Monday, August 29, 2011

History of Victory Gardens

During World War I, the United States and Canada had to provide food not only for their populations, but for war-ravaged Europe as well. As more food stuffs were shipped overseas, availability of food in North America decreased and prices increased on such staples as milk, butter, eggs and coffee. Meatless and wheatless days were encouraged by government officials to try to cut consumption. Community gardens began to spring up everywhere as people started growing their own food.

In 1917, the National War Garden Commission was founded to "arouse the patriots of America to the importance of putting all idle land to work, to teach them how to do it, and to educate them to conserve by canning and drying all food that they could not use while fresh" (Charles Pack, The War Garden Victorious, copyright 1919, page10). The Commission used posters, slogans, cartoons, press releases and pamphlets to educate people.

The Charles Pack pamphlet can be downloaded by clicking here. Click the picture on the right for a larger image of a WWI victory garden poster.

After the end of World War I, the idea of victory gardens went out-of-style. But the idea made a comeback during the Great Depression with Depression Relief Gardens. Early during the Depression, these gardens were promoted by local governments and were a bureaucratic nightmare, with squabbles and in-fighting over where to put the gardens, what to grow and how much control individuals should have over their plots in the community gardens. By 1933, however, local governments had relinquished control of these community gardens to private organizations, such as the Family Welfare Society, which did a remarkably better job organizing them.

After a few years of private success, the federal government eventually took control, changed the names from "relief gardens" to "welfare gardens" and greatly restricted eligibility for participation. By the end of the 1930s the Depression era gardening movement was dead.

Then came World War II, and the Victory Garden movement was back. But the Victory Movement was about more than just growing food, though the gardens did continue to be a big part. Conservation of resources was also promoted. Scrap metal drives were commonplace, as were rubber drives. Salvaged kitchen fat was collected and used to produce glycerin, which was used in the production of drugs and explosives. War bonds were sold. Societal norms were changed as women were encouraged to go to work in order to fill jobs left vacant by the men who went off to at war. Rosie the Riveter (poster on the left) became a symbol to rally around.

War time efforts of the common folks were promoted by posters, slogans, pamphlets, billboards, cartoons, comics, TV and films. Whatever it took to get the word out and promote gardening and conservation efforts was done. A massive change in people's behavior took place. It is estimated that by 1943, 40% of America's vegetables were grown in over twenty million victory gardens.

The year 1946, after the end of World War II, saw a sharp decline in gardens planted by average people. Home gardens eventually became little more than a hobby pursued by only a small percentage of Americans.

The Arab oil embargo and economic problems in the 1970s resulted in a renewed interest in gardening. 1975 saw the creation of the television gardening show entitled The Victory Garden.

By the late 1990s, the rise in concern over issues such as peak oil and climate change lead to several efforts to encourage relocalization of agriculture, organic gardening and homesteading.