While the term home front traces its origins to the early 1900s, it is most commonly associated with World War II. Its historical context defines the life and times of Americans who endured the grim years of the early 1940s.
What remains of that era – from ration books to magazine advertisements – summons up noble memories of many extraordinary citizens during that remarkable time.
“The 1940s war years and the immediate postwar period now evoke a powerful nostalgia for most Americans,” wrote Robert Heide and John Gilman in their book, Home Front America. They regard it “as a time when their country was filled with a fighting spirit of togetherness and a forward-looking hope for a better future.”
It is somewhat odd that anything of paper remains from those days; so much paper was continually being salvaged for the war effort. Newspapers, magazines, outdated calendars, catalogs, comic books and more became fodder for the latest scrap drive.
“While some children hated to turn in their old Superman or Captain Marvel comic books, they did so anyway out of a sense of patriotic duty,” observed Heide and Gilman. “Many participated in collecting newspaper and magazine waste paper, which was also needed in the defense effort. Salvage yards were in every neighborhood and American kids delivered the goods to help win the war.”
War ration book number one rolled off the presses in March of 1942. Initially there were some 190,000 copies aimed at controlling the sales of quantities of sugar. Later the booklets with their sheets of perforated stamps regulated meat, shoes (three pair a year) and gasoline.
As the war continued, millions of such booklets were distributed by the Office of Price Administration to a nation of adults and children. Legally, the ration books were to be turned in to OPA authorities if a person was hospitalized or died. In reality, that seldom happened, instead they were often stored away with the family’s valuable papers.
“The rationing point system, with its tiny color-coded stamps and red and blue cardboard tokens, created anxiety for housewives and drove grocers to distraction,” note Heide and Gilman. Further, even having the ration stamps was no guarantee; grocery supplies were often very meager. Entire shelves could be quite sparse or entirely depleted.
There was also gasoline rationing cards, which bore various alphabetical letters of status at the top. Various letter designations ranged from non-essential driving to emergency vehicle driving. An X-card designated the driver to be a member of Congress and at liberty to purchase any amount of available gasoline.
War-themed magazine advertisements could be most impressive for readers on the home front. They were often rich with color and designed to promote good will beyond merely the product. These so-called institutional advertisements were very effective in identifying with the immediate war effort.
Coca-Cola was particularly adept at such advertisements during the war years. Their ads often featured defense plant workers, service members in canteens, or troops in a remote location about to enjoy a Coke. Soon other soft drink makers were following the same magazine advertising pattern, but they never achieved the quality of Coca-Cola’s depictions.
“These ads and cardboard signs helped promote confidence in the average consumer who subliminally felt they were participating in the war effort when they drank a Coca-Cola,” advise the authors of Home Front America.
Posters were everywhere as well. They could be seen in the windows of grocery stores, in public buildings and even sometimes in apartment buildings and private homes. Lots of them urged citizens to buy war bonds; others reminded those of the home front to be considerate and to conserve whatever they had.
Cookbooks and recipe booklets during World War II preached conserving too. The War-Time Cookbook, for example, contained “menus, recipes and canning information to help you make your ration points go further.” The Victory Cook Book, issued as a premium from Lysol, offered information on “how to eat well, live well, and plan balanced meals under food rationing.”
Movie posters and window display cards promote scores of films that dramatized the war around the world. War-related movies from Action in the North Atlantic starring Humphrey Bogart to Winged Victory were a major form of entertainment for the folks back home.
Americans loved their music on the home front as well, especially patriotic songs. If they weren’t listening to the records of the Andrews Sisters, they were pounding out tunes from sheet music on the piano. Many decades later, surviving sheet music with its verve and gushing titles gives a hint of the patriotic fervor.
There were books, too, mostly written by soldiers or correspondents, giving fascinating accounts of fighting and of battle. Titles ranged from Guadalcanal Diary by Richard Tresgaski to Ernie Pyle’s Here is Your War.
Throughout the war years, there was a wide array of greeting cards specifically designed for the man or woman in military service. Likewise, there were greeting cards and stationery for those in the military writing people back home. Various groups, including the military itself, provided special issues of such greeting cards for soldiers – especially at Christmas.
Elsewhere, there were arcade cards, playing cards, matchbooks, gum cards and even cigarette cartons filled with images of a nation at war. The universal message being, “we’re all in this together.”
Even after all those years, there is still some interesting home front material out there.
“For me, collecting World War II home front memorabilia has been a treasure hunt like no other,” says Martin Jacobs, author of World War II Home Front Collectibles. “I know out there is that special item, that piece that I don’t have, the best one anywhere just waiting for me to find in the next auction, on the Internet, in that interesting shop or at the flea market or garage sale. It’s there and will soon be mine.”
World War II Home Front Collectibles by Martin Jacobs (Krause Publications).