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Specifics on what women in Virginia were doing on the home front


Hooverizing:" World War I on the Home Front

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Well, this Trekker was officially stumped. It had been a week and a half, and I'd run into more dead ends and false leads than Inspector Gadget does -- without Penney -- in an entire cartoon season of mishaps and adventures.


Add a little PEZ, some beady-beads, and a dashboard wiggle dude, and we're set to roll

My assignment was to write about the changing role of women during World War I. Of course this was a significant time for American women. We were tirelessly working toward gaining the right to vote, and to holding political office. We were supporting the war effort. We were condemning the war effort. And we were serving on the front lines of the war effort (35,000 of us served overseas in WWI!).

Women worked at an Iowa farm machine factory during WWI

A lot was happening on the home front during WWI. Open up any history textbook and read about the cultivation of vegetable gardens and the sale of Liberty Bonds. You'll find that women stepped into the male workforce as factory workers, postal workers, traffic cops and farmers. You'll learn that people believed Herbert Hoover when he said, "Food will win the war ," and that it became the cool thing for ordinary Americans to conserve meats, breads, and cheeses so that our soldiers would be fed well overseas.

But even with all of this going on, I really couldn't portray it for you. I hadn't gone to any sites, shot any video, or taken any pictures. Why? Because between Illinois and Iowa, I hadn't found a single factory (still standing) that had relied on women, or a single women's war relief group (still organized) to weave the story of their experiences for you. How could I show you what real women felt and thought about the first World War?

And then, Daphne reminded me of the most valuable historical resource I have: my amazing and inspirational 95-year-old grandmother . Since she had grown up in Chicago, she had already helped us with Daph's dispatch on Al Capone and prohibition -- why not ask her to share her memories of being an 11-year-old girl during World War I?

Becky and Baubie: living history
Becky and Baubie: living history

What a truly fantastic idea. Baubie (I call her the Yiddish name for grandmother) was eager, as always, to help. And during that call she spun a story for me, with songs and jokes, detailed descriptions and personal feelings, that opened up World War I America in a way a textbook never could. Her words follow:

"There was a parade on Halsted Street every time our boys went off to the war, with all of the music, all of the fanfare. We would walk the boys all the way down to the train station, where they would leave for whatever training camp was their first destination. It was very patriotic and sad . But you always thought that they would come back. You expected them to. Two of my brothers served in the war, and the family was always so pleased, so proud when we got a letter from them. I still have a postcard from Joe that he addressed "to [his] little sister Hannah" while he was in France. Happily, they both came home from the war, and each in one piece."

So while the boys were away, many Americans back home did everything they could to support the war effort, keeping patriotic and busily not worrying about when their boys would come home.

The vegetables Baubie used to grow in a community garden can now be bought with ease at your local grocery store
Each neighborhood had their community gardens, where a family would have its own plot. We would grow all sorts of vegetables there because food was so scarce -- everything that was normally available was now used for the war effort. There were food rations, and everything was "Hooverized" in order to save materials of all kinds."

"Hooverized?" Does that have something to do with a vacuum cleaner? Not quite. During World War I, Herbert Hoover was the National Food Administrator. That means that he was the guy in charge of making sure we had enough food at home, and the soldiers had enough food overseas. The propaganda posters read, "Feed a Fighter: Eat only what you need. Waste nothing, that he and his family may have enough."

"We even wore "Hoover dresses" which minimized the use of material. It was a sort of apron that had two front flaps, one that fit and buttoned behind the other. And you could switch the flaps, so it really became two dresses in one! This way, after wearing the first flap out front, it would become soiled, and the next day you would wear the other flap out front."

Voila! And I thought reversible clothing was a sorry trend of the '80s!

Everyone got in on the knitting action

"There was a lot of knitting, even in school. We would knit little squares and socks for the soldier s, while women at home would knit sweaters for the soldiers, and get together to make bandages. Then in school we used to buy 25-cent coupons that we would paste into a book. They would add up eventually to enough for a war bond. Even if you didn't have a lot of money, everyone would buy something. And then we would write to soldiers from school. Everyone would be given the name of a soldier, and we would write back and forth with them -- to keep the men happy. I used to write to an Italian man from Chicago. It definitely helped keep their morale up."

Patriotism wound up permeating popular culture at the time.

"We didn't have radios in those days, so one of the things that boys and girls would do when they got together was gather around the piano and sing. I guess it's like when you get together and dance these days. Well, before the United States entered World War I, one of the most popular songs was, 'I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be a Soldier .' But in 1917 that was replaced with the song, 'America, I Raised My Boy for You.' Another one was 'Keep the Home Fires Burning,' which reminded people to keep their hopes high and their pride strong in their boys at war ('While your hearts are yearning ... turn the dark clouds inside out ... ')."

No need to

If only I had a tape recorder to play you the verses that Baubie sang to me! Her voice, her stories brought to life a time period I've only read about. She's sparked my imagination to picture a United States different from one I have ever known. I can now see the families bent over their neighborhood vegetable gardens , and the rows of school children knitting away on a soldier's sock at their desks. There are the teenagers gathered around the living room piano to sing pride-filled songs supporting their brothers in the war, and the emotional, musical parade to send off the neighborhood's new recruits. These images were inspired by her valuable oral history, in a way I'd never experienced in my book research.

And so I give these visions to you. We Trekkers are reporters of history. Our goal is to give a forum to stories, people and events that have been overwhelmingly overlooked by the majority of our textbooks.

But we are not historians. They have one luxury that we do not: time. Many times we are simply constrained by geography, or more often, by deadlines, and cannot research a topic as thoroughly as we would like. But with a little luck, we often hit the jackpot and find the perfect source from which to learn. Whether it's the labor activist in Pittsburgh who can discuss the Battle of Homestead inside-out, or the African American SCUBA diver who's been to the Henrietta Marie slave shipwreck at the bottom of the Caribbean Sea , we try to bring you voices of authority on topics we're covering.

Tonight I thought I was stuck. I almost gave up. But what I realized was that I was just looking in the wrong places. Indeed, the information for my dispatch lay no further than my family tree.


Please email me at:rebecca@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephen - Those crazy-sexy-cool sufferin' Suffragettes
Daphne - Women voters: You've come a long way, baby!
Steph - Celebrate the cycle of life!
Daphne - An "untouchable" tour of a former gangster's paradise
Nick - Margaret Sanger: The stork's got nothin' to do with it!
MAD - Domestic violence: Not behind closed doors anymore