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

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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 Can't Dogs Eat Chocolate?
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Even if you don’t have a dog, you probably know that they can’t eat chocolate; it’s one of the most well-known toxic substances for canines (and felines, for that matter). But just what is it about chocolate that is so toxic to dogs? Why can't dogs eat chocolate when we eat it all the time without incident?

It comes down to theobromine, a chemical in chocolate that humans can metabolize easily, but dogs cannot. “They just can’t break it down as fast as humans and so therefore, when they consume it, it can cause illness,” Mike Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss.

The toxic effects of this slow metabolization can range from a mild upset stomach to seizures, heart failure, and even death. If your dog does eat chocolate, they may get thirsty, have diarrhea, and become hyperactive and shaky. If things get really bad, that hyperactivity could turn into seizures, and they could develop an arrhythmia and have a heart attack.

While cats are even more sensitive to theobromine, they’re less likely to eat chocolate in the first place. They’re much more picky eaters, and some research has found that they can’t taste sweetness. Dogs, on the other hand, are much more likely to sit at your feet with those big, mournful eyes begging for a taste of whatever you're eating, including chocolate. (They've also been known to just swipe it off the counter when you’re not looking.)

If your dog gets a hold of your favorite candy bar, it’s best to get them to the vet within two hours. The theobromine is metabolized slowly, “therefore, if we can get it out of the stomach there will be less there to metabolize,” Topper says. Your vet might be able to induce vomiting and give your dog activated charcoal to block the absorption of the theobromine. Intravenous fluids can also help flush it out of your dog’s system before it becomes lethal.

The toxicity varies based on what kind of chocolate it is (milk chocolate has a lower dose of theobromine than dark chocolate, and baking chocolate has an especially concentrated dose), the size of your dog, and whether or not the dog has preexisting health problems, like kidney or heart issues. While any dog is going to get sick, a small, old, or unhealthy dog won't be able to handle the toxic effects as well as a large, young, healthy dog could. “A Great Dane who eats two Hershey’s kisses may not have the same [reaction] that a miniature Chihuahua that eats four Hershey’s kisses has,” Topper explains. The former might only get diarrhea, while the latter probably needs veterinary attention.

Even if you have a big dog, you shouldn’t just play it by ear, though. PetMD has a handy calculator to see just what risk levels your dog faces if he or she eats chocolate, based on the dog’s size and the amount eaten. But if your dog has already ingested chocolate, petMD shouldn’t be your go-to source. Call your vet's office, where they are already familiar with your dog’s size, age, and condition. They can give you the best advice on how toxic the dose might be and how urgent the situation is.

So if your dog eats chocolate, you’re better off paying a few hundred dollars at the vet to make your dog puke than waiting until it’s too late.

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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Big Questions
What is Duck Sauce?
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A plate of Chinese takeout with egg rolls and duck sauce
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We know that our favorite Chinese takeout is not really authentically Chinese, but more of an Americanized series of menu options very loosely derived from overseas inspiration. (Chinese citizens probably wouldn’t recognize chop suey or orange-glazed chicken, and fortune cookies are of Japanese origin.) It would also be unusual for "real" Chinese meals to be accompanied by a generous amount of sauce packets.

Here in the U.S., these condiments are a staple of Chinese takeout. But one in particular—“duck sauce”—doesn’t really offer a lot of information about itself. What exactly is it that we’re pouring over our egg rolls?

Smithsonian.com conducted a sauce-related investigation and made an interesting discovery, particularly if you’re not prone to sampling Chinese takeout when traveling cross-country. On the East Coast, duck sauce is similar to sweet-and-sour sauce, only fruitier; in New England, it’s brown, chunky, and served on tables; and on the West Coast, it’s almost unheard of.

While the name can describe different sauces, associating it with duck probably stems from the fact that the popular Chinese dish Peking duck is typically served with a soybean-based sauce. When dishes began to be imported to the States, the Americanization of the food involved creating a sweeter alternative using apricots that was dubbed duck sauce. (In New England, using applesauce and molasses was more common.)

But why isn’t it easily found on the West Coast? Many sauce companies are based in New York and were in operation after Chinese food had already gained a foothold in California. Attempts to expand didn’t go well, and so Chinese food aficionados will experience slightly different tastes depending on their geography. But regardless of where they are, or whether they're using the condiment as a dipping sauce for their egg rolls or a dressing for their duck, diners can rest assured that no ducks were harmed in the making of their duck sauce.

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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