What our grandparents can teach us about saving the worldPosted Jan 28, 2009
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.
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 author, most recently, of the kids’ adventure, ‘Land of the Lost Mammoths’ (Perceval Press, 2003) and co-author of ‘Under the Perfect Sun: the San Diego Tourists Never See’ (New Press, 2003). He is currently working on a book about the recent political earthquake in California, ‘Heavy Metal Freeway’ (to be published by Metropolitan Books).
From Sierra Magazine