What our grandparents can teach us about saving the worldPosted Jan 28, 2009
Victory gardening transcended the need to supplement the wartime food supply and grew into a spontaneous vision of urban greenness (even if that concept didn’t yet exist) and self-reliance. In Los Angeles, flowers (“a builder of citizen morale”) were included in the “Clean-Paint-Plant” program to transform the city’s vacant spaces, and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden taught the principles of “garden culture” to local schoolteachers and thousands of their enthusiastic students.
The war also temporarily dethroned the automobile as the icon of the American standard of living. Detroit assembly lines were retooled to build Sherman tanks and B-24 Liberators. Gasoline was rationed and, following the Japanese conquest of Malaya, so was rubber. (The U.S. Office of the Rubber Director was charged with getting used tires to factories, where they became parts for tanks and trucks.) When shortages and congestion brought streetcar and bus systems across the country near the breaking point, it became critical to induce workers to share rides or adopt alternative means of transportation.
“When you ride ALONE,” warned one poster, “you ride with Hitler!”
While overcrowded defense hubs like Detroit, San Diego, and Washington, D.C., never achieved the national goal of 3.5 riders per car, they did double their average occupancy through extensive networks of neighborhood, factory, and office carpools. Car sharing was reinforced by gas-ration incentives, stiff fines for solo recreational driving, and stark slogans: “When you ride ALONE,” warned one poster, “you ride with Hitler!”
Even hitchhiking became an officially sanctioned form of ride sharing. Drivers were encouraged to pick up war workers stranded at bus stops and soldiers heading home for furloughs. In Colorado, the Republican Party vowed to save rubber by having all of its candidates in the 1944 elections hitchhike to campaign rallies. In Hollywood, a starlet in revealing tennis shorts won editorial praise for helping a stranded serviceman catch a ride home.
Emily Post, America’s mandarin of manners, frowned on such roadside seductions and emphasized a modest etiquette for snagging a ride: It was “bad form to jerk the thumb when hitchhiking”; instead, a woman should “display her defense identification tag.” She also warned that “these ‘rides’ are not social gatherings and conversation is not necessary,” although many baby boomers are undoubtedly the result of wartime ride sharing.
One of the major films of 1942 was Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, a pessimistic chronicle of how modern corporate capitalism and the automobile had destroyed the easygoing horse-and-buggy world of the late 19th century. Yet aspects of that world, including even the horses and buggies, were reborn under the auspices of wartime austerity.
To the delight of children as well as elderly people who still mourned the passing of the urban horse, grocers and delivery companies circumvented the rubber shortage by hooking up Old Nellie to a wagon. Suburbanites in Connecticut and Long Island began to “break their saddle horses to harness,” the New York Times reported in May 1942, adding that “harness makers are doing a brisk little trade and horse-drawn carriages are coming out of hiding.”
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.