Friday, August 17, 2012

The War At Home

1944 poster for the Advertising Council-National Garden Program; Dick Williams artist
Those of us who grew up in the postwar years of World War II were not a part of the nationwide movement of planting victory gardens, food rationing, canning and preserving and other programs designed to support the government and armed forces during the years when America’s attention was focused on events overseas. Like many, our family did have a vegetable garden in the backyard, and like middle class mothers everywhere, my own mother preserved a variety of foods. But in those optimistic years following the war there was no rationing and I am unable to recall a time in childhood when many of us were forced to do without the basics that defined life among America’s middle class during that time.

Throughout the years of World War II the average American depended upon a ‘victory garden’ to provide food during a time when the nation’s major production was geared toward providing a food supply for the troops overseas. It was a nationwide effort by government agencies, private foundations, businesses, schools, and seed companies all working together to provide land, instruction, and seeds for both individuals and communities to grow food. Both Americans and the English created gardens from backyards, vacant lots, parks, baseball fields, and schoolyards, where children and adults fertilized, planted, weeded, and watered in an effort to harvest an abundance of vegetables. Any excess was canned and preserved for winter and early spring, until the next year’s victory garden produce was ready for harvest.

1917 Bureau of Education, Department of Interior; Edward Penfield artist

Those gardens are now a fragment of American history. Thankfully, we still have a wealth of catalogs, photos, film, newspaper articles and diaries that tell the story.

Prompted by a colorful outpouring of government sponsored propaganda, canning and preserving surged during both world wars. Citizens were encouraged to start victory gardens with an aim toward reducing their reliance on limited food rations. The next step was naturally preserving the newly-grown produce.

For both the government and the people war became a challenge to elevate the importance of food production and the daily habits surrounding food economy. Circumstances required citizens on the home front to adjust their daily, peacetime routines, an adjustment no one thought would be easy. Canning and preserving at home became a way of relieving pressure on the canning industry that was needed to preserve food for soldiers. With this aim in mind, the government called on artists to create a propaganda poster campaign designed to make canning seem patriotic. The result was an outpouring of posters featuring brightly colored artwork and slogans that recalled a simpler time when life and humor for most was unsophisticated. The posters became a device for bringing the public together around a common need to support the armed forces, conveying the message that Americans faced a vital need for food conservation, rationed goods, meatless and wheatless days, home gardening and canning.

1917 Connecticut State Council of Defense; artist unknown

Posters produced during World War I were for the most part designed in the older style of word outweighing picture or image. At the time of World War II the style was full-color, presented in an enthusiastic tone without mention of war and devoting more space to image than text.

The two posters above and below (both from World War I) speak to American common ground through religion, language, patriotism and the experience of immigrants. Both were produced in 1917 by the US Food Administration-Educational Division; the top poster is by artist A. Hendee, the bottom one by Charles Edward Chambers.

National Food Emergency-Food Garden Commission, 1917


  1. Great post, Bleets! I grew up in the late 50s and into the 60s when the rationing was well over, but the mentality stuck with my parents and grandparents. Coming from farmers on both sides of the family, we always had gardens and some of my fondest memories is of everyone sitting around shelling peas or snapping ends off green beans. There was great conversation and much laughter. I miss it.

  2. Again I am taken back many years to my Mama's garden. I have shelled peas and peeled peaches for days upon days. My young aunt and I would have a contest to see who could peel a peach without breaking the peel for the entire peach. Suffice it to say, I am a master at shelling peas and peeling peaches today. In fact, just this summer I have had a hand in making peach jalapeño jam.

  3. I remember my parents talking about rationing and such and having to apply for gas stamps in order to travel. The posters are wonderful and wish I had one or more hanging on my walls.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America