Historic photo of three women (from the Library of Congress)
Source: Library of Congress

March is Women’s History month, and every year at this time I find delight that two of my personal passions—women’s history and gardening—return to our media conversations. Over the past year, American interest in gardening surged as people looked to history to find ways to respond to the multiple looming crises caused by the spread of COVID-19.

In 2020, a surface dive into the history of wartime gardening provided inspiration for many of our neighbors to grow gardens for themselves and their neighbors during uncertain times. A deeper dive into the history of wartime cultivation, however, reveals a history of women’s personal and political activism.

Gardening Provides Inspiration for Women

In my book, Cultivating Victory: The Women’s Land Army and Victory Garden Movement, I explore the roles that agriculture played in not only sustaining nations during wartime, but also in shaping personal identity for millions of women. Throughout the 20th century, cultivation was deeply tied to identity, and gardening was one way that people expressed their own identity amid gender, racial and economic struggles. For American women, cultivation provided opportunity for both political activism and personal growth.

During both World War I and World War II, the US government targeted women in their advertising of wartime agricultural programming, and women used the opportunity to put their labor—both at home and on farms—at the forefront of national conversations about the imbalances and inequities of their labor and their political voice. Their labor helped win the long movement for suffrage, aided in carving out places and spaces for women in education and agriculture, and ultimately provided opportunities for women to form personal identities based on their work to help others.

The Role of Food in the War Effort

During WWI, the American government saw the production and distribution of food abroad as a political symbol of American abundance, while American women saw it as a platform for equality. Keeping the Allies from starvation became an important goal of the US involvement in the war. Americans believed their safety depended upon a victory of their trading partners and cultural allies.

National Archives and Records Administration
Records of the U. S. Food Administration
Record Group 4
National Archives Identifier: 512497

Therefore, as war loomed across Europe, American political and social leaders looked for ways to send aid to food insecure soldiers and civilians in Europe. Official rationing programs discouraged American citizens from consuming too much—and to accommodate for some of those losses, innovative agricultural programs encouraged Americans to produce more food at home in backyards, window boxes, rooftops and vacant lots. Thousands of American women entered the agricultural workforce by taking the place of male farmers away at war, while millions more used what little space they had at home to do their part to help fight on the “homefront.”

The Food Administration encouraged Americans to participate in “Meatless Mondays” and “Wheatless Wednesdays” in small efforts to reduce the amount of consumption. Propaganda programs asked women to sign a pledge that they would avoid waste, conserve more and consume less. Increasing the production of food, then, was the next logical step.

War Gardens for Victory

Urging citizens to grow some of their own food, instead of purchasing all of it, provided opportunity for the government to buy larger quantities from farmers to ship overseas, and for farmers to grow more corn and wheat for a variety of less perishable processed foods. Thus came about the idea of the “War Garden,” as it was commonly referred to then. Only after the victory of WWI did a US author term them “Victory Gardens.”

When WWI ended, many of those victory gardens were converted back to gardens of abundant beauty and ornamentation. Decades of excess and then an economic depression left many Americans little concerned about growing food to aid others around the world, and those who continued to garden were often people of the laboring classes who needed it for survival during the Great Depression.

WWII Brings Back Food Gardening

During WWII the American government wasted no time in encouraging Americans to cultivate for victory again. The War Food Administration established goals, standards and a program of “registering” gardens across the country. The Office of War Information provided the educational propaganda campaigns necessary to convince Americans that they should not only produce food in their gardens, but they should do it in large quantities at a high level of quality, and then can as much of it as possible for storage. To encourage the competitive nature of some gardeners, the government encouraged contests to see who had the largest garden, the most abundant harvest, etc.

Approximately 10 million victory gardens were planted in 1942 and that number increased to 20 million in 1943. The UDSA estimated that those 20 million gardens produced 10 billion pounds of food and 40% of the nations’ vegetable supply. This home-grown abundance provided nourishment for families struggling during government sponsored rationing programs that aimed to help American soldiers and Allies abroad.

Though people facing struggles due to the official rationing of food were relatively quick to recognize the benefits of gardening, socialites and others took some convincing to convert their existing ornamental gardens to edible ones. Many people didn’t hesitate to contribute money for organized aid abroad, but to engage in the labor of vegetable gardening was questionable for some Americans. As a result, posters, radio programs, and even plays promoted the patriotic duty of food production. This is an excerpt of a song written to motivate such people:

There’ll be tomatoes where the roses used to grow,

Potatoes where petunias used to grow.

No more sunflow’rs waving high ’til the pole beans reach the sky,

Then you’ll serve a vict’ry dinner bye and bye.

Remember as ye sow, so shall ye reap,

Come on and hoe a row and dig it deep,

Ev’ry seed is goin’ to grow into victory I know with tomatoes where the roses used to grow.

~There’ll be Tomatoes Where the Roses Used to Grow – Gilbert Mills, Ted Rolfe and Billy Faber, 1945

Colorado Joins the Movement

The people of Colorado responded to the victory garden movement with great enthusiasm. During the relatively short involvement of the US in WWI, Colorado businesses encouraged workers to plant community gardens on the grounds of schools, parks, and industrial and manufacturing plants.

Source: Colorado Virtual Library

During WWII Coloradans responded to national movements to increase agricultural production, and expanded their mission to encourage even more local household and neighborhood production. In 1943 at the dedication of Denver’s first Victory Garden (in what is now Congress Park), Denver Mayor Benjamin Stapleton declared that growing food during wartime was the most important community project the city had ever undertaken.

Teachers at East High School in Denver—and at other schools throughout Denver—taught classes on cultivation and the benefits of victory gardening. In 1943, Denverites drained Armor Lake, which had formed in 1864 after the Platte River flooded, for communal victory gardening.

When the US government asked all Americans to “grow more in ’44,” people in Denver planted more than 50,000 victory gardens, valued at more than a half million dollars in home-grown produce. Colorado State College (now CSU) got involved by coordinating with the state to provide cultivation tips to gardeners.

A History of Activism for the Greater Good

Building on the success of women’s participation in WWI, women in the US gained suffrage and a stronger position in society. Though the media attention surrounding their work disappeared after the war was over, their service was part of the cultural legacy of women’s service during the war that encouraged the ratification of the 19th Amendment. By the end of WWII, women gained a stronger role in paid agricultural labor and the organization of agricultural educational programs across the country.

Though the term “victory garden” remains in our collective memory, the intent of the work to mobilize and sacrifice for the good of others is often overlooked. The wartime garden was the ultimate symbol of American abundance and sacrifice for the good of others. Through their sacrifice and labor, millions of American women contributed to a community effort to nourish, and perhaps even save, millions of military and civilian lives at home and abroad.

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