Radio announcer Gabriel Heatter, whose famously upbeat sign-on to his wartime broadcasts was "There's good news tonight!", exhorted Americans to take part in a 1942 nationwide scrap drive to help the war effort:
"A good many people are planning to make every minute count tomorrow hunting scrap...It is imperative every ounce of scrap be recovered to keep plants going at capacity...We have junked two million old cars. We are getting 400,000 tons a month in our automobile graveyards. What you see on any scrap dealer's lot isn't stagnating. Far and beyond all that, however, we face a critical shortage. Half of every tank, destroyer or merchant ship is made of scrap iron. Every pound you hunt up and turn in may be as good as ten pounds next spring." - Sunday, September 6th, 1942 broadcast on WOR
There is no question that scrap drives and their agricultural component, the planting of Victory Gardens, created a sense of collective purpose and shared endeavor and had significant morale boosting value for those on the American home front. Our family participated in both. My great great aunts in Petersham, Massachusetts documented a scrap drive that was held in their town on August 23, 1942 with photographs and a copy of Heatter's broadcast, excepted above, that included the following mention of their town's efforts:
"The rising sun of Japan was born of American Junk. American junk will make it a setting sun never to rise again. Can it be done? Let me read you a telegram. Petersham, Massachusetts - population 960 - just held a scrap harvest festival - yield - 52 tons of scrap metal. Population 960."
According to a fascinating article on the practical value of these drives in The Straight Dope, it was particularly difficult to recycle rubber and what was produced was inferior to virgin rubber. Nor could recycled aluminum be used to make aircraft. Iron and steel were different, and drives like the one held in Petersham were valuable in this regard.
Wartime shortages were real - rubber was in critically short supply after the Japanese conquest of Malaysia and the Dutch East Indies where most of the world's natural rubber was harvested. In fact, gasoline rationing was most essential to maintain sufficient oil reserves for the production of synthetic rubber. Although millions of tons of scrap material were amassed in drives throughout the war - not just metal but paper, rags kitchen fat and rubber - not all of it was particularly useful in boosting wartime production or providing quality supplies of needed material. According to a very informative article in
As a patriotic act, however, these scrap drives helped pull the nation together. Wrought iron fences were pulled from cemeteries. Monuments to older wars were stripped of their cannon and pyramids of shot, although later some communities regretted their over-zealous plundering of irreplaceable relics. My grandfather carried one of these scrap drive pictures in his wallet when he was overseas, next to his family photographs.
Victory Gardens had a similar impact on morale, and also contributed to the war effort. The USDA estimates that nearly 20 million Victory Gardens were planted during the war by non-farm families: urbanites and those with a patch of yard converted them to vegetables and invested in pressure cookers and canning supplies. The amount produced 9-10 million tons, was equal to the output of commercial farms during this same period.
My paternal grandfather taught at a boarding school during the war and supervised the construction of a root cellar for the vegetables produced by the students. My Great Aunt Margie put in vegetables in the sandy yard of her summer home at Point Pleasant, NJ beginning in the summer of 1942, and sent pictures of what was produced to her brother Dayton, a naval officer serving in the South Atlantic.
Even when Victory Gardens were no longer required, our family has kept up the practice of vegetable gardening and putting food by -a practice that has come down through the generations. In our disposable consumer society, it connects us to the land and the seasons of the places where we live, and perhaps subconsciously to a tradition of doing one's part in a greater effort.