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Battle Lines on the Home Front

Victory Gardens Helped Sustain the Nation and Win the War


story by Barbara L. Benson | Photography from Library of Congress Print and Photographs Collection

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Couples garden in Washington, D.C. in May 1943.

To the extent that the censor would allow, the weekly newsreels that preceded the latest feature film at The Catlow and across America brought the grim reality of battlefronts that stretched across continents and oceans. To the average person, the sheer scope of the Second World War was incomprehensible. While loved ones flew, sailed, bulldozed, and slogged through danger zones in far off lands, their kinfolk at home formed a different kind of army, unlike any seen before.

The precursor had been the First World War where industrial and agricultural production was turned over to supporting the needs of the armies in the field. Then came the Great Depression, where “making do” and “waste not, want not” were nationwide watchwords for times of historic deprivation.

In 1941, the United States had barely recovered from those years of misery for so many, when the attack on Pearl Harbor stirred the nation to new challenges overseas and at home. By 1945, the numbers were staggering: The United States Army numbered upwards of 6,000,000 men, compared to the 1941 numbers of 174,000. All service branches swelled in numbers. The Navy had over 3,000,000 men and there were 484,000 men in the Marine Corps. The Army Air Forces grew to 2,400,000 and the Coast Guard had about 170,000 men. Then there were thousands of women who served in the WACS, the WASPS, the WAVES, and the SPARS, and Army and Navy nurses.

All of these millions of additional service people had to be clothed, trained, transported, and housed. A new Quartermaster Subsistence Research and Development Laboratory was opened to develop better rations in a more scientific manner. General George S. Patton said that the soldier is the army, and his well being was predicated on his receiving better food than the enemy.

Victories in Every Backyard

Speaking to his men in 1944, he gave several reasons for believing that the American forces would be victorious: “We have the finest food, the finest equipment, the best spirit, and the best men in the world”. And behind those words was the incalculable impact that Americans were making in their own backyards.

In the First World War, Victory Gardens, from the conversion of public spaces for growing crops to tiny backyard plots where homegrown vegetables helped sustain neighborhoods, national need created national unity. The First World War was different. It was the first time American soldiers had officially joined an overseas conflict, and that was in 1917, as the European War went from slaughter to stalemate and the Armistice of November 11, 1918.

But the Second World War was different, stretching across the globe, when all the resources of industry and their suppliers, of crop growers and dairy farmers, of textile mills and automobile companies, of innovators in packaging for non-perishability were called up for the war effort, to sustain the ever-growing and distant armies. Planning for possible war had been quietly implemented before December 1941, and already some $90 million dollars in aid had been sent to countries overseas. But now reality had come.

Growing and Canning

Victory Gardens, as author Kent Whitaker said in “Bullets and Bread: The Story of Sacrifice in American Homes to Feed the Troops in World War II”, would return with a vengeance. To supplement the stringent rationing at home, these gardens would come to flourish across the United States, with the Government estimating that over 20 million victory gardens produced over 9-10 million tons of homegrown food, that enabled commercial producers to support the needs of the troops. And the government was fully behind the victory garden movement by sending out pamphlets and offering information to newspapers and magazines about how to make a victory garden work. Seed selection, planting, keeping insects and animals out of a garden, harvesting, involving children, and how to combine efforts with your neighbors were all topics that received official and unofficial attention.

Victory Garden Cooperatives were established, and home canning became a part of everyday food preparation. Eleanor Roosevelt planted a victory garden on the grounds of the White House, setting an example for the government to use in its promotion campaigns.

And Barrington was no exception, especially with its crop and dairy history. Perusing through the pages of the Barrington Courier-Review in 1943 and 1944 tells us that business, civic organizations, the Garden and Woman’s Club and individually, its citizens, were fully involved. Against the backdrop of the Jewel Tea Company, which had been contracted to manufacture ration boxes for the troops, garden plots proliferated, with some land outside the corporate limits being used for communal plots. Notices in the newspaper even offered plots to rent. Village stores geared their advertising to the needs of the victory gardeners. Grebe Hardware Store had an inspiring headline: Plan a Victory Garden to Help Feed the World.

The 1943 Garden Market Day

In May 1943, The Garden Club of Barrington held a Garden Market Day to boost the Victory Gardeners of the area. It was held in the park near the Northwestern Railway station from 8:30 in the morning until 5 p.m. One of the exhibitors was The Little Traveler from Geneva. The Boy Scouts sold War stamps and the Girl Scouts sold cookies. Arrangements were also made for gardeners to take their excess produce to the station on Wednesday mornings to catch the early train to Chicago. At the other end the produce was distributed to hospitals and military leave facilities.

During the war years, the country was swamped with literature and advice on growing victory gardens, with a big emphasis on the efficiency of long rows. The New York Times Magazine on August 23, 1942 had a review of Leonard Harman Robbins book “15,000,000 Victory Gardens”. It quoted an enthusiastic victory gardener: “feast your eyes!” said Joe. And what indeed could be more pleasurable to gaze upon than his thriving plot of lowly vegetables, with its rows full and orderly, its foliage bright and lusty, its soil interspaces as clean as the base paths at the Yankee Stadium? Clearly, cabbage rows were more economical than cabbage patches. And millions of people who had never lifted a trowel learned to dig and fertilize, sow seeds, and see their crops grow to be eaten fresh from the garden, canned for the family larder, or excess sent to the war stores or the needy.

Perhaps never before or since have civilians been so united behind their men and women at war, thousands of miles away. With restrained reports of the newspapers and the newsreels, the limited radio reports, and the ever-present fear of the telegram or the knock at the door, those that remained got up every morning, sent their children to school, worked the factory lines, and tended their victory gardens. Theirs was a legacy of patriotism, love for their family members and friends on the front lines, and an understanding that it was all about freedom for their land and millions of oppressed peoples.

Years later, those millions of community gardens and backyard plots are having a revival in the farm-to-table movement. A new generation is learning that “our daily bread” doesn’t just miraculously appear on supermarket and grocery store shelves. Farmers Markets are now a welcome addition to the summer scene, the stallholders and their colorful displays even offering an educational experience for those with renewed curiosity and concern about what we eat. Barrington’s own Smart Farm exemplifies this renaissance; their story was told in the March/April 2019 issue of Quintessential Barrington. The Barrington Farmers Market is another place to find fresh-grown produce each Thursday in summer.

In a different time, and under different circumstances and needs, victory gardens thrive again.

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Illinois Leads the Nation

From the August 27, 1942 Barrington Courier-Review: “Did you know that Illinois leads all other states in the number of Victory gardens? Our state planted 600,000 gardens this spring. Texas was next with 500,000. Now the harvest is coming in and women everywhere are busy canning, preserving, and quick-freezing. We are sure our efforts are not wasted when we are storing food against an uncertain future and that desire is satisfied completely when we stand over steaming kettles in this summer, our first at war.”

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Dig for Victory

Victory Gardens Flourished Globally

The United States wasn’t the only place where Victory Gardens flourished. In Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the gardens and small-holding plots would proliferate, with government encouragement, as in the case of the United Kingdom to “Dig for Victory”. The island nation was under siege from every direction when War was declared with Germany on September 3, 1939.

Already, in the 1930s, 75 percent of Britain’s food was imported by ship, and once the German U-boat blockade went into deadly action the country was threatened with starvation. War cabinet records showed that annual imports of food had been halved by 1941, to an annual total of 14.65 million tonnes (tons).

With a campaign tagline of “Spades not Ships” citizens were encouraged to start planting on all available land. By 1942, it was documented that half the civilian population was part of a “Garden Front” and 10,000 square miles of land had been ploughed under. That included school playing fields, public gardens, and factory courtyards were all transformed into allotments. Even the moat at the Tower of London was turned into vegetable patches. The nation of gardeners was called on to double their efforts.

The BBC’s First Celebrity Gardener

There were cartoon characters to lead the campaign—Captain Carrot and Potato Pete had their own songs and recipe books. Every Sunday, it was estimated that 3.5 million people tuned in to the BBC Home Service, where Britain’s first celebrity gardener offered his gardening tips. The Royal Horticultural Society estimated that there were nearly 1.4 million allotments at the end of the war. And the government had another interesting statistic that around 6,000 pigs were being kept in gardens and backyards by 1945.

With all the digging for victory, the combined efforts of a population that numbered over 46 million at the end of the war were able to halve the nation’s dependence on imported foods. But industrial and agricultural production had changed radically. Everything from pencils to margarine was converted to national standards. Powdered eggs supplemented the weekly three or four eggs a week’s rations. The last ration books were issued in 1954, when restrictions were finally lifted on the sale of meat and bacon. That was one year after Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation in 1953. Rationing in Great Britain had lasted 14 years.

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Local Farm-To-Table Resources

Barrington Farmers Market

Started in 2000 by the Barrington Village Association, the Barrington Farmers Market is open now until October 17, on every Thursday, from 3–7 p.m. in downtown Barrington. Learn more at


Smart Farm

Smart Farm (featured on the cover of QB’s March/April 2019 issue) offers community gardening to support local food banks, and a fall harvest dinner, shown here. Visit

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Barbara L. Benson grew up in Kent, England, and later moved to New York. She settled in Barrington and has walked with our history since she first arrived here in 1980.