Food

“Gardening Is a Really Concrete Way That People Can Feel Empowered”

A historian explains how the “victory gardens” of our moment compare with those grown during World War II.

A poster reads "Your victory garden counts more than ever!" over images of vegetables.
A victory garden poster from 1945.
Food and Drug Administration

I had already planned to adopt a community garden plot in 2020, even before we were plunged into pandemic strangeness. (I swear!) Now, as I pull up the mugwort that blankets my little rectangle and put in my first collard seedlings, I have become a cliché. Everyone who can seems to be “victory gardening”—channeling our boundless adrenaline and thirst for distraction into buying seeds, erecting trellises, or just sinking scallion ends into little pots of soil to see the onions regrow.

Anastasia Day is a graduate student in history at the University of Delaware and a Hagley Scholar associated with the Hagley Museum and Library. She’s finishing up a dissertation about victory gardens in which she addresses their antecedents—the “war gardens” or “Liberty Gardens” promoted by a businessman with a cause during World War I—but mostly their much more widespread, government-boosted adoption during World War II. During that period, the victory garden was a serious venture. “No work, no garden. … No work, no spuds, no work, no turnips, no tanks, no Flying Fortress, no victory,” an educational film exhorted newbie gardeners.

I asked Day why the victory garden concept succeeded, why the gardens vanished so quickly after the war ended, and why the idea of the victory garden is so compelling for us today. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rebecca Onion: The motivations of people who are starting coronavirus “victory gardens” this spring seem to center on anxiety: Will there be enough food? And will I—or my family or community—have access to it? Was that why people started “victory gardens” during the world wars, or was it patriotism, or something else?

Anastasia Day: The motivations were actually pretty similar to many of the sentiments driving people today. There was a lot of anxiety in the air—not just anxiety about food supply and availability, but also anxiety about a larger crisis. Just like in World War II, I think a lot of everyday Americans are feeling a little powerless to affect what happens with a huge global problem. Gardening is a really concrete way that people can feel empowered—at least within their own lives.

What we are seeing happen this spring is remarkable. I have a Google Alert set up for mentions of victory gardens, and I normally get one to two mentions a week, often obituaries saying, “They grew a victory garden during World War II.” Lately I’ve been getting 15 or 20 every two or three days—mentions in blog posts and local newspapers, even the New York Times.

I think what this represents is distinctly different from World War II, in that [WWII] victory gardening was a very top-down enterprise. I’ve found, in my research, just a tremendous amount of money, effort, and advertising dollars, from both private and federal, state, and local government sources, fueling the victory garden program in WWII. Free pamphlets, free seed packets, subsidized plowing, community gardens. … Today, this seems to be very much a grassroots instinct and impulse we are seeing.

And now, we are getting access to information and supplies through the market, not through the government.

Absolutely.

You linked a WWII-era educational film about victory gardening in a blog post of yours. I watched it, and it was surprising on so many levels. One of the things that was so striking about it was that these people—it’s a family they follow—are planting a whole bunch of land. It’s a quarter acre, which doesn’t sound that big, but in the film, boy, it looks like so much work. How much work were people doing on these, during the war? How big were these plots?

Yes! There were absolutely mind-boggling recommendations, especially the one from the U.S. Extension Service for rural areas, suggesting planting something close to a quarter acre of land of vegetables for every member of your family. Ludicrous ideas like that. What’s even crazier is that lots of 4-H children single-handedly farmed one or two plots—you see this when you look at 4-H records from during the war.

Right! One of the family members in that film is a 14-year-old boy, and he’s definitely putting in work.

It’s so much work! I did an experiment a few years ago, before I was moving around too much for fellowships, when I was able to have a garden as well as research them. I followed a World War II–era, middle-sized, suburban family [victory garden] plan, for people with limited space. It was 25 feet by 25 feet. At the time, I was a graduate student working from home, with funding; I had a lot more time than the average 48-hour workweek factory worker with kids would have had in World War II. And my husband and I truly struggled. There were rows where we just said, “OK, the weeds are going to win this one!” We didn’t get around to harvesting some of our corn in time. … It was a real learning experience. And I even have experience gardening; I helped manage a quarter-acre sustainable garden on my undergraduate campus.

Thinking about the amount of labor this took is really important, because it shows that victory gardening was not a casual thing. This was a huge commitment, to have two-thirds of Americans participating. Lots of victory gardens were smaller, because not everyone could have huge plots. But even in cities like Chicago, where the standard plot size, if I recall correctly, was 4 feet by 12 feet, which is tiny, there were stories of people who would have their plot in the city and then also rent additional land from farmers outside the city and visit that once a week.

So why did people keep with it? Because they saw they could get food from it—or for patriotic reasons—or what?

I think there was a huge amount of social pressure. I think there was also a huge amount of general anxiety and feelings of powerlessness that drove people to do what they could. As a historian, I try not to be sentimental when I look at the past, but there is something in me that believes in an ahistorical calming effect that interacting with the natural world can give us. There, I said it!

They’ll make you turn in your historian card!

Yes! I just think, in the same way that volunteering in general to help other humans gets you outside of yourself and your worries, working in the soil can really be truly therapeutic in giving you something to focus on that it’s the overwhelming uncertainty of life in a crisis.

And undoubtedly, some people found a new passion and really enjoyed it. There are lots of stories of people saying, “My parents had never gardened until World War II, but they loved it so much.” Some people really caught the bug.

Something that interested me to learn from reading a chapter you wrote was that many—maybe most?—victory gardeners had very little experience gardening. That was true during World War II, but also even earlier, during World War I. We may think of early-20th-century Americans as much more agrarian than us, but that wasn’t necessarily the case.

One of the easiest ways, I think, to break it down is simply to look at the census. 1920 was the first census year where more Americans lived in cities than rural areas, and that’s a really good way to measure people’s connections to farming practices—because even then, of course, not everyone that lived in rural areas was necessarily a gardener.

By the time of World War II, many people lived in cities. And even despite the backflow to rural areas, the depopulation of urban centers, that happened a bit during the Great Depression, the number of people in cities kept rising. People who lived in cities didn’t have direct connection to gardening, except maybe vague memories from childhood.

What kind of advice did the government give victory gardeners? I noticed in the video there were a lot of tips about pest management, what to do about worms and beetles, what chemicals to use. … Boy, did they spray those crops down! But also, recommendations of what things to grow, what kinds of seeds, that kind of thing.

There was a lot of effort aimed at efficiency—making sure that you were doing this right, you were doing this correctly, you were listening to the experts. They recommended plants that would attract fewer pests, new varieties. … They recommended that you consult as many experts as you could and sign up with your local victory garden committee to have experts come to visit your garden. They recommended you use all the latest science on pest control and management, and that you plant plants that produce the most calories per your amount of space, rather than plants that spread out more. So for instance, Americans were told en masse not to grow potatoes or squash because they took up so much space—unless they had an excess of room.

And yes. People assume, “It was the midcentury, it wasn’t as chemical-laden or industrial as gardening can be today,” but they all used as many chemicals as they could lay their hands on!

This also marks the first time hybrid seeds became hugely important in industrial crops, especially over the course of the Great Depression, and hybrid seeds make their way pretty immediately into this backyard gardening movement because they are best scientifically, they are the most efficient.

The victory garden campaign was always conceived quite seriously, not as an exercise to make people feel useful but as a way to actually grow a lot of food.

You point out that after the war, victory gardening as a habit basically vanished, and we moved seamlessly into the era of postwar food—frozen food, big supermarkets, just whole-hearted buy-in to the industrial food system. Why do you think this happened?

I think there were a lot of reasons, some obvious and some not so much. First, it’s a lot of work, the war was over, it’s not necessary; there was food back on the shelves and more than ever, there was frozen and canned food. This is the start of the golden age of processed food, which had been all going to the Army, but then it flooded the grocery stores—not in the immediate postwar world, but by 1950 at least—and so people didn’t feel the need.

I think another reason is so much of the victory garden campaign was organized around these ideas of efficiency. You are doing the job because it’s more important for the farmer to grow vast fields of something and send it directly across the ocean as part of Lend-Lease, than it would be for him to distribute all these little packets of vegetables to all these little towns in the U.S. It’s more efficient to grow your own—that was the rhetoric. And so logically, when you can outsource the labor once again to a farmer who can do it more efficiently than you do … that’s what you do. So to a certain extent, the logic of its temporariness was built into the program itself.

Also, isn’t it true that people weren’t as interested in growing “organic” or heirloom vegetables then, as we are now, when sometimes the only way to get that stuff is if you grow it?

People were just not as afraid of the food chain as they had been in the past, and as they would be in the future. There’s a great recent book out by Anna Zeide [Canned: The Rise and Fall of Consumer Confidence in the American Food Industry] that talks about this—at the end of World War II, this trust was at its height. Her narrative is common not only to canned goods but also to frozen foods and other prepared foods that really come into their own in the postwar world. They were past the age of commercial disasters where people died from botulism from commercially canned goods; they had regulatory processes in place to ensure food safety; they were not yet to the age of paranoia about industrial farming, where you don’t know what chemicals are being sprayed on it and that pushes you to grow your own. That was really a movement of the ’60s and ’70s through the current day.

Why do you think people like the idea of the victory garden so much? It has this kind of midcentury chic to it.

People are very attracted to it. There’s a Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago; a punk band I get Google Alerts for every once in a while that tends to play the Long Island and Brooklyn circuit from what I can tell; a confectionary shop in Brooklyn [now closed] named “Victory Garden.”

I think what’s appealing about the victory garden name isn’t its association with war, but with World War II—“the Good War.” The most unambiguous fight against evil. Despite all the realities of racial strife, race riots, discrimination, Japanese American incarceration. … Despite these realities, the self-image of America on the homefront is a diverse democracy pulling together in one common, unquestionably good cause. No shades of gray. Growing your own vegetables is great; beating Nazis is great. And I think we’re all nostalgic for a time when anything was that simple.

Update, April 13, 2020: This article has been updated so that Day could clarify that she meant to say Japanese American incarceration, not internment.