CCC, claimed that enrollees gained around twenty pounds in their first six months. In a different report, the director explained that the standard six-month weight gain for enrollees was an exact 7.2 pounds. It did not matter so much the actual weight gained, as it was really just the existence of weight gain statistics that communicated the value of the program.
The CCC newspaper Happy Days was full of stories of weight gain. “I’m going to write home and tell Ma she might as well give my other suit away,” one enrollee wrote. “It won’t be big enough for me when I get out of here.” In another issue, they reported that a boy in a New Mexico camp gained eighteen pounds in a matter of months. A corps man wrote to Happy Days to complain, as he was “surprised to see that the record holder has only gained 18 pounds. Pooh, pooh!” He went on to name a man he knew who had gained twenty-one pounds and said the men of his camp should be nicknamed the “Jumbo Elephants.” He continued to describe camp weight gain, writing that “even little Elmer Wieland put on 19 and is now on a Hollywood diet, trying to keep in form. What a form!”
Letters from enrollees about the importance of the program also communicated the importance of weight gain to how they understood the CCC. When writing letters to the CCC’s director in support of the program, enrollees adopted the corps’ reliance on quantified weight as a stand in for improved health and manhood. Many included their personal pounds of weight gained in letters about the corps. As one enrollee wrote after a year and a half in the corps, “I have ceased to be the weakling that I was before enlistment. My muscles are harder, and in general ‘I can take it.’” His understanding of the corps’ value mirrored the ideas put forth in CCC publicity at the time. Both the actual pounds men put on and the more general physical improvements they saw from their role in the program made for comfortable ways of discussing the CCC. Its role as social welfare – the fact it was only available to those already on some kind of public assistance, the fact it was a state-initiated payment for men in need – was a less palatable way of discussing this program. After all, the CCC aimed to reintegrate downtrodden young men into the social fold, and wanted them to leave the program proud rather than stigmatized.
The popularity of this social welfare program was tied, then, to its fit in these narratives of American musculature and weight. It could seem outside the realm of workfare and welfare programs of the 1930s because of the intentional emphasis on the body. As the director of the CCC explained, “Whatever they do, it is toughening, a man’s work. Their muscles grow strong under this daily work.” The CCC was supposed to turn scrawny bodies — imagined as weakness and feminization — into hard muscle – imagined as breadwinning, virile, masculinity. This transformation stood at the center of CCC publicity, and remains embedded in the memory of the program as masculine hard work rather than social welfare.