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OSU Special Collections and Archive Research Center
OSU Special Collections and Archive Research Center

The Unsung Army of Women Who Fed America and Its Allies During World War II

OSU Special Collections and Archive Research Center
OSU Special Collections and Archive Research Center

At the height of World War II, the words "bread is ammunition as vital as bullets” were stamped on pamphlets, posters, and other public service announcements across the American heartland. President Franklin D. Roosevelt echoed the sentiment in a 1943 national address: “food from our country's farms is helping the United Nations to win this war ... food ships from this country are the life line of the forces that fight for freedom.” America’s farm families, he explained, “made that victory possible.”

Roosevelt wasn’t being glib. The United States was facing a severe food shortage. With millions of men overseas, agricultural productivity had plummeted. By 1943, the farm population had dropped by 6 million from its high in 1933. Americans were rationing meat, wheat, sugar, and fats, while officials placed price controls on groceries in hopes of keeping food on the plates of its citizens and soldiers overseas.

America was busy feeding other countries, too. Britain leaned heavily on food imports from the United States and Canada, since German submarines regularly torpedoed cargo ships bound for the UK. In 1941, the Nazis developed a now-often-forgotten policy called the “Hunger Plan,” a blueprint to starve 20 million Slavs (it killed approximately 4 million Soviet citizens). That same year, the United States authorized the Lend-Lease Act, which would deliver 4.4 million tons of food to the Soviet Union alone.

All over the U.S. and UK, homegrown propaganda implored people to save and grow food:

Plant more sugar beets: Sugar is energy—let’s give 'em plenty
Food is a weapon. Don’t waste it!
Better pot-luck with Churchill today than Humble Pie under Hitler tomorrow
Dig for Plenty. Grow food in your garden or get an allotment
Grow more food: Dig for victory

Behind this “call to farms” is the story of millions of women—from farming wives to single urbanites—who dropped everything to plow fields, plant crops, cultivate gardens, rake muck, milk cows, slaughter animals, and drive tractors. They were members of an army all their own: the Woman’s Land Army.

Recruitment poster from WWI. Image credit: Boston Public Library via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Stories about women and the war effort typically revolve around Rosie the Riveter and the 6 million women who swooped onto factory floors to help build tanks, planes, and munitions. But their rural sister, the Woman’s Land Army, was equally vital.

These unsung “farmerettes” first grabbed their shovels during World War I, after a coalition of women’s groups—suffragettes, gardening clubs, the YWCA, the seven sisters colleges—responded to a heightened demand for food during the Great War. Inspired by a similar movement in Britain, approximately 20,000 urban, mostly college-educated women with little to no agricultural experience joined farms. These women didn’t just till the land American soldiers were defending. They also secured rights for themselves that had long eluded female workers, including eight-hour work days, overtime pay, and compensation insurance. The victories came in part because women finally had an upper hand during negotiations: Employers were desperate for a guaranteed supply of farm workers.

Two decades later, women’s groups such as the Woman's National Farm and Garden Association—and even Eleanor Roosevelt—called for a farmerette revival. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, these calls intensified: A 1942 Farm Journal article told women and children already living on farms to prepare “to train small town and city women for summer, seasonal and vacation jobs on the poultry, truck and fruits farms of the country.” An April 27, 1942 story in Time read, "If the U.S. [is] to feed the world, it must have a Land Army."

But the idea of reviving the Woman's Land Army initially met some resistance. In a story for Prologue magazine (a delightful quarterly magazine produced by the National Archives), historians Judy Barrett Litoff and David C. Smith discuss the lengths to which the federal government went to ease World War II’s farmhand shortage without involving women. The government imported 230,000 workers from Mexico, the Caribbean, and Canada. It moved approximately 26,000 Japanese Americans—and 265,000 POWs—from internment camps to farms. It also would later convince 2.5 million teenagers to work as Victory Farm Volunteers.

Farmers themselves also often weren't interested in female help. Government surveys and magazine articles showed that most farmers were afraid to let inexperienced women handle heavy equipment. "If I have to have a woman helping me in the field, I want my wife, not some green city girl," one farmer in Jones County, Iowa told Wallaces' Farmer and Iowa Homestead. Farmers in Ohio were reluctant to talk about the idea, afraid that their neighbors would "ridicule them for employing women." One farmer in Clark County, Iowa simply didn't trust cityfolk: "Leave her in town. She'd not be worth a whoop in the field, and if you put her in the kitchen, we'd starve to death."

Across the pond, the UK had no problem employing women. Not only did the British implement a women’s farming program, they even started a “Women’s Timber Corps.” Working in nomadic squads, approximately 6000 women surveyed, cut, and processed lumber across Scotland, England, and Wales [PDF]. These Paulette Bunyans provided lumber for telegraph poles, British mining, and even the Normandy beach landings.

As the war wore on, more women insisted on helping in the United States. “There is an army of us, healthy, intelligent, some college graduates, some young wives with husbands overseas,” wrote a Vermont woman named Charlotte Goodwin in a 1942 letter to The New York Times [PDF]. “We can drive tractors. We can milk cows. We want to join up quickly in the farm production army. We are waiting to go. But we will not wait long, because there is too much to be done, and we will find farms for ourselves.”

And they did. The University of Maryland started teaching courses on gardening, poultry, and cow-milking. The University of Connecticut taught animal husbandry. Hunter College students, “bent on out-producing Hitler,” created a “Volunteer Land Army.” Meanwhile, the Volunteer Land Corps was established to send young cityfolk to farms.

U.S. Dept of Agriculture via Flickr // Public Domain

Finally, in April 1943, the federal government caved. It announced that it would fund The Woman’s Land Army through the Emergency Farm Labor Program, or Public Law 45, which earmarked approximately $26 million to keep America's farms growing. Information booths popped up in department stores, and recruitment posters were splashed across small towns and big cities:

“WAR TAKES FOOD—FOOD for our fighting men. FOOD for our fighting allies. FOOD for workers at home. … ENROLL NOW in the WOMAN’S LAND ARMY.”

Women were generally offered between 25 and 66 cents an hour for their labor (a range that could extend to over double minimum wage). Recruiters, however, mostly crossed their fingers that patriotic duty would outweigh financial interests.

It did. In 1945, Florence Hall, the National Director of the Woman's Land Army, noted in an issue of Independent Woman that women of all stripes had joined the group: “Accountants, actresses, artists, bank clerks and tellers, beauticians, entertainers, buyers, nurses, dietitians, designers, editors, electrical crane operators, ferry command pilots, government employees … musicians, masseuses, models, stenographers ... Policewomen, research chemists, translators … and women from many other vocations.”

By the summer of 1943, about 250,000 women had participated in the Woman’s Land Army. They picked and harrowed potatoes, pitched hay, and fed livestock. Observing the WLA’s success, Dr. Milburn Wilson of the USDA claimed that “the major burden of harvesting the increase [in crops] will fall squarely on the shoulders of the women of the country and teenage boys and girls.”

He was right. The next year, 774,000 more “nonfarm” women were working the fields.

OSU Special Collections and Archive Research Center

It took time for some farmers to warm up to the help, writes historian Stephanie Carpenter in her book On the Farm Front. Some farmers believed training people with no agricultural experience wasn’t worth the hassle. Others didn’t trust the work ethic or values of city women. But those suspicions slowly faded. According to Spencer C. Tucker’s encyclopedia on World War II, “Most midwestern and southern farmers who protested the WLA in 1943 would ultimately use women as farm laborers by the end of the war.”

Nothing washes away old prejudices like exposure. Across the country, reluctant farmers came away with ringing endorsements. The manager of a hybrid seed corn company in Nebraska claimed, "The women did the best job any crew has ever done for me." An unidentified farmer in Huron, Ohio agreed: They women "couldn't be beat." One WLA supervisor, based in South Carolina, said, “Some of the best farms are now being operated by women workers.”

By war’s end, approximately 1.5 million to 3 million [PDF] American women had joined the Women’s Land Army. Tens of thousands more women living in Australia, Canada, and Britain had joined the cause on their home turf as well.

“Why were we forgotten so easily after we were no longer needed?” recalled one member of Britain's 80,000-strong Women’s Land Army. “We were proud to wear our uniform and serve our country. Those of us who are left are still proud to have belonged to the Women’s Land Army, and we will never forget.”

The same can be said the efforts in the United States. As one Midwestern farmer commented, "The biggest factor to their success was their patriotic attitude." It wasn't money they were after: They simply "came to help."

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Big Questions
Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?
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Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Food
25 Brilliant Uses For Thanksgiving Leftovers
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Thanksgiving is one of the most anticipated meals of the year. But the day after? Leftover central. Instead of pushing untouched stuffing and turkey into the depths of the fridge, try out these Thanksgiving leftover ideas to spread Turkey Day cheer a little bit longer.

The Classic Approach: Incorporate Leftovers Into New Meals

1. SALADS

A fall salad.
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After a day or two of gut-busting meals, salads can help clear out your system. Leftover greens need to be used up before they wilt, and when topped with shredded turkey, nuts, and veggies like roasted carrots, this post-Thanksgiving salad just needs a stellar dressing to top it off. Luckily, using up leftover cranberries to make a vinaigrette takes about 10 minutes and clears the fridge at the same time.

2. SHEPHERD'S PIE

Shepherd's Pie.
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Stuffing, mashed potatoes, veggies, and turkey can come together for a quick shepherd's pie that clears out multiple side dishes all at once. And unlike pot pies, there's no need to roll out a crust—just top with extra gravy for a complete meal.

3. STIR-FRY

Wok of stir-fry.
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Stir-fry can easily be tailored to whatever leftovers you have in the fridge. Turkey and Brussels sprouts work well together, but any vegetables will do. Leftover wine can be used as a turkey marinade, making use of half-empty bottles that could otherwise go bad. The key to making a great leftover stir-fry is having a hot pan, and using meat that has warmed at room temperature for about 20 minutes.

4. PIZZA

Slice of cheese and cranberry pizza.
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Thanksgiving pizza quickly clears out leftovers—that’s because many recipes call for mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and turkey. Substitute gravy for marinara, and don’t stress about making a crust from scratch; refrigerated dough (perhaps from any unmade crescent rolls) makes this leftover innovation a much faster meal.

5. CASSEROLES

Piece of casserole.
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The classic casserole is one of the easiest ways to get rid of leftovers, and that’s because it can be thrown together quickly and baked with little oversight (a much-needed cooking style after a big Thanksgiving meal). Even leftover casseroles (like green bean casserole) can be worked into a new dish. The trick for casserole success is creating layers, similar to lasagna, instead of blending all ingredients together.

Make Next-Day Breakfast Even Better

6. MUFFINS

Cranberry muffins.
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Thanksgiving dinner can easily make its way to the next day's breakfast without picky eaters even noticing. Muffins made from sweeter leftovers, like whole or sauced cranberries, offer up a seasonal flavor while clearing out the fridge. And cooks can even sneak in a few veggies, such as carrots, for an added nutritional boost.

7. FRENCH TOAST

Cranberry French toast.
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Turn carb-heavy dinner breads or dessert loaves into breakfast treats with a stovetop or baked version of French toast. This quick-cooking breakfast clears out leftover bread, and can use up cranberry sauce, too, when used as a topping or filling.

8. POTATO AND STUFFING CAKES

Plate of potato cakes.
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Leftover mashed potatoes can be repurposed in many ways, but what about stuffing? Two cups of stuffing, an egg, and butter are all it takes to make stuffing cakes—à la potato cakes—that fry up for a lunchtime snack. If you want to carb-load for a second day in a row, you can mix mashed potatoes and stuffing for a similar pan-fried patty.

9. DOUGHNUTS

Sweet potato doughnuts.
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In the 1940s, spudnut shops popped up throughout the U.S., making tasty doughnut snacks from dried potatoes. While it's hard to find a modern spudnut spot, you can recreate this decades-old snack using leftover mashed potatoes. Sweet potatoes work just as well when paired with leftover cranberries.

10. PANCAKES

Stack of potato pancakes
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Pumpkin pie can be transformed into pancakes for an easy breakfast following a big day of cooking. Beat two slices of pie into pancake batter for festive fall breakfast, and top with leftover fruit or cranberries.

Whip Up A New Dessert

11. DESSERT CRISPS

Six bowls of fruit crisps.
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Fruit crumbles and crisps became popular during World War II when food rationing made it difficult for home cooks to craft elaborate desserts. Luckily, these recipes are perfect for after Thanksgiving, because they require minimal effort and few ingredients, all while using up leftover cranberry sauce, apples, and other fruit dishes.

12. DAY-AFTER PIES

Cranberry pie.
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Sure, Thanksgiving is known for its standard pies: pecan, pumpkin, and sweet potato. But chances are, those pies don't make it to day two. Clear out your leftovers stash and fulfill a sugar craving with a cranberry pie—a lighter, whipped version with marshmallows is easy to make after a whole day of cooking, or a slab-style pie hits the spot if your oven's still begging for attention.

Sip Your Leftovers

13. PIE SMOOTHIES

Glass of pumpkin smoothie.
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If you somehow have leftover pumpkin and sweet potato pies but no whipped topping, no worries. Pie smoothies are as easy to make as they are to sip—simply toss leftover pie, sans crust, into a blender with milk or yogurt for a smooth way to savor Thanksgiving leftovers.

14. COCKTAILS

Cranberry cocktails.
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After a long day of fielding personal questions from distant relatives, you may need a stiff drink. And yes, you can use Thanksgiving meal remnants to unwind. Candied yams, Cognac, and hazelnut liqueur combine for a "Candied Yam Libation," while a "Turkey Tippler" blends turkey-infused bourbon, bitters, and celery for garnish. Feeling hesitant about meat-infused alcohol? Washington D.C. bartender Justin Hampton recommends the "nice mouthfeel."

15. SIPPING VINEGARS

Jars of apple vinegars.
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Like other home-brewed drinks, sipping or drinking vinegars are beginning to see some popularity. And, they're easily made at home. Combine leftover fruits (cranberries or fruit tray leftovers are a great option) with apple cider vinegar in a jar, leaving the mixture to ferment for a week before straining out fruits and sitting for another seven days. After two weeks, a small amount of drinking vinegar can be mixed with soda water for an effervescent treat that's ever-so-slightly reminiscent of Thanksgiving.

16. INFUSED LIQUORS

Jars of infused liquor.
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If you're up for experimenting (and a bit of a wait), leftover fruit can be put to good use infusing and flavoring alcohol. Fruits like cranberries, apples, and pears work best, and even ingredient scraps like orange peels can be used to flavor vodka for homemade seasonal liqueurs.

Make Soul-Warming Soups

17. SOUPS

Bowl of turkey soup.
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Soups are one of the easiest ways to clear out a refrigerator bursting with leftovers. Turkey is easy to add to almost any soup and can be frozen until you're ready to cook again. And, leftover soup can even be frozen for another cold day, though broth-based soups without pastas or creams store best.

18. STEWS

Bowl of stew.
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Soup purists know that stew is not the same; it generally contains less liquid than a soup, has a thicker mixture of ingredients, and has a longer cook time. And while any combination of leftover vegetables and meat can make a great post-Thanksgiving stew, consider trying out Sobaheg, a dish culinary historians believe could have been served at the first Thanksgiving. Turkey meat, beans, hominy, green beans, and squash make up this historical stew.

19. STOCKS

Glass jar of soup stock.
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Instead of dumping leftover vegetables and meat bones in the trash, toss them into a stockpot with water for a hearty homemade stock. Even better: fresh stock can be frozen for the upcoming wintry days that require a hot bowl of soup.

Prep Snacks For The Rest of the Weekend

20. QUICK DIPS

Sweet potato dip.
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Hosting family or friends for the entire holiday weekend? There's no need to worry about having extra snacks or appetizers on hand. Turn leftover beans or sweet potatoes into spreadable, hummus-style dips by blending with olive oil and seasonings of your choice.

21. DEEP-FRIED APPETIZERS

Fried green beans.
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Uneaten green beans don't have to rot in the fridge. Instead, toss in a cornmeal batter before frying for a crunchy leftover snack. As many Midwestern state fairgoers know, the deep-frying doesn't have to end there. Get creative and toss leftovers into oil for a hodgepodge of Thanksgiving fritters. Don't forget the ranch dip!

22. NACHOS

Nachos.
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Roasted turkey is easy to add to anything, tortilla chips included. While you can opt for traditional nachos with melted cheese and a turkey garnish, there's another option to clear out your fridge even faster: a Thanksgiving-style nacho using leftover gravy, potatoes, and stuffing. Mashed potatoes take the place of refried beans, and gravy is substituted for melted cheese, while stuffing creates a thicker base layer (along with the chips).

When You're Really Tired of Turkey

23. FREEZER MEALS

Thanksgiving leftovers.
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If you've spent all day in a hot kitchen basting a turkey, chances are after the big meal's served, you're already tired of looking at it. But don't let those pounds of extra meat and sides go to waste. Instead, package up plated meals for the freezer, which can be quickly defrosted and reheated on a day you really don't feel like cooking. Many Thanksgiving side dishes freeze and reheat well—such as stuffing or dressing, cranberry sauce, and breads. For best results, avoid freezing dairy-heavy dishes and casseroles with crunchy toppings that have a tendency to get soggy (such as green bean casserole).

24. SWAP LEFTOVERS WITH A FRIEND

Bowls of leftover food.
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Does a friend have a great recipe that you love…but you won't get to gorge on thanks to Thanksgiving meal logistics? Consider sharing it the next day. Swapping a plate or dish with friends or family is one way to share a meal together, while also saving you from a week's worth of grandma's famous potatoes.

25. SEND IT ALL HOME WITH FRIENDS AND FAMILY

Leftover turkey.
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If you're dining with a large crowd, consider letting friends and family clear out your fridge space. Etiquette says it's up to the host to determine if leftovers will be dished out and shared, so don't be afraid to prepackage leftovers for guests, or simply let them have at it themselves. After all, Thanksgiving is all about sharing with family and friends—both the love and the food.

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