What our grandparents can teach us about saving the worldPosted Jan 28, 2009
In June 1942, park officials reported that “never has bicycling been so popular in Yosemite Valley as it is this season.” Public health officials praised the dual contributions of victory gardening and bike riding to enhanced civilian vigor and well-being, even predicting that it might reduce the already ominously increasing cancer rate.
One particularly interesting example was the “rational consumption” movement sponsored by the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD), which encouraged “buying only for need” and set up consumer information centers that gave advice on family nutrition, food conservation, and appliance repair.
Ideas as well as commodities were recycled in the war years. Much of the idealism of the early New Deal reemerged in wartime housing, fair employment, and childcare programs, as well as in the postwar economic conversion from military to civilian production. One particularly interesting example was the “rational consumption” movement sponsored by the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD), which encouraged “buying only for need” and set up consumer information centers that gave advice on family nutrition, food conservation, and appliance repair.
The OCD consumer committees challenged the sacred values of mass consumption — the rapid turnover of styles, the tyranny of fashion and advertising, built-in obsolescence, and so on — while promoting a new concept of the housewife as an “economy soldier” who ran her household with the same frugal efficiency that Henry Kaiser ran his shipyards.
Yet with millions of women wielding rivet guns and welding torches, traditional concepts of gender roles were increasingly contested. In April 1942, for example, the New York Times visited a trailer village near a Connecticut defense plant, expecting to find young wives yearning for the postwar future of suburban homes and model kitchens that the 1939 New York World’s Fair had prophesied. Instead, they found female war workers who liked their industrial jobs and were content to live in simple quarters that demanded little or no housework.
One point of convergence between this incipient “war feminism” and the conservation imperative was the fashion upheaval of 1942. Desperate to conserve wool, rayon, silk, and cotton, the War Production Board (WPB) believed that the same techniques that were revolutionizing the production of bombers and Liberty ships — the simplification of design and the standardization of components — could be usefully applied to garment manufacture.
In an unusual role for a department store heir, H. Stanley Marcus (of the Neiman Marcus dynasty) became the WPB’s chief commissar for rational fashions. As such, he emphasized conservation and durability — priorities that coincided with the egalitarian-feminist values long advocated by the radical fashion designer Elizabeth Hawes, whose 1943 book, Why Women Cry, was a bold manifesto on behalf of the millions of “wenches with wrenches.”