It’s easy to draw parallels between today and the 1930’s, given the Great Depression/Recession, and the fact that much of our infrastructure–built as part of an effort during the big Depression-Era push to get Americans working–is now reaching the end of its life expectancy, but one of the parallels we Do Not Talk About in Polite Company is drawn between our years at war in the 1940’s and our years at war here and now. While our grandparents were involved in a nationwide effort to recycle, save, ration, and sacrifice in the name of Uncle Sam, right down to every community and street corner, we…put yellow ribbon magnets on our cars.
The long, convoluted societal path that led us from the 40’s to today is usually the stuff that takes an academic semester to cover, so I’ll leave that for more august bloggers than I and get to my real point. The Victory Garden.
Victory gardens were promoted as part of the War Effort out of necessity. As staples and fuel were rationed in favor of arming, moving, and feeding troops, the government encouraged people to grow for themselves what the production industries could not. As a result, the amount of fresh produce grown by individuals and families during the war years was estimated to equal that of all the commercial food production at the time. About twenty million victory gardens were planted as a result of the promotion.
Victory gardens gave those on the homefront a sense of making a real contribution to the war effort. If you could not enlist to fight overseas, if you waited at home, desperate for news of how your husband, brother, son, or father fared in a far-off land–whether he had enough to eat, dry socks, a warm blanket–a victory garden was something you, a civilian, could do, that actually made a difference. Even if you weren’t wearing Army Green, your daily life still felt the effects of wartime sacrifice in the form of rationing resources. Families received ration coupons for everything from butter and sugar to gasoline. Ration coins and coupons were issued based on an across-the-board set of rules, rather than wealth, and everyone was expected to abide because there was a WAR ON (let’s all cue the pearl-clutching over socialism now and get that out of the way, mmkay? Long before it gets to Karl Marx proportions, socialism is also giving half a shit about your neighbor, including trading your lettuce for his tomatoes).
Both government and private industry issued guides on gardening, including information on preserving and canning your own foods. When a can of peas cost 16 ration points and fresh spinach from the market cost 8 points, those 48 monthly ration points can get eaten up in short order.
Of course, this isn’t to say that a lively underground ration coupon trade didn’t go on, but when there’s a finite quantity on the market–whether it’s the legit market or the black market–producing more of your own becomes a very attractive option.
The Victory Garden didn’t start in WWII, although the most famous icons regarding victory gardens come from that era. WWI also saw an American effort to ease the pressure on resources with “Registered War Gardens” in homes, commandeered from public spaces, and in public schools all over the nation.
With rationing in place, one would expect to see food shortages, but victory gardens forestalled that by equalling the production of commercially-grown food in the country.
Victory Gardens Today
There’s a modern movement in turning the soil that hearkens back to the Victory Gardens of yesteryear. It’s not as motivated by rationing as it is motivated by equal parts economic need, social consciousness, and health and welfare concerns. Fresh foods have become more expensive than cheap, pre-packaged, chemically-laden foods, and people are starting to notice that our bodies, our children, aren’t exactly thriving on sub-standard fuel.
Modern gardening techniques–and the enthusiasts that go with them–are found everywhere, from the exurbs to the heart of the city as people turn patios, rooftops, and backyards into little green patches. I’ll even extend a fraction of credit to Farmville, that ridiculous little Facebook game that can eat your life a few minutes at a time, for turning some people on to the fact that you can have a real garden for about the same time investment. The First Lady has chosen healthy food and combating child obesity as her signature issue, and put a garden on the White House lawn. While many of us may not be able to completely substitute the weekly grocery bill, we have a chance of introducing a kid to something green that’s not gummy. And yeah, reducing even slightly the need to truck food in from incredibly long distances will, in fact, help the modern War Effort. Because while we’re not feeling it every day as our grandparents did, there still is a war going on.
Rationing On the Homefront – The Ames, Iowa Historical Society
Victory Gardens, The Movie!
Courtesy the Prelinger Archives