Farm Life

Rural Life in the 1940s

In 1941, the U.S. was just beginning to come out of the Great Depression. Many were looking forward to better times after a decade of hard times. But the war meant that people had to put up with more hardships “for the duration” – however long it would take for the war to end.

In war, soldiers fight on the “frontlines.” During World War II, everyone in the U.S. was urged to fight on the “Home Front.” The nation was called to war, and Americans responded. In that process, the government enlisted catch phrases that were used in the 1930s.

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”

“If you don’t need it, don’t buy it.”

When Pearl Harbor was attacked and the U.S. entered the war, only one-third of farms had electricity to run refrigerators or washing machines in the house or lights and milking machines in the barn. Only 25 percent of farms had telephones. The war affected every phase of life on the home front in Nebraska.

  • American farm families sent more than 1.8 million young men and women into the armed forces. At a time when the nation faced an unprecedented demand for food, farmers faced a shortage of farm workers, gas, and new farm equipment and parts. Despite the shortage of labor, more production was expected. Each day, eight million soldiers had to be fed in the U.S. military alone, as well as millions of civilians in Great Britain and Russia.
  • The war affected food at home. The government rationed supplies of staples such as sugar, coffee, meat, fish, butter, eggs and cheese. Homemakers were challenged to fix nutritious meals on a budget with restricted supplies. Planting a Victory Garden was seen as patriotic.
  • The war affected what people wore. Women’s stockings were hard to find because silk was used for parachutes. Women working in factories found that wearing slacks and overalls was much more comfortable and practical. When they wore skirts, wrap-around designs were popular because zippers and metal snaps were in short supply. Shoes were rationed, so most people wore long-lasting loafers.
  • The war affected where many worked. Soon after Pearl Harbor, new plants to make bombs, tanks or other materiel were built in rural areas across the nation. Rural residents found new jobs off the farm. New military training bases were built far from the coasts where they might be less vulnerable to attack, sabotage or spying.
  • The war, obviously, affected who lived and diedwho married whom, and where people lived. Many men and women married quickly in the early years of the war. Other couples waited. Some soldiers got “Dear John” letters when the woman couldn’t wait any longer. Many Nebraska families made the ultimate sacrifice when their sons, brothers, fathers and husbands were killed during World War II. Others found their loved ones had been forever changed by what they had endured.

kooserIn ways both large and small, historic events halfway around the globe affected the everyday lives of individuals.As Kelly Holthus remembers it, “Everything was to do with the war… Our whole life changed completely.”

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser remembers listening to war news on the radio at the knees of his grandmother.
In this poem entitled “Zenith,” Kooser conjures up the way that he and his sister felt like they were part of the war effort
 – [we] “sat there at the rear of the action, a patrol / in the weak yellow glow from the war.”

Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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