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America’s Patriotic Victory Gardens

America’s Patriotic Victory Gardens

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During World War I, a severe food crisis emerged in Europe as agricultural workers were recruited into military service and farms were transformed into battlefields. As a result, the burden of feeding millions of starving people fell to the United States. In March of 1917¬—just weeks before the United States entered the war—Charles Lathrop Pack organized the National War Garden Commission to encourage Americans to contribute to the war effort by planting, fertilizing, harvesting and storing their own fruits and vegetables so that more food could be exported to our allies. Citizens were urged to utilize all idle land that was not already engaged in agricultural production—including school and company grounds, parks, backyards or any available vacant lots.

Promoted through propaganda posters advocating that civilians “Sow the seeds of victory” by planting their own vegetables, the war garden movement (as it was originally known) was spread by word of mouth through numerous women’s clubs, civic associations and chambers of commerce, which actively encouraged participation in the campaign. Amateur gardeners were provided with instruction pamphlets on how, when and where to sow, and were offered suggestions as to the best crops to plant, along with tips on preventing disease and insect infestations. The endeavor was so well received that the government turned its attention to distributing canning and drying manuals to help people preserve their surplus crops. In addition to the appeal to men and women, the federal Bureau of Education initiated a U.S. School Garden Army (USSGA) to mobilize children to enlist as “soldiers of the soil.” As a result of these combined efforts, 3 million new garden plots were planted in 1917 and more than 5.2 million were cultivated in 1918, which generated an estimated 1.45 million quarts of canned fruits and vegetables. By the end of World War I, the campaign promoting home gardens—which by then were referred to as “victory gardens”—had dropped off, but many people continued to maintain them.

Shortly after the United States was drawn into the Second World War, victory gardens began to reemerge. Once again, commercial crops were diverted to the military overseas while transportation was redirected towards moving troops and munitions instead of food. With the introduction of food rationing in the United States in the spring of 1942, Americans had an even greater incentive to grow their own fruits and vegetables in whichever locations they could find: small flower boxes, apartment rooftops, backyards or deserted lots of any size. Amid protests from the Department of Agriculture, Eleanor Roosevelt even planted a victory garden on the White House lawn.

Some of the most popular produce grown included beans, beets, cabbage, carrots, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, peas, tomatoes, turnips, squash and Swiss chard. Through the distribution of several million government-sponsored pamphlets, fledgling farmers were advised to maximize their garden’s productivity by practicing succession planting, and were encouraged to record the germination rates of seeds, along with any diseases or insects they may have encountered, in order to minimize waste and improve their garden’s output the following year.

Throughout both world wars, the Victory Garden campaign served as a successful means of boosting morale, expressing patriotism, safeguarding against food shortages on the home front, and easing the burden on the commercial farmers working arduously to feed troops and civilians overseas. In 1942, roughly 15 million families planted victory gardens; by 1944, an estimated 20 million victory gardens produced roughly 8 million tons of food—which was the equivalent of more than 40 percent of all the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States. Although the government’s promotion of victory gardens ended with the war, a renaissance movement has sprouted up in recent years in support of self-sufficiency and eating seasonally to improve health through local, organic farming and sustainable agriculture.

Reclaiming Victory Gardens from Our Racist History

The victory gardening movement of the 1940s was a time for grassroots collective action—when households across the country grew incredible amounts of food. It was also a time when war was used to justify extreme xenophobia and oppression of non-white Americans.

Green America’s Climate Victory Gardening campaign strives to reclaim the good from this movement, but we can’t do that without addressing the hurt and racism that Japanese Americans experienced directly related to the WWII victory gardens during this terrible time in our country’s history.

Racism Leads to the Incarceration of Japanese Americans

While many point to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor as the start of xenophobia towards Japanese Americans, racism and injustice existed long before WWII.

First-generation Japanese immigrants were barred from becoming citizens and faced discrimination in labor markets and land ownership from the moment they arrived in the United States. Many settled in the states along the West Coast and farming was the only occupation available to them. In 1934, one third of Los Angeles’s Japanese American workforce farmed and gardened.

Thanks to generations of farming knowledge from Japan, these workers were wildly successful at growing food in the American west. Second-generation Japanese Americans were able to become citizens and began owning small farms and they quickly became an important part of US agriculture. Data from the period show that Japanese American farms were more productive and profitable than other farms. In 1940, they produced more than 10 percent of California’s food by value even though they held less than four percent of farmlands.

In 1941, the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor, leading to the United States’ formal entry into WWII. The existing racism towards Japanese Americans was intensified by fear and war propaganda. The next year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which called for the forceful removal of over 120,000 Japanese immigrants and Americans of Japanese descent from the west coast to concentration camps farther inland.

Two thirds of those in camps were American citizens. There were no formal charges against these prisoners and no significant convictions of any Japanese Americans for espionage during the entire war. This was incarceration due to ethnicity alone.

Injustice towards Japanese Americans was compounded by the action of white-owned corporate agribusinesses, which saw the opportunity to take over these family farms. Lobbying from industrial agriculture with “competing economic interests” targeted and forcibly removed successful Japanese American growers from their farmlands.

We understand that terms like “concentration camp” and “incarceration” might not match words you’ve heard used in the past, like “internment” and “relocation.” If you’re wondering about our word choice this article is for you.

National Archives Identifier: 536017

Japanese Gardens in Incarceration Camps

Japanese Americans lost their homes, their businesses, their rights, and in some cases their lives. They were moved to incarceration camps that were little more than barren lands with barracks surrounded by guard towers and barbed wire. In fact, the land chosen for the camps was intentionally poor, because the government hoped that their new inmates would use their farming expertise to improve the land with enormous agricultural projects. The camps were isolated sickness, beatings, and death were everyday experiences.

This is not the scene that comes to mind when most Americans think of victory gardens, but these camps were home to thousands of individual gardens that played an important role somewhere between horticultural therapy and survival. Gardens in the camps served cultural and health purposes, acted as a buffer against psychological trauma, and represented an attempt to re-create community in these harsh new environments. There were beautiful ornamental gardens and gardens that grew traditional Japanese vegetables to supplement terrible meals in the camps.

Camp gardens were also a form of resistance. Many of the inmates faced complex feelings around American patriotism, the injustices of Executive Order 9066, and betrayal by their white neighbors. Gardens were an opportunity to physically rebuild their community but, for some, they were also considered subversive symbols of non-compliance, resistance against confinement, and even appropriation of the War Relocation Authority’s land. Gardening often required illegal acts to acquire materials and became highly politicized in some of the camps.

National Archives Identifier: 536485

Government Promotes Household Victory Gardens

Outside the camps, the US government aggressively promoted victory gardening at the household level. Fearing food shortages, the need for such a huge civilian mobilization was often attributed to farmers becoming soldiers, war allies relying on US production, and feeding troops. Gardening was marketed as family fun, healthy recreation, and patriotic.

What few knew then and even fewer know now, is that rationing programs and food shortages were largely due to the incarceration of many of the United States’ most productive farmers. When Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their land, food supplies plummeted and prices skyrocketed. In 1942, Japanese American-owned farms were expected to provide half of the canning tomatoes and 95% of all fresh snap beans for the war effort. They were also the primary growers of strawberries for civilian consumption.

The colorful, upbeat, whitewashed victory gardening posters do nothing to hint at the over 6,100 farms that were taken from Japanese Americans (estimated to be worth over $1.3b today). They do nothing to show the forced labor of German prisoners of war and Japanese internees, and they ignore the fact that the government had to import thousands of Mexican workers to keep the United States food supply stable.

National Archives Identifier: 5711623

Reclaiming Victory Gardens to Face Today’s Crises

What do we do with this deeply troubling history?

First, we can acknowledge that this history is not behind us. Stigma of the incarceration camps remains, and reparations fall short. The US didn’t apologize or offer restitution to impacted Japanese Americans until 1988—too little too late. In general, the US doesn’t have a great track record for delivering reparations to groups who’ve been forced from their lands and into forced labor, including enslaved Africans and indigenous peoples. Racism persists in the face of climate and global health crises, as marginalized communities are hit hardest and—again—as anti-Asian racism spreads, but this time amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

We can also reclaim what was good about the victory gardening movement of the 1940s, when 20 million people took action to feed their families and communities in uncertain times. We can again tap into therapeutic potential of gardening. And, this time, we can garden in a way that’s good for the planet (unlike the chemical-heavy methods used during the 1940s).

The victory garden movement was a top-down model, with the government driving action. Today, we’re seeing incredible amounts of grassroots action around growing food that directly opposes the systems that reinforce oppression, the industrialization of our food system, and centralization of power. Across the country, people are building Climate Victory Gardens that bring communities together and provide nourishing food to people who live in food-insecure areas—those experiencing food apartheid and facing racism.

We need everyone to be part of the climate solution and easing the impacts of the pandemic. Gardens have a role in the future we’re striving to create racism does not.

Here are some great organizations addressing anti-Asian backlash today:

Here are some organizations working to ensure gardening is available to all:

It’s important that Americans work together to make sustainable gardening and agriculture a viable activity for all groups and communities—one that honors the wisdom and connection to the land of diverse peoples.

When Did Victory Gardens Begin

Victory gardens were initially a military effort started during World War I. While they were popular at the time, it was during the Second World War that the idea really caught on.

Agricultural workers and farmers in America and Europe were enlisted to fight in the war. This meant that there was less food being produced and many places in Europe were having a food shortage crisis. Food rations were common during WWI and the government wanted to avoid civil unrest. On top of that, soldiers overseas needed to be fed, but commercially produced food was being used to feed Americans at home.

By promoting the idea of the victory garden, the military was helping to ensure that citizens at home had enough to eat while still having enough left over to send to the troops fighting in the war.

Grown from the Past: A Short History of Community Gardening in the United States

Although skeptical at first, the Federal government came to support Victory Gardening efforts in communities across the country, as seen in this poster from c. 1941-43. Herbert Bayer, artist. Library of Congress.

When the United Sates entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, many Americans participated in a grassroots effort began to rekindle the patriotic liberty gardens of WWI. At first the federal government was skeptical of supporting these efforts like they had before. Officials thought large-scale agriculture was more efficient. However, citing the health, recreational, and morale-boosting effects of gardening, the government again supported a national gardening campaign during World War II.

Reports estimate that by 1944, between 18-20 million families with victory gardens were providing 40 percent of the vegetables in America.

Following the victory gardens of WWII, however, there were fewer community-focused gardening projects. The United States experienced unprecedented suburban growth and many gardeners opted for the privacy of the backyard.

A citizen working on Sunday morning in his Victory Garden, Oswego, New York, 1943. Library of Congress.

Canning History: When Propaganda Encouraged Patriotic Preserves

Recently, home canning has seen a rush in popularity, and even upscale retailers like Williams-Sonoma want a share of the idea that a pint of home-canned jam is a fun gift idea. But during both world wars, canning saw another surge, this time prompted by colorful propaganda sponsored by the United States government.

During wartime, American and British citizens were encouraged by their respective governments to start "victory gardens," reducing their reliance on limited food rations. The natural next step — canning their newly-grown produce.

Getting folks to can at home was a way of "relieving pressure on the canning industry that was needed to preserve food for soldiers," says Anne Effland, a U.S. Department of Agriculture social scientist and former food historian with the agency. So naturally, the government called on a few good artists to help it gin up a propaganda poster campaign to make canning seem patriotic. Check out our slideshow above for some samples of the posters, many of which live on today in the special collections at the National Agricultural Library.

The commissioned posters featured brightly colored artwork and slogans like "Can All You Can" and "Of Course I Can" — puns that recall a simpler time and perhaps a simpler sense of humor. "The posters were used as a rhetorical device to bring the public together around the common need to support the armed forces," says Effland.

Today, canned foods, from mass produced to small-batch artisanal products, are readily available around the country. But modern home canning has taken on a new purpose, carrying the message that canning is good for your health and the environment because you can control it. If you need a jump start, you can still get information on how to start canning from the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

And though the popularity of canning might go through ups and downs over the years, these vintage posters remind us that the purpose and importance of canning to American culture will continue to be "preserved."

Victory gardens: How they planted them & what they grew during WWII

Defense Gardens: What does a defense garden defend? (1942)

By Richardson Wright, Editor, House & Garden

This spring, thousands of Americans will be planting &ldquodefense gardens.&rdquo In a previous conflict, they were called &ldquowar gardens,&rdquo but by whatever name we call them, it will be the same &mdash we will be raising more vegetables, enjoying more vegetables, canning more vegetables &mdash because whether we dig for defense or for warfare, we dig for victory.

Many of those who dig and sow defense gardens this spring will recall those war gardens of twenty-odd years ago. Perhaps they will also remember the reasons why they made them, remember the slogans, the propaganda, the community and national urging that impelled them to plant more and preserve more.

Into the present emergency has been introduced a whole set of new reasons. Before you order seed or put spade to soil, consider, then, what you are defending. The Government&rsquos attitude toward this necessary endeavor is particularly interesting.

Recently House & Garden sent one of its representatives to confer with a leading official of the Department of Agriculture.

&ldquoNo hysteria, please,&rdquo was his opening remark.

In the first World War, hysterical vegetable gardening caused a great waste of valuable seed. Because several nations from which some of this seed came during the previous war are now enslaved, and because there is some shortage in our own seed crop due to unfavorable weather, we are not to waste seed. Calculate your needs carefully, and sow to meet them.

Meantime, however &mdash the Government is still speaking &mdash keep improving your grounds with trees and shrubs and flowers. Grow your own vegetables, can the surplus, become self-sufficient as to food &mdash well and good &mdash but don&rsquot abandon growing and flowering beauty.

For besides the hunger of the body, there is a &ldquohidden hunger.&rdquo The body may adjust itself to short rations, but morale can never be sustained unless the &ldquohidden hunger&rdquo lurking in all of us is satisfied.

In the light of this official attitude, what are we defending? How do our vegetable rows contribute to national safety and the preservation of those democratic ideals to which we are so solemnly vowed?

The easy transportation of fresh fruit and vegetables to all parts of the country, which has arisen within our own generation, employs a vast quantity of rolling stock.

Those cars and locomotives may be needed for the moving of war materials and food to our troops. We plant to save transportation.

We sow carefully, not merely to prevent waste of vegetable seed, but also because our allies are desperately short of several kinds of seed: we will be drawing from our store for them as the seasons pass.

We raise our own vegetables so that the Government may pile up surpluses with which to feed our allies, and also against that day when, please God, come peace, it will be our duty to feed the starving peoples of Europe, friend and foe alike.

&ldquoWhoso hath this world&rsquos good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?&rdquo

These are fairly obvious reasons for making defense gardens, and these were the same we heard during the last war.

In the evolution and travail of our race over the past twenty years, certain other reasons and necessities for laboring to make the earth bring forth its increase have arisen.

Health is one, national health. The number of rejections from the drafted army on account of physical weaknesses should come as a blow to our pride.

Have we, supposedly the most civilized nation in the world, grown so soft, so greedy for creature comforts that muscles are flabby and wishbones preferred to backbones? Men and women who hoe their vegetable rows know the way to health. Unless you have health how can you defend anything?

WE WHO work with the land will also have a chance to correct some of the evils perpetrated against it by our careless forefathers.

Today, the nation is facing a grim penalty of floods, soil erosion, dust bowls, topsoil washed downstream or blown away due to the wasteful farming methods of previous generations of Americans.

It is a bitter heritage from those who abused the land, who robbed it and then moved on. Each man in his garden, whether his acres be few or many, can adopt intelligent methods of soil cultivation so that the waters descend into the earth instead of rolling off it.

On the small place, this may merely require cover crops, on the larger, strip planting and contour plowing.

Whatever land you have, learn to cultivate it with an eye to restoring its capacities for lasting fertility and preventing its destruction by the elements. Defense of health is necessary, defense of the land is a national duty.

But what of the &ldquohidden hungers&rdquo of which that Government agent spoke? It is easy enough to say this can be satisfied by the delight of the eye in flowering beauty &mdash in the uncurling of a rose, the noble form of a well-kept tree, the fatness of land in hearty tilth.

Among thinking people, is a more urgent hunger &mdash the hunger for whatever &ldquonew order&rdquo will come after this war. It is to be hoped that we will be spared the extravaganza of the &rsquo20s. It is certain that life will not go on &ldquoas usual.&rdquo

There is certain to come a more equitable distribution of this world&rsquos goods and opportunities. There is certain to come the preservation of our natural resources as the wealth of all the people.

In that day, lucky is the man who can work with his hands who, having respect for the soil, will cultivate it with loving care and understanding.

Perhaps in the end, what we defend most in defense gardens is our dream for a better world.

Make It Do &ndash Rationing of Canned Goods

Why processed foods?

Tin was short.

The Japanese controlled 70 percent of the world&rsquos tin supply. Tin&rsquos resistance to temperature, shock, and moisture made it an ideal packaging material. The US military used tin for ration tins, ammunition boxes, plasma containers, and for morphine syrettes. The use of tin for civilian purposes had to be curtailed, which meant rationing of canned goods.

In addition to meeting civilian needs, US farms also fed the military and the Allies. However, an agricultural labor shortage due to the draft and the internment of Japanese-Americans strained the system. Reducing civilian usage of processed fruit and vegetable products through rationing helped reduce the strain.

Starting March 1, 1943, three hundred items were rationed, including canned or bottled or frozen fruits and vegetables, canned or bottled juices and soups, and dried fruits. Fresh fruits and vegetables were not rationed, nor were pickles, relishes, or Jell-O.

Each rationed item was assigned a point value, which varied over time due to supply, demand, and region. The job of the grocer became more complicated. Products had to be labeled not only with price but with point value. Each month, point values changed, and the grocer had to re-label.

On March 1, 1943, War Ration Book Two became active. The blue stamps provided 48 points worth of processed foods each month. This supplied 33 pounds of canned goods per person per year, which was 13 pounds less than pre-war usage. Rationing calendars were published in the newspapers to help people keep track of which stamps were current. Stamps were good for eight, five, two, or one points each, with no &ldquochange&rdquo given, so the shopper had to be careful to use the exact number of points. To prevent fraud, the stamps had to be torn off in the presence of the grocer.

War Ration Books Three and Four

Book Three became active in September 1943, but was replaced by Book Four on November 1, 1943. The system was simplified on February 27, 1944, when all stamps became worth 10 points, and plastic tokens were issued as change.

Point values changed frequently, and items were often removed from or returned to rationing based on the harvest. On September 17, 1944 after a good harvest&mdashand in preparation for the presidential election&mdashall processed foods except canned fruit were removed from rationing, but were returned to rationing on January 1, 1945 due to the demands of the Battle of the Bulge. After V-J Day on August 15, 1945, processed foods were no longer rationed.

People were encouraged to plant Victory Gardens to reduce the amount of processed foods needed. Newspapers and magazines published how-to articles, and gardens sprang up in backyards, vacant lots, big-city window-boxes, and even on community property. By the end of 1943, Victory Gardens supplied 40 percent of civilian needs for fruits and vegetables.

To put up this bounty, home canning was encouraged. A poll in January 1944 found that 75 percent of housewives canned, and those women canned an average of 165 jars per year. This met the family&rsquos needs and preserved ration points for foods they couldn&rsquot grow. Extra canned fruits and vegetables were often donated to the needy.

Local Food Fuels Freedom

While container and vegetable gardening obviously did not win the war outright, communities banding together for the common good rightly demonstrates the American Way. While soldiers sacrificed to fight battles thousands of miles away, their families were at home helping to free up food supplies needed overseas while boosting civilian morale.

In peacetime, the same idea of better living and stronger communities rings true. Things have changed a lot since the Victory Gardens of WWII, but the lingering sentiment is just as relevant today. When we have access to our food source and understand its workings, Americans emerge empowered.

Grown from the Past: A Short History of Community Gardening in the United States

Women work in a war garden, c. 1918. Location unknown. Library of Congress.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, a need for food, rather than education, became the primary motivation for cultivating community gardens. Europe was in the midst of a food shortage. To increase exports, the national War Garden Commission called on citizens to become “soldiers of the soil” by planting “liberty gardens” or “war gardens” to meet some of their domestic need for food. Gardening became a patriotic act.

When the United States entered World War I, the Federal Government attempted to build public support for gardening by connecting a patriotic sentiment to the already robust school gardening movement, as this poster from 1918 suggest. Library of Congress.

The War Garden Commission reported there were 3,500,000 war gardens in 1917, which produced some 350 million dollars worth of crops.

Community gardening projects continued after the war. In Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other cities, for example, African American residents often participated in civic horticulture campaigns by holding gardening contests to improve the appearance of their neighborhoods, which were often neglected by city leaders because of racial prejudice.

National War Garden Commission poster, c. 1919. Library of Congress.

Visitors read about War Gardens at a demonstration garden created in New York’s Bryant Park, 1918. Library of Congress.

America’s most patriotic new hotel celebrates history’s Greatest Generation

Visitors to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans on Memorial Day and D-Day will find that America’s most patriotic new hotel there salutes the “Greatest Generation.” The 230-room, upscale Higgins Hotel and Conference Center celebrates victory with vibrant Second World War period theming, colorful luxury, and thoughtful, visual tributes every day of the year.

Tasteful but powerful theming at The Higgins and authentic items evoke the American WWII experience. (Photo: Harrison Shiels)

It’s adjacent to the expansive, interactive museum billed as the top-rated attraction in the Big Easy. Arriving in the hotel’s bold, soaring, deco-design lobby is like stepping back in time to sense, through sights, sounds, and even tastes, the American experience at home and abroad during the war.

“Our mission is to provide accommodation for guests who are visiting the museum and for conferences being held there in addition to operating as a full-service hotel,” said general manager Marc Becker. We talked at Rosie’s on the Roof, The Higgins’ open-air bar overlooking all of New Orleans, while drinking rocks glasses of The Riveter, a cocktail made of light and dark rum, fresh fruit juice, and bitters served in an actual Stanley Thermos. (Pistol Packin’ Mama and ‘80s Women Power Ballad IPA were among the other choices nine stories up.) “‘Rosie the Riveter,’ is the iconic caricature personality that represents every woman who served during the war either in uniform in manufacturing plants. ‘Rosie’ worked in the Douglas Manufacturing plant in California so there is an aircraft wing, perhaps one she riveted, over the bar as an element of surprise for people.”

It is through touches like that The Higgins Hotel turns heads and touches hearts in the midst of the military might with respect, pride, and smiles. For instance, business travelers can hold strategy meetings in the hotel’s Overload Boardroom in front of the floor-to-ceiling map General Eisenhower used at his headquarters on D-Day to track allied ships. General Patton’s piano is in the Patriot’s Circle Lounge and near Kilroy’s Café, in the “provisions” convenience shop, I spotted a replicas of field ratio crates sent from the Kellogg Company in Battle Creek.

I could go on, but it’ll be more fun for you to discover these treasure hunt-type touches for yourself, including the vintage photos of boot camp soldiers training posted for inspiration on the walls of the hotel’s fitness center. The reason for the hotel’s name will also enlighten you as a “Higgins” (credited with winning the war) is also the very first thing you will see in the museum’s lobby.

You needn’t tour the National World War II Museum in order to stay at The Higgins Hotel or enjoy it. But guests who do spend time in the museum can easily duck back to the hotel for a break. The Higgins’ bright, celebratory design provides a purposeful lift from the emotional fog of war the museum’s immersive, 4-D exhibits may provoke. For instance museum-goers are issued a dog tag…and then their tour of the museum’s exhibits begins with them taking a simulated train ride from an American small town “off to war.”

“For most Americans who were drafted or enlisted it was their first time going more than 30 miles from their home. A train was the way they left and came home,” said Tom Czekanski, the museum’s senior curator. “Many of them took four train trips across the country. There was a sense of trepidation but they also had a great desire to be involved and they knew they had to do their part.”

By visceral contrast, at the hotel, the elevator doors open to reveal a vintage photograph of relief and jubilation: a smiling group of people holding up fresh copies of the Knoxville Journal emblazoned with the banner headline: WAR ENDS!

Sharing a train or elevator ride with an actual American hero during your stay is a strong possibility. “It is a good feeling when WWII veterans arrive. We pay special attention to them,” said Becker. “Our first group after opening in 2019 was a reunion of the Fifth Marine Division that stormed Iwo Jima. Eight veterans in their 90s came with their family members. It was moving because they had lots of stories to share.”

Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History

Food garden inspired by victory gardens of World War II.

The Victory Garden on the east side the National Museum of American History is a re-created World War II-era garden featuring “heirloom” vegetable and flower species available to gardeners through the 1940s. Throughout the war years, millions of victory gardens in all shapes and sizes—from window boxes to community plots—produced abundant food for the folks at home. The plantings in this re-created garden are rotated seasonally.

What Is a Victory Garden?

Victory gardens were vegetable gardens planted during the world wars in order to ensure an adequate food supply for civilians and troops. Government agencies, private foundations, businesses, schools, and seed companies all worked together to provide land, instruction, and seeds for individuals and communities to grow food. Throughout the World War II years, millions of victory gardens in all shapes and sizes produced abundant food for the folks at home. While the gardens themselves are now gone, posters, seed packets, catalogs, booklets, photos and films, newspaper articles, diaries, and people’s memories still remain to tell the story of victory gardens.

The Smithsonian’s Victory Garden emulates these WWII-style gardens by showcasing older heirloom varieties and their stories.

Discover More

Plan your visit to include the exhibition Within These Walls on the 2nd floor of the National Museum of American History. There you will find a two-and-a-half-story New England house, originally built in the 1700s. Discover the stories of five ordinary families who lived in the house over 200 years and experienced the great events of American history.

One story features Mary Scott and her family, who lived in this house during World War II and contributed to the war effort. View the kitchen where Mary Scott preserved vegetables grown in her victory garden. Part of Mary’s support of the war was growing and preserving her own food, shopping with ration coupons, and saving tin cans, foil, and leftover fat for recycling into war material.

Learn about Mary’s son Roy, who fought in the Pacific, her daughter Annie, who made war materials in a local factory, and her grandson Richard, who helped his grandmother in the victory garden and the kitchen.

Interpretive garden panel located in the Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History.

“Garden for Victory!”

During America’s involvement in World War II (1941–1945), the Victory Garden Program strove to reduce demand for commercially grown vegetables, packaging materials, and transportation needs by encouraging Americans to grow their own produce and preserve and can their surplus harvest. This made more food and materials available for the armed forces and programs that supported America’s Allies. By empowering people to grow their own food, victory gardens made Americans feel part of a greater cause.

Victory Gardens by the Numbers

  • Roughly one half of all American families had a victory garden during World War II.
  • There were at least 20 million victory gardens covering more than 20 million acres of American soil by 1943.
  • 40% of the nation’s produce was supplied by victory gardens by 1944.
  • American families had grown approximately 8 million tons of food by the time the war ended in 1945.

“For Country, for Community!”

The Victory Garden Program brought many different groups together to support a single cause. Corporations, private foundations, magazine publishers, and seed companies all contributed to the success of the project. These organizations collaborated with groups such as 4-H, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Future Farmers of America, The Garden Club of America, and others to create communities of gardeners, canners, and seed savers.

Garden interpretive panel “Better Food, Better Health, Better Cities” is in the Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History.

“Better Food, Better Health, and Better Cities”

By encouraging Americans to spend time outside and eat more fresh produce, the Victory Garden Program promoted healthy habits. In addition to their physical health benefits, victory gardens helped boost morale by bringing communities together.
Studies have shown that spending time in nature can have physical, mental, and emotional health benefits, including lower blood pressure, reduced stress, and improved mood.

Garden interpretive panel “Of Course I Can” is in the Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History.

“Of Course I Can!”

As well as encouraging people to grow their own produce, the Victory Garden Program urged Americans to conserve and ration raw materials needed for the war effort, such as cans, fuel, rubber, glass jars, and wax paper. Concerned about running out of food and materials, Americans sought to become as self-sustainable as possible.
Today, Americans continue the Victory Garden Program’s spirit of sustainability by producing and eating local food, reusing and recycling materials, and practicing sustainable gardening techniques to help protect the environment.

Mortgage Lifter Tomato

Solanum lycopersicum
During the 1930s, “Radiator Charlie,” a mechanic in West Virginia, bred these tomatoes by crossing four popular varieties, resulting in a giant tomato perfect for slicing and preserving. He named his new cultivar “Mortgage Lifter” because after six years selling plants for $1 each, he was able to pay off his $6,000 mortgage, an especially impressive feat during the Great Depression.

Italian Frying Pepper

Jimmy Nardello Pepper
Capsicum annuum
When the Nardello family immigrated to Connecticut from Italy in 1887, they brought a few pepper seeds with them. Jimmy, one of eleven Nardello children, started growing these seeds, eventually donating them to Seed Savers Exchange. An Italian frying pepper, Jimmy Nardello peppers are good dried, frozen, pickled, canned, or fresh.

Sweet Potatoes vs Yams

Beauregard Sweet Potato
Ipomea batata
Now one of the most popular commercial sweet potato varieties, Beauregard was originally developed at Louisiana State University for higher yield and disease resistance. Even though we often use the words “sweet potato” and “yam” interchangeably, they are distinct crops. Sweet potatoes, which are in the same family as morning glories, originated in South America and come in a variety of colors, from orange to purple to white. Yams, on the other hand, originated in Asia and Africa and tend to have dark exteriors and white or light purple insides.

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