Home-Front Ecology What our grandparents can teach us about saving the world
By Mike Davis
(page 2 of 2)
More important, that national obsession of the 1890s, the bicycle, made a huge comeback, partly inspired by the highly publicized example of wartime Britain, where bikes transported more than a quarter of the population to work. Less than two months after Pearl Harbor, a new secret weapon, the "victory bike"--made of nonessential metals, with tires from reclaimed rubber--was revealed on front pages and in newsreels. Hundreds of thousands of war workers, meanwhile, confiscated their kids' bikes for their commute to the plant or office, and scores of cities and towns sponsored bike parades and "bike days" to advertise the patriotic advantages of Schwinn over Chevrolet. With recreational driving curtailed by rationing, families toured and vacationed by bike. In June 1942, park officials reported that "never has bicycling been so popular in Yosemite Valley as it is this season." Public health officials praised the dual contributions of victory gardening and bike riding to enhanced civilian vigor and well-being, even predicting that it might reduce the already ominously increasing cancer rate.
Ideas as well as commodities were recycled in the war years. Much of the idealism of the early New Deal reemerged in wartime housing, fair employment, and childcare programs, as well as in the postwar economic conversion from military to civilian production. One particularly interesting example was the "rational consumption" movement sponsored by the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD), which encouraged "buying only for need" and set up consumer information centers that gave advice on family nutrition, food conservation, and appliance repair. The OCD consumer committees challenged the sacred values of mass consumption--the rapid turnover of styles, the tyranny of fashion and advertising, built-in obsolescence, and so on--while promoting a new concept of the housewife as an "economy soldier" who ran her household with the same frugal efficiency that Henry Kaiser ran his shipyards.
Yet with millions of women wielding rivet guns and welding torches, traditional concepts of gender roles were increasingly contested. In April 1942, for example, the New York Times visited a trailer village near a Connecticut defense plant, expecting to find young wives yearning for the postwar future of suburban homes and model kitchens that the 1939 New York World's Fair had prophesied. Instead, they found female war workers who liked their industrial jobs and were content to live in simple quarters that demanded little or no housework.
One point of convergence between this incipient "war feminism" and the conservation imperative was the fashion upheaval of 1942. Desperate to conserve wool, rayon, silk, and cotton, the War Production Board (WPB) believed that the same techniques that were revolutionizing the production of bombers and Liberty ships--the simplification of design and the standardization of components--could be usefully applied to garment manufacture. In an unusual role for a department store heir, H. Stanley Marcus (of the Neiman Marcus dynasty) became the WPB's chief commissar for rational fashions. As such, he emphasized conservation and durability--priorities that coincided with the egalitarian-feminist values long advocated by the radical fashion designer Elizabeth Hawes, whose 1943 book, Why Women Cry, was a bold manifesto on behalf of the millions of "wenches with wrenches."
The goal was a "slim, abbreviated silhouette," whose higher hemlines, girdleless form, and stabilized variation in styles would free fabric and looms to make more uniforms, tents, and parachutes. As shorter skirts, along with overalls and pants, became the WPB-approved norm, Life magazine photographers delighted the troops overseas with images of true patriotic zeal: starlets cutting off the bottoms of their nightgowns or showing off the shorter pajamas that were helping to win the war. Those nightgown trimmings, along with the wool cuffs from men's pants (ordered sheared by the WPB in May 1942), were eagerly recycled into blankets and other military fabrics in the 500-odd sewing workshops across the country that had been organized in response to an appeal from the Bureau of Industrial Conservation.
Conservation also warred with luxury lifestyles. Although defense production was adding billions to the net worth of America's plutocrats, it became harder for them to spend it in the usual conspicuous ways. In order to force builders to meet the acute demand for affordable housing for war workers, the WPB banned construction of homes costing more than $500 (the median value of the average home was then about $3,000). Simultaneously, thousands of servants fled Park Avenue and Beverly Hills to take higher-paying jobs in defense factories, while many of those who remained joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations' new United Domestic Workers Union.
Some millionaires retreated to their clubs to grouse about Franklin D. Roosevelt's latest outrages, but others accepted the servant shortage and moved into smaller (although still luxurious) apartments while allowing their mansions to become temporary war housing. In a typical story, the Chicago Tribune in July 1942 described the adventures of seven young Navy petty officers and their wives who were sharing an old robber baron's mansion. (Today we would call it "cohousing.")
The total mobilization of the time was dubbed the "People's War," and while it had no lack of conservative critics, there was remarkable consistency in the observation of journalists and visitors (as well as in later memoirs) that the combination of a world crisis, full employment, and mild austerity seemed to be a tonic for the American character. New York Times columnist Samuel Williamson, for example, monitored the impacts of rationing and restricted auto use on families in commuter suburbs that lacked "the self-sufficiency of the open country" and the "complete integration of the large city." After noting initial popular dismay and confusion, Williamson was heartened to see suburbanites riding bikes, mending clothes, planting gardens, and spending more time in cooperative endeavors with their neighbors. Without cars, people moved at a slower pace but seemed to accomplish more. Like Welles in The Magnificent Ambersons, Williamson pointed out that American life had been revolutionized in a single generation and many good things seemingly lost forever; the war and the emphasis on conservation were now resurrecting some of the old values. "One of these," he wrote, "may be the rediscovery of the home--not as a dormitory, but as a place where people live. Friendships will count for more."
An alternative future lurked in Williamson's hopeful comment, but it was swept away by the backlash against the social and economic reforms of the New Deal and the postwar euphoria of abundance. Few of the core values or innovative programs of the People's War survived either the cold war or the cultural homogeneity of suburbanization. Yet, even a few short generations later, we can find surprising inspirations and essential survival skills in that brief age of victory gardens and happy hitchhikers.
Mike Davis is the author, most recently, of Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb. He is working on a new book on the geopolitics of climate change.
Photos, from top: Library of Congress, National Archives (2); used with permission.