Victory Gardens in World War II
For the average American in World War II, the Victory Garden was a practical way to contribute to the war effort. Some 20 million Victory Gardens were planted (US population in 1940 was 132 million), and by 1943, these little plots produced 40 percent of all vegetables consumed in the US. It’s estimated that 9-10 million tons of vegetables were grown.
The Need for Victory Gardens
Wartime needs stretched agricultural production. The United States not only had to feed its own civilian and military population, but many of the Allies relied on America’s bread basket. In addition, U-boats sank hundreds of food-laden ships bound for Britain. While the need expanded, the number of farm workers decreased due to the draft and – ironically – due to the internment of Japanese-Americans.
Canned fruits and vegetables were rationed starting March 1, 1943, so civilians were encouraged to grow their own produce to supplement their rations. The use of fewer canned goods would decrease the use of precious tin and reduce the strain on the heavily taxed rail and road systems. (see following article)
The Victory Garden Program
In December 1941, shortly after the United States entered World War II, Agriculture Secretary Claude Wickard began promoting Victory Gardens. The Department of Agriculture produced pamphlets to guide urban and suburban gardeners, magazines and newspapers published helpful articles, and patriotic posters urged participation.
Neighborhood and community committees were formed with veteran gardeners guiding newcomers. These committees also helped with distribution of surplus food and sharing of equipment. Many garden tools were made of steel, which was in short supply, so sharing between families was encouraged.
Who Could Participate?
Victory Gardens were promoted as family fun, as good healthy recreation for all ages. Farmers were encouraged to plant gardens for family needs as well as their usual cash crop. Those living in small towns or suburbs were the best candidates for Victory Gardens. Interestingly, the Department of Agriculture discouraged city-dwellers from gardening, afraid of seed being wasted on poor soil and poor lighting.
Where Were Gardens Grown?
Victory Gardens sprang up on farms, in backyards, and on city rooftops. Even some windowboxes were converted from flowers to vegetables. Communal gardens were planted in parks and vacant lots and baseball fields. Sites for these gardens included San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the Portland Zoo in Oregon, and Boston’s Copley Square and Fenway Victory Gardens. The Fenway site is still an active Victory Garden today.
War plants often planted gardens on their properties for use in company cafeterias, and schoolyard gardens provided fresh vegetables for school lunches.
How to Garden?
The average small-town or city-dweller knew little about gardening. Pamphlets provided sample planting schedules and garden plans to show the newcomer how to grow enough to feed his family for a year without wasting seed or food. These pamphlets described how to choose the garden site, prepare the soil, fertilize, plant properly, weed, and harvest. The Department of Agriculture and the War Production Board prepared a special Victory Garden fertilizer for home use.
The ideal Victory Garden produced fresh vegetables in season and plenty to be preserved for winter. Women’s magazines published articles about how to can, store, dry, pickle, and freeze the bounty. People were encouraged to share their surplus with others in their neighborhoods.
Victory Gardens in World War II were more than a way to increase morale. They produced a significant amount of healthy food, allowing agricultural produce to be used for the military and the Allies, and reducing the use of tin and transportation. Despite rationing, the
average American ate better during the war than before. The Victory Garden was part of the reason.
Lingeman, Richard R. Don’t You Know There’s a War on? The American Home Front 1941-1945. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1970.
The Victory Garden Foundation website, accessed 2012. (Site no longer active.)
Make It Do – Rationing of Canned Goods
in World War II
Rationing of processed foods was an important part of life on the US Home Front. A complex and constantly changing system kept the grocery shopper on her toes.
Why processed foods?
Tin was short.
The Japanese controlled 70 percent of the world’s tin supply. Tin’s resistance to temperature, shock, and moisture made it an ideal packaging material. The US military used tin for ration tins, ammunition boxes, plasma containers, and for morphine syrettes. The use of tin for civilian purposes had to be curtailed, which meant rationing of canned goods.
Food was in high demand.
In addition to meeting civilian needs, US farms also fed the military and the Allies. However, an agricultural labor shortage due to the draft and the internment of Japanese-Americans strained the system. Reducing civilian usage of processed fruit and vegetable products through rationing helped reduce the strain.
Which processed foods were rationed?
Starting March 1, 1943, three hundred items were rationed, including canned or bottled or frozen fruits and vegetables, canned or bottled juices and soups, and dried fruits. Fresh fruits and vegetables were not rationed, nor were pickles, relishes, or Jell-O.
Each rationed item was assigned a point value, which varied over time due to supply, demand, and region. The job of the grocer became more complicated. Products had to be labeled not only with price but with point value. Each month, point values changed, and the grocer had to re-label.
War Ration Book Two
On March 1, 1943, War Ration Book Two became active. The blue stamps provided 48 points worth of processed foods each month. This supplied 33 pounds of canned goods per person per year, which was 13 pounds less than pre-war usage. Rationing calendars were published in the newspapers to help people keep track of which stamps were current. Stamps were good for eight, five, two, or one points each, with no “change” given, so the shopper had to be careful to use the exact number of points. To prevent fraud, the stamps had to be torn off in the presence of the grocer.
US rationing books owned by my mother
and grandmother, WWII
(Photo: Sarah Sundin)
War Ration Books Three and Four
Book Three became active in September 1943, but was replaced by Book Four on November 1, 1943. The system was simplified on February 27, 1944, when all stamps became worth 10 points, and plastic tokens were issued as change.
Point values changed frequently, and items were often removed from or returned to rationing based on the harvest. On September 17, 1944 after a good harvest—and in preparation for the presidential election—all processed foods except canned fruit were removed from rationing, but were returned to rationing on January 1, 1945 due to the demands of the Battle of the Bulge. After V-J Day on August 15, 1945, processed foods were no longer rationed.
People were encouraged to plant Victory Gardens to reduce the amount of processed foods needed. Newspapers and magazines published how-to articles, and gardens sprang up in backyards, vacant lots, big-city window-boxes, and even on community property. By the end of 1943, Victory Gardens supplied 40 percent of civilian needs for fruits and vegetables.
To put up this bounty, home canning was encouraged. A poll in January 1944 found that 75 percent of housewives canned, and those women canned an average of 165 jars per year. This met the family’s needs and preserved ration points for foods they couldn’t grow. Extra canned fruits and vegetables were often donated to the needy.