State Historic Site
RECYCLE. CONSERVE. DONATE. These were the watch-words of life on the home front during World War One. Recycling old tires and scrap metal, donating books and records, conserving ice and coal – in these ways and more, Americans helped the war effort at the most basic level: the local one.
Clothing had to be conserved as well. In 1918, the National Organizing Committee for War Savings made an appeal against “extravagance in women’s dress”:
Many women have already recognized that elaboration and variety in dress are bad form in the present crisis, but there is still a large section of the community, both amongst the rich and amongst the less well-to-do, who appear to make little or no difference in their habits. New clothes should only be bought when absolutely necessary, and these should be durable and suitable for all occasions. It is essential, not only that money should be saved, but that labor employed in the clothing trades should be set free.
Rather than encourage women to make new clothes, homemaker magazines such as Needlecraft and Modern Priscilla offered ideas on makeovers for old favorites:
An excellent suggestion for making over a dress which has seen better days is to use one of the new long tunic-blouses.
According to Needlepoint, one could also add new collars or cuffs:
A frock of serge or silk or the “war dress” of gingham takes on a gala appearance by the addition of a pretty collar.
Nearly everyone practiced these recommended economies and did without much in the way of new clothing. Simple dresses, blouses and skirts of cotton and wool were the norm, dressed up as much as possible with a variety of homemade collars and cuffs, handmade sweaters and recycled belts.
FROM THE ONSET of hostilities, America’s fabric manufacturers turned their efforts away from fashionable silks and satins and toward the production of uniform components and other military requirements. Even so, the army and navy were short of the many scarves, mufflers, mittens, socks, vests and caps needed for the thousands of soldiers and sailors being sent from cold barracks to cold trenches on even colder ships. Therefore, it fell to American women to make up the difference.
In response to a request from the U.S. Government, a giant “Knitting Brigade” was formed with chapters located in towns and villages all over the country. Popular women’s magazines printed patterns for the needed items, while the American Red Cross provided part of the yarn. Women took to the project with a vengeance. As Needlepoint noted in August 1917,
Everywhere women are knitting, knitting, knitting; we see them on the trains, the streetcars, in the waiting-rooms, wherever there is a spare moment to be utilized outside the home. And in the home, the busy needles are never idle. Every stitch counts.
The Sheridan Knitting Unit was organized by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The S.K.U. immediately pledged to make 1,500 sweaters, caps and scarves for the 1,000 men serving on the battleship Wyoming, cruising in the frigid waters off the coast of Great Britain. Starting with twenty-five knitters, the S.K.U. soon grew to include over two hundred area women. Working only in their spare time, they completed their ambitious project within six months. One knitter made over two hundred pairs of socks herself – quite a feat for an elderly blind woman!
Women who pretended to be working for the war effort but who were actually working for themselves were considered the lowest of the low. They even had special names. A pig-knitter, for example, was one who appeared in public places devoted to work for the soldiers (such as Red Cross sewing circles), seemed to be working hard for the cause, but was in reality working on projects for herself – using time and materials intended for the benefit of the men overseas.
Detail from Poster, "Wake Up America," 1917 (LOC)
Magazine Cover, James Montgomery Flagg, 1917 (LOC)
A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site
April 2017 through December 2018