Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2013/Fall/Dr. H. S. Willey
H. S. Willey was a dentist in Elizabeth City, N.C. who was interviewed in 1939 by W. O. Saunders as part of the Federal Writers Project. H. S. Willey's story is part of the Southern Collection housed at the University of North Carolina.
Dr. H. S. Willey was a white male who lived and worked in Elizabeth City, NC. His profession was dentistry. Willey graduated with a degree in Dental Surgery in 1903 from the University of Maryland Dental School. After graduating, he moved to Elizabeth City thinking it would be inexpensive to open a dentist practice in a smaller town. Unfortunately, there were already two established dentists in the town, so it took some effort for Willey to get customers. He married his wife in 1908, a woman whom he described as congenial, and they both lived modest lives. They owned a car but still preferred to walk whenever they could, such as to and from work.
Willey was involved in a property damage suit that eventually escalated to the Supreme Court of North Carolina. Plumbing in Willey’s second story office broke causing flooding and damages to the store beneath it. Willey and the building owners were deemed responsible for the damage.
Dr. Willey often encountered problems with his clients trying to avoid paying bills for his services by asking for the bills “on-credit”. Despite this Willey, in his opinion, ran an ethical business and did not overcharge his customers. He tried to recommend the most affordable and painless solutions to his patients, even though he or she would want his or her teeth pulled no matter what. Another way Willey made money was by renting out properties he owned. He owned two farms that he leased out to tenants for cash. As of the time of his interview, Willey eventually planned to retire to one of the farms.
Despite the hard times of the Great Depression, interest in health care among people increased. Dr. Willey noticed the difference among the clientele he serviced. At first most people would avoid the dentist until they were in pain and they had no other option but to seek treatment. But in the years leading up to his interview Willey saw more patients coming in two or three times yearly for check ups. This was a trend among health care all over the U.S. during the depression. During this time doctors often gave free care to poor people who could not afford medical fees. Population health as a whole generally increased during the Great Depression, and mortality increased during 1921 to 1938. Overall, there was a decline in the rates of most causes of death, except suicide.
An issue Willey discussed was the difficulties of meeting the costs of running a household . He described how sometimes he and his wife were unable to afford the grocery bill. This was not uncommon during the Great Depression and could be attributed to the general economy of the times. It was harder for middle class and lower families to afford their necessities. “Balance-sheet data indicate[d] that in 1938 the consumer was again the victim of a financial squeeze." While households debt fell from 1933 to 1937, a recession in the stock market caused prices to go up, once again putting a strain on households trying to pay the bills. The economic situation caused many people to try to get goods and services “on-credit,” and promise owners to pay for them in the future.
Federal Writers' Project
The Federal Writers Project was part of the New Deal Program by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of the Works Progress Administration. This program tasked writers with going out across America and documenting the stories of everyday Americans. This program employed many out of work writers as well as documented the culture of America. The style of the stories of the Federal Writers’ Project can be described as “...where social and economic history met the individual imagination in literature." There was some criticism of the production of the stories from this project. Many authors inserted their own opinions into their stories, and sometimes did not transcribe the stories properly.
Unlike many other interviews, Saunders interview of Willey consisted of mostly direct quotes by Willey. Willey appears to speak proper English, fitting the typical spoken language of an educated white male. An introduction page describing Willey’s physical characteristics and general life were included in the interview yet are crossed out by the author. The author may have done this to make the life story more objective and remove any opinions that may have been written in the introduction.
- Willey, H. S. “Women Can Take More Punishment than Men.” Federal Writer’s Project. University of North Carolina Southern History Collection. 20 April 1939. Digital.
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- Mishkin, Frederic. "The Household Balance Sheet and the Great Depression." JSTOR 38.4 (1978): 918-937. JSTOR. Web. 19 Nov. 2013. p. 28
- Mishkin, Frederic. "The Household Balance Sheet and the Great Depression." JSTOR 38.4 (1978): 918-937. JSTOR. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.
- Brinkley, Douglas. "Unmasking Writers Of the W.P.A." The New York Times. The New York Times, 02 Aug. 2003. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.