Have you noticed lately how many “new” gardening trends lately are really reflecting ideas that have been around for generations? Local food, home gardening, keeping chickens, foraging — our ancestors found these things to be second nature, but so many of these age-old skills were laid aside somewhere along the way in the steady march toward Progress and Modernization. If dinner can arrive neatly packaged in a box and be ready in minutes, who needs to cook? When the grocery store shelves are stocked with anything and everything we could possibly want to eat, why go to all the time and bother of growing our food from a handful of seeds?
I’ve been seeing more and more wonderful vintage posters and ephemera resurfacing from the heyday of “Victory Gardens” — the home plots that cropped up across Europe and America during the two World Wars to sustain families as food and resources were diverted toward the war efforts. Both supplies and the land to produce them were limited and precious, and so — in a remarkable effort toward encouraging what we would now call “sustainability” — governments began encouraging people to grow their own, and educating them in how to do it.
But it’s not just backyard plots that are an old idea turned new. Chicken-keeping, school gardens, canning — all these became patriotic pursuits in wartime. And now, once again, we’re rediscovering the value of producing and preserving our own food. The reasons may have changed, but the satisfaction and joy of harvesting your bounty never go out of date. And as we see our economic and food systems become increasingly unstable, it starts looking live a very good, and necessary, idea indeed.
Some of the posters issued to encourage home production are extraordinarily lovely — a tremendous variety of artists, from Harper’s Magazine illustrator Edward Penfield to French schoolchildren, contributed designs to the cause. I think they are just as inspiring today as ever — perhaps even more so because of the history and heritage they represent. Here is a sampling of those that I’ve collected… enjoy!
French WWI poster, 1916: “Let us look after the farmyard: I am a honest hen of war. I eat little and produce much.”
USDA ad, circa 1917: “Don’t sell the laying hen — all spring she will be turning insects, weeds, garbage, and waste into eggs for the Nation… it’s both patriotic and profitable”! Thankfully backyard birds across the country aren’t producing eggs to “win the war” today, but it may be just as important now to learn to produce our own food and be a little more self-sufficient. And as “urban farmers” discover the delights of fresh eggs and free fertilizer, the humble chicken reinstates herself as a part of the homestead, one backyard at a time!
A WWI-era poster by Edward Penfield for the United States School Garden Army. Its motto — “A garden for every child, every child in a garden” — sounds just as relevant today, as school and community gardens pop up across the nation. When the First Lady enlists a troupe of elementary school students to install a kitchen garden — the first since Eleanore Roosevelt’s Victory Garden — in the White House lawn, you know we’re headed in the right direction!
From this page about the United States School Garden Army: “At the advent of World War I, the Bureau of Education within the Department of the Interior, with funding from the War Department, created the United States School Garden Army (USSGA) to boost the concept as well as morale. This was the one of the first attempts by the BOE to establish a curriculum nationally. It was also an attempt to help in the war effort by having the schools help grow food. To support this program a series of documents were written and distributed. Among these were at least 15 USSGA Manuals and Guides, and 17 School Home-Garden Circulars. The target audience was urban and suburban boys and girls, ages 9 through 15, and their teachers. The subjects covered growing vegetables from seed, growing flowers, building hotbeds and coldframes, organic matter and soil health, regional guides and others.”
“ALONG THE EAST RIVER FRONT: Supervised by competent instructors the school children of New York City produced some excellent results in the gardens which they planted in various sections of the city. The very orderly one here shown, with a large number of children industriously engaged, is in Thomas Jefferson Park, 114th Street and East River.” I can’t decide which part of this image is the most extraordinary — children planting an eye-popping school garden in 1918? On a vacant lot in New York City? On the East River??? Wow.
This photograph is from the book The War Garden Victorious: Its War Time Need and Its Economic Value In Peace, published in 1919, documenting the US food gardening program during WWI. You can read it online here — be sure to check out the School Garden Army section. A quote from Woodrow Wilson really sums up the importance given to that program: “Every boy and girl who really sees what the home garden may mean will, I am sure, enter into the purpose with high spirits…. The movement to establish gardens, therefore, and to have the children work in them is just as real and patriotic an effort as the building of ships or the firing of cannon.”
And if the comparisons to ships and cannon fire weren’t enough motivation for the kids, here’s this 1943 edition of World’s Finest Comics, showing everyone’s favourite superheroes getting down to business! Though I worry that Robin is courting a nasty sunburn… it does look like he’s already in the early phases of heatstroke. Maybe gardening without pants wasn’t such a super idea after all?
War Gardens appeared across both Europe and America as supplies were redirected toward the war effort. The British Ministry of Agriculture issued these monthly “Allotment and Garden Guides” in 1945 to give the populace practical advice on growing their own food. (According to this one, before the Romans started meddling in things, August was known in England as “Weodmonath” — Weed Month. Sounds good to me!)
“Every month we shall try to do three things : first, we shall remind you of the things that ought to have been done, but may not have been possible because of the weather or for some other reason; secondly, we shall deal with gardening operations for the month; thirdly, we shall look ahead a month or two and remind you of what you need to do in readiness.” The guides are all available online here; click on over to enjoy their charmingly down-to-earth advice!
“Let us cultivate our kitchen garden”: A French poster from 1917, by Louisette Jaeger, part of a series designed by school children in support of the war effort.
Who doesn’t love vegetables with faces? And isn’t that an enviable sun hat? Really, though — part of what makes the history of wartime gardening so fascinating to me is the massive accompanying efforts to educate the non-farming public on how to “grow their own.” From England to France to the USA, pamphlets flew forth on planting crops, raising chickens, even replacing sugar with fruit. And, once again, we are seeing people in cities and the countryside alike pick up their hoes, roll up their sleeves, and get back to the dirt! We don’t need a war to sow the “Fruits of Peace”…
WWI poster by James Montgomery Flagg, 1918, for the National War Garden Commission.
Let’s sow the seeds of tradition and independence in our own backyards!