This Sunday marks the 73rd anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor – the event that catapulted the United States into WWII. By December of 1941 most of Europe had been embroiled in this global conflict for more than two years. Many of us are aware of the monumental economic, social, and military changes that continued to reverberate for decades after those first D-day celebrations. Younger generations, however, seldom realize the immediate effects this war had on all aspects of the daily lives of citizens on the home front.
Conservation and rationing became a necessary part of the war effort for those at home. The labeled foods pictured above constitute an adult food ration for an entire week. In order to supplement these rations, citizens were encouraged to grow backyard “victory gardens” and raise their own meat when possible. WWII women also became extremely creative in order to stretch their rations and allow for occasional treats – like the recipe below for Chocolate Wacky Cake, which uses no eggs, milk, or butter.
It wasn’t only food that was rationed. In 1941 the British government announced measures to conserve textiles. As part of that measure (and to prevent the hoarding of material for the black market) ration coupons were required for the purchase of clothing. At the outset, each person was permitted 66 clothing coupons per year – which added up to one new outfit. By 1945, the number of clothing coupons for each citizen would be reduced by nearly half. In addition, many materials – like nylon – were being commandeered for war use while natural products such as wool and silk were in short supply. Some women, like the ones pictured above, resorted to having their stockings “painted on” using various store bought and homemade dyes.
Women of all economic and social backgrounds were encouraged to “make do and mend.” Ladies magazines were filled with tips to makeover old outfits, and create new ones out of linens and draperies. By 1942 the Civilian Clothing Order had been issued in Britain disallowing unnecessary trim, buttons, ruffles, or pockets. It also led to the creation of the Utility Suit. Designed to conform to utility laws, there were no pleats or cuffs. The cut of the suit conserved fabric, as did the small pockets. Women both in the UK and the US cultivated an appreciation for the sleek, clean lines of this utilitarian clothing, and without the added frills of passing fads – like ruffles or puffed sleeves – these durable suits didn’t become outdated. They could be (and were) worn for years. In addition, women were instructed by war slogans, like the one below, that austerity was a matter of national pride.
Of course with all of this austerity in the cut, fabric, and availability of clothing, accessorizing was the name of the game. Expensive fine jewelry was scarce during the war. Jewelry production was obviously not high on any nation’s list of priorities. Even so, there were a few jewelry trends during the early to mid forties as a direct result of the war.
The tradition of exchanging mementos (sometimes called sweetheart jewelry) with loved ones back home began in WWI and continued in the second world war. Much of this jewelry was hand made during long stretches between fighting by lonely servicemen, and came to be known as “trench art.” The lack of materials available led to creative uses of inexpensive wire, coins, silverware, and natural material like wood. Other examples of sweetheart jewelry were inexpensively manufactured with symbols of various military branches and sold to servicemen to send home. These items were worn with pride by wives and sweethearts awaiting the return of their GI’s.
Jewelers during WWII and directly after were extremely restricted in terms of materials. This led to the use of alloy metals and a boost in popularity for many semiprecious stones such as citrine and topaz. Perhaps to offset the serious, business-like suits and sensible shoes, women gravitated toward large bracelets and bold, whimsical designs. Most women were reluctant to spend resources on store-bought jewelry, so with the typical 1940’s mend and make do mindset, many women began making colorful jewelry of their own from repurposed materials like beads and buttons.
In subsequent years those inexpensive trinkets of WWII have become storied family treasures.
We can all learn something from this WWII generation. These women carried the home front through war and through years of hardship, not only with resiliency, but with grace, style, and dignity.
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