Homefront Ww2 Historiography Essay

The Historiography of World War II is the study of how historians portray the causes, conduct, and outcomes of World War II.

There are different perspectives on the causes of the war the three most prominent are are the orthodox from the 1950s, Revisionist from the 1970s and Post-Revisionism which offers the most contemporary perspective. The orthodox perspective arose during the aftermath of the war. The main historian noted for this perspective is Hugh Trevor-Roper. Orthodox historians argue that Hitler was a master planner who intentionally started World War II due to his strong beliefs on fascism, expansionism, and the supremacy of the German State.[1] Revisionist historians argue that it was an ordinary war by world standards and that Hitler was an opportunist of the sort who commonly appears in world history; he merely took advantage of the opportunities given to him. This viewpoint became popular in the 1970s, especially in the revisionism of A. J. P. Taylor. Throughout the course of the war, orthodox historians argue as if the Axis powers were a sort of evil consuming the world with their powerful message and malignant ideology, while the Allied powers were trying to protect democracy and freedom. Post-revisionist historians of the causes, such as Alan Bullock, argue that the cause of the War was a matter of both the evil and the banal. Essentially Hitler was a strategist with clear aims and objectives, that would not have been achievable without taking advantage of the opportunities given to him.[2] Each perspective of World War II offers an insightful analysis and allows us to expand our curiosity on the blame, conduct and causes of the war.

On the result of the war, historians in countries occupied by the Nazis developed strikingly similar interpretations celebrating a victory against great odds, with national liberation based on national unity. That unity is repeatedly described as the greatest source of future strength. Historians in common glorified the resistance movement (somewhat to the neglect of the invaders who actually overthrew the Nazis). There is great stress on heroes, Including celebrities such as Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill and Josip Broz Tito, But also countless brave partisans and members of the resistance. Women rarely played a role in the celebrity or he histories, although since the 1990s, social historians have been piecing together the role of women on the home fronts. In recent years much scholarly attention has focused on how popular memories were constructed through selection, and how commemorations are held.

Historiographical viewpoints[edit]

Self esteem and glory[edit]

R.J. Bosworth argues the major powers have experienced intellectual conflict in interpreting their wartime stories. Some have ignored the central issues. Germany and, to a much lesser extent, Japan have experienced a collective self-analysis. But these two, as well as Great Britain, France, Russia, and Italy, have largely ignored many roles and have looked instead for glory even when it was lacking.[3]


Blame as the driving force during World War II, is a widely known orthodox perspective. Especially directly after World War II, Nazi Germany was held to blame for starting the war. Orthodox historians cited several reasons for this. Germany was the one who initially invaded Poland against the recommendation of the allies, and also attacked the Soviet Union.[4] Also, the system of alliances between the Axis Powers was one that was only meant for war. The Tripartite Pact stated that if any country declared war on one of the Axis countries, the other two would also declare war on those countries. Another reason, historians saw, is that the policies of Hitler were overly aggressive; not only did Hitler preach war with France and the Soviet Union, but he followed a careful pre-made plan of expansionism. Additionally, the events that took place in unveiling of the war such as the Remilitarization of the Rhineland, Anschluss, and the German involvement during the Spanish Civil War, showed that Hitler was anticipating the possibility of war and intentionally gearing up for it.[5]


Canada deployed trained historians to Canadian Military Headquarters in the United Kingdom during the war, and paid much attention to the chronicling of the conflict, not only in the words of the official historians of the Army Historical Section, but also through art and trained painters. The official history of the Canadian Army was undertaken after the war, with an interim draft published in 1948 and three volumes in the 1950s. This was in comparison to the First World War's official history, only 1 volume of which was completed by 1939, and the full text only released after a change in authors some 40 years after the fact. Official histories of the RCAF and RCN in the Second World War were also a long time coming, and the book Arms, Men and Government by Charles Stacey (one of the main contributors to the Army history) was published in the 1980s as an "official" history of the war policies of the Canadian government. The performance of Canadian forces in some battles have remained controversial, such as Hong Kong and Dieppe, and a variety of books have been written on them from various points of view. Serious historians - mainly scholars - emerged in the years after the Second World War, foremost Terry Copp (a scholar) and Denis Whitaker (a former soldier).[6]

Taylor The Origins of the Second World War (1961)[edit]

In 1961, English historian A. J. P. Taylor published his most controversial book, The Origins of the Second World War, which earned him a reputation as a revisionist—that is, a historian who sharply changes which party was "guilty." The book had a quick, profound impact, upsetting many readers.[7] Taylor argued against the standard thesis that the outbreak of the Second World War – by which Taylor specifically meant the war that broke out in September 1939 – was the result of an intentional plan on the part of guilty Adolf Hitler. He began his book with the statement that too many people have accepted uncritically what he called the "Nuremberg Thesis", that the Second World War was the result of criminal conspiracy by a small gang comprising Hitler and his associates. He regarded the "Nuremberg Thesis" as too convenient for too many people and claimed that it shielded the blame for the war from the leaders of other states, let the German people avoid any responsibility for the war and created a situation where West Germany was a respectable Cold War ally against the Soviets.

Taylor's thesis was that Hitler was not the demoniacal figure of popular imagination but in foreign affairs a normal German leader. Citing Fritz Fischer, he argued that the foreign policy of the Third Reich was the same as those of the Weimar Republic and the Second Reich. Moreover, in a partial break with his view of German history advocated in The Course of German History, he argued that Hitler was not just a normal German leader but also a normal Western leader. As a normal Western leader, Hitler was no better or worse than Stresemann, Chamberlain or Daladier. His argument was that Hitler wished to make Germany the strongest power in Europe but he did not want or plan war. The outbreak of war in 1939 was an unfortunate accident caused by mistakes on everyone's part.

Notably, Taylor portrayed Hitler as a grasping opportunist with no beliefs other than the pursuit of power and anti-Semitism. He argued that Hitler did not possess any sort of programme and his foreign policy was one of drift and seizing chances as they offered themselves. He did not even consider Hitler's anti-Semitism unique: he argued that millions of Germans were just as ferociously anti-Semitic as Hitler and there was no reason to single out Hitler for sharing the beliefs of millions of others.

Taylor argued that the basic problem with an interwar Europe was a flawed Treaty of Versailles that was sufficiently onerous to ensure that the overwhelming majority of Germans would always hate it, but insufficiently onerous in that it failed to destroy Germany's potential to be a Great Power once more. In this way, Taylor argued that the Versailles Treaty was destabilising, for sooner or later the innate power of Germany that the Allies had declined to destroy in 1918–1919 would inevitably reassert itself against the Versailles Treaty and the international system established by Versailles that the Germans regarded as unjust and thus had no interest in preserving. Though Taylor argued that the Second World War was not inevitable and that the Versailles Treaty was nowhere near as harsh as contemporaries like John Maynard Keynes believed, what he regarded as a flawed peace settlement made the war more likely than not.[8]

Battle of France, 1940[edit]

Main article: Historiography of the Battle of France

The German victory over French and British forces in the Battle of France was one of the most unexpected and astonishing events of the 20th century and has generated a large popular and scholarly literature.[9]

Observers in 1940 found the events unexpected and earth-shaking. Historian Martin Alexander notes that Belgium and the Netherlands fell to the German army in a matter of days and the British were soon driven back to their home islands:

But it was France's downfall that stunned the watching world. The shock was all the greater because the trauma was not limited to a catastrophic and deeply embarrassing defeat of her military forces - it also involved the unleashing of a conservative political revolution that, on 10 July 1940, interred the Third Republic and replaced it with the authoritarian, collaborationist Etat Français of Vichy. All this was so deeply disorienting because France had been regarded as a great power....The collapse of France, however, was a different case (a 'strange defeat' as it was dubbed in the haunting phrase of the Sorbonne's great medieval historian and Resistance martyr, Marc Bloch).[10]

One of the most influential books on the war was written in summer 1940 by French historian Marc Bloch: L'Étrange Défaite ("Strange Defeat"). He raised most of the issues historians have debated since. He blamed France's leadership:

What drove our armies to disaster was the cumulative effect of a great number of different mistakes. One glaring characteristic is, however, common to all of them. Our leaders...were incapable of thinking in terms of a new war.[11]

Guilt was widespread. Carole Fink argues that Bloch:

blamed the ruling class, the military and the politicians, the press and the teachers, for a flawed national policy and a weak defense against the Nazi menace, for betraying the real France and abandoning its children. Germany had won because its leaders had better understood the methods and psychology of modern combat.[12]

Eastern Front[edit]

It is commonly said that history is written by the victors, but the exact opposite occurred in the chronicling of the Eastern Front, particularly in the West. Soviet secrecy and unwillingness to acknowledge events that might discredit the regime led to them revealing little information, always heavily edited - leaving western historians to rely almost totally on German sources. While still valuable sources, they tended to be self-serving; German generals, in particular, tried to distance themselves and the Heer as a whole away from the Nazi Party, while at the same time blaming them for their defeat (individuals supporting these arguments are commonly called part of the 'Hitler Lost Us The War' group). While this self-serving approach was noticed at the time,[13] it was still generally accepted as the closest version of the truth. The end result was a commonly held picture of the Heer being the superior army, ground down by the vast numbers of the 'Bolshevik horde' and betrayed by the stupidity of Hitler. Not only did this ignore Hitler's talent as a military leader, an erratic talent that was sometimes brilliantly incisive and sometimes grossly in error, it also severely undervalued the remarkable transformation of the Soviet armed forces, especially the Red Army (RKKA), from the timid, conservative force of 1941 to an effective war-winning organisation.

After the fall of the Berlin wall, Western historians were suddenly exposed to the vast number of Soviet records of the time. This has led to an explosion of the works on the subject, most notably by Richard Overy, David Glantz and Antony Beevor. These historians revealed the brutality of Stalin's regime, the recovery of the USSR and the RKKA in 1942 and the courage and abilities of the average Soviet soldier, relying heavily on Soviet archival material to do so.


Europe at War 1939–1945: No Simple Victory was written by the English historian Norman Davies, best known for his books on Poland. Davies argues although the war was over for 60 years that a number of misconceptions about the war are still common and then sets out to correct them. Two of his main claims are that contrary to popular belief in the West, the dominant part of the conflict took place in Eastern Europe between the two totalitarian systems of the century, communism and Nazism; and that Stalin's USSR was as bad as Hitler's Germany.[14] The subtitle No Simple Victory does therefore not just refer to the losses and suffering the allies had to endure in order to defeat the enemy, but also the difficult moral choice the Western democracies had to make when allying themselves with one criminal regime in order to defeat another.[15]

Holocaust denial[edit]

A field of pseudohistory has emerged which attempts to deny the existence of the Holocaust and the mass extermination of Jews in German-occupied Europe. The proponents of the belief, known as Holocaust deniers or "negationists", are usually associated with Neo-Nazism and their views are rejected by professional historians.

German-occupied Europe[edit]

Main article: German-occupied Europe

The Nazis perfected the art of stealing, draining the local economies to the maximum or beyond, so that overall production fell.[16]

In all occupied countries resistance movements sprang up.[17] The Germans tried to infiltrate and suppress them, but after the war they emerged as political actors. The local Communists were especially active in promoting resistance movements,[18] as was the British Special Operations Executive (SOE).[19]

Common themes: heroic liberation from Nazis[edit]

Almost all national narratives of the Second World War--ranging from historiography in liberal democracies to that of Communist dictatorship, fit the same European pattern. The French-German historian Etienne Francois has identified the common themes, as paraphrased by Johan Östling:

Fundamental to them all...was the victory over Nazi Germany. In descriptions of the end of the war and the liberation, national unity was often stressed. This newly won liberty opened a door to the future and marked the beginning of a new, bright chapter in history. A common characteristic in most national narratives was the glorification of the resistance movement, while in countries that had been liberated by foreign troops, domestic efforts tended to be highly praised. In addition, the ‘heroisation’ of the war was another common denominator in the narratives – not only were charismatic victors such as Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill and Josip Broz Tito designated as heroes, but also brave partisans and members of the resistance.[20]


Main article: Denmark in World War II

Denmark's frustrated the Holocaust by slipping almost all of its 7200 Jews into Sweden in 1943.[21][22][23]

Denmark has a large popular literature on the war years that has helped shaped national identity and politics. Scholars have also been active but have much less influence on this topic. After the liberation two conflicting narratives emerged. A consensus narrative told how Danes were united in resistance. However there was also a revisionist interpretation which paid attention to the resistance of most Danes, but presented Danish establishment as a collaborating enemy of Danish values. The revisionist version from the 1960s was successfully adopted by the political Left for two specific goals: to blemish the establishment now allied with the "imperialist" United States, and to argue against Danish membership in the European Community. From the 1980s, the Right started to use also used revisionism to attack asylum legislation. Finally around 2003, Liberal Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen started using it as his basic narrative of the war years (partly to legitimize his government's decision to join the war against Iraq in 2003). The occupation has thus played a central role in Danish political culture since 1945, although the role of professional scholars has been marginal.[24]


Further information: France during World War II and German military administration in occupied France during World War II


Main article: French Resistance

The heroism of the French Resistance has always been a favoured topic in France and Britain, with new books in English appearing regularly.[25][26]


Main article: Vichy France

After 1945 the French ignored or downplayed the role of the Vichy regimer . Since the late 20th century it has become a major research topic.[27]


Further information: French Resistance § Vichy collaborators

Collaboration with the Germans was long denied by the French, but since the late 20th century has generated a large literature.[28][29]

Civilian conditions[edit]

The roles of civilians,[30] forced labourers and POW's has a large literature.

There are numerous studies of women.[31][32][33][34][35]

Alsace Lorraine[edit]

Germany integrated Alsace-Lorraine into its German Empire in 1871. France recovered it in 1918. Germany was again in occupation 1940-45. There was widespread material damage. The first wave of destruction in 1940 was inflicted by German forces, the second was caused by Allied bombers in 1944, and the final wave surrounded bitter fighting between German occupiers and American liberators in 1944-1945.[36]


Dutch historiography of World War II focused on the government in exile, German repression, Dutch resistance, the Hunger Winter of 1944-45 and, above all, the Holocaust. The economy was largely neglected. The economy was robust in 1940-41 then deteriorated rapidly as exploitation produced low productivity, impoverishment and hunger.[37]


The memory of the war seared Norwegians and shaped national policies.[38] Economic issues remain an important topic.[39][40][41]


Main articles: General Government and Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany

On August 1, 1944, the clandestine Polish Home Army, owing allegiance to the exiled government in London, initiated an uprising in Warsaw against the occupying Germans. There is a large literature in several languages. The Warsaw Rising Museum (WRM), opened in Warsaw in 2004 to commemorate it.[42]

There is a large literature on the Holocaust in Poland and its memory and memorials,[43] and also the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943.[44]


Further information: Home front during World War II § Soviet Union, History of the Soviet Union (1927–1953) § Wartime developments, and German occupation of Byelorussia during World War II

Popular behaviour has been explored in Byelorussia under the Germans, using oral history, letters of complaint, memoirs, and reports made by the Soviet secret police and by the Communist Party.[45]


Further reading[edit]

  • Ballinger, Pamela. "Impossible Returns, Enduring Legacies: Recent Historiography of Displacement and the Reconstruction of Europe after World War II." Contemporary European History 22#1 (2013): 127-138.
  • Bodnar, John. The ‘Good War’ in American History (2010)
  • Bosworth, R. J. B. "Nations Examine Their Past: A Comparative Analysis of the Historiography of the 'Long' Second World War." History Teacher 29.4 (1996): 499-523. in JSTOR
  • Bosworth, R. J. B. Explaining Auschwitz and Hiroshima: History Writing and the Second World War 1945-1990 (Routledge, 1994) online
  • Bucur, Maria. Heroes and victims: Remembering war in twentieth-century Romania (Indiana UP, 2009).
  • Chirot, Daniel, ed. Confronting Memories of World War II: European and Asian Legacies (U of Washington Press, 2014).
  • Cook, Tim. Clio's Warriors: Canadian Historians and the Writing of the World Wars (UBC Press, 2011).
  • Dreisziger, Nándor F., ed. Hungary in the Age of Total War (1938-1948) (East European Monographs, 1998).
  • Edele, Mark. "Toward a sociocultural history of the Soviet Second World War." Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 15.4 (2014): 829-835.
  • Edwards, Sam. Allies in Memory: World War II and the Politics of Transatlantic Commemoration, c. 1941–2001 (Cambridge UP, 2015).
  • Eley, Geoff. "Finding the People's War: Film, British Collective Memories and World War II" American Historical Review 106#3 (2001), 818–38,
  • Evans, Martin and Kenn Lunn, eds. War and Memory in the 20th Century (1997).
  • Fujitani, T., Geoffrey M. White and Lisa Yoneyama, eds. Perilous Memories: The Asia-Pacific War(s) (2001)
  • Geyer, Michael, and Adam Tooze, eds. The Cambridge History of the Second World War: Volume 3, Total War: Economy, Society and Culture (2015) ch 23-27, pp 625-810.
  • Herf, Jeffrey. Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys (1997).
  • Horton, Todd A., and Kurt Clausen. "Extending the History Curriculum: Exploring World War II Victors, Vanquished, and Occupied Using European Film." History Teacher 48.2 (2015). online
  • Jager, S. M. and R. Mitter, eds. Ruptured Histories: War, Memory, and the Post-Cold War in Asia (2007).
  • Keshen, Jeffrey A. Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers: Canada's Second World War (UBC Press, 2007).
  • Killingray, David, and Richard Rathbone, eds. Africa and the Second World War (Springer, 1986).
  • Kivimäki, Ville. "Between defeat and victory: Finnish memory culture of the Second World War." Scandinavian Journal of History 37.4 (2012): 482-504.
  • Kochanski, Halik. The eagle unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War (Harvard UP, 2012).
  • Kohn, Richard H. "The Scholarship on World War II: Its Present Condition and Future Possibilities." Journal of Military History 55.3 (1991): 365.
  • Kushner, Tony. "Britain, America and the Holocaust: Past, Present and Future Historiographies." Holocaust Studies 18#2-3 (2012): 35-48.
  • Lagrou, Pieter. The Legacy of Nazi Occupation: Patriotic Memory and National Recovery in Western Europe, 1945-1965 (1999). focus on France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
  • Lebow, Richard Ned et al. eds. The Politics of Memory in Postwar Europe (2006).
  • Lee, Loyd E. and Robin Higham, eds. World War II in Asia and the Pacific and the War's aftermath, with General Themes: A Handbook of Literature and Research (Greenwood Press, 1998) online
  • Lee, Loyd E. and Robin Higham, eds. World War II in Europe, Africa, and the Americas, with General Sources: A Handbook of Literature and Research (Greenwood Press, 1997) online
  • Maddox, Robert James. Hiroshima in History: The Myths of Revisionism (University of Missouri Press, 2007) online
  • Martel, Gordon ed. Origins of the Second World War Reconsidered (2nd ed. 2002) online
  • Mitter, Rana. "Old ghosts, new memories: China's changing war history in the era of post-Mao politics." Journal of Contemporary History (2003): 117-131. in JSTOR
  • Moeller, Robert G. War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany (2001).
  • Mosse, George L. Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars (1990).
  • Niven, Bill. ed. Germans as Victims: Remembering the Past in Contemporary Germany (2006)
  • Morgan, Philip. The fall of Mussolini: Italy, the Italians, and the second world war (Oxford UP, 2007).
  • Noakes, Lucy and Juliette Pattinson, eds. British Cultural Memory and the Second World War (2013)
  • Östling, Johan. "Swedish Narratives of the Second World War: A European Perspective" Contemporary European History (2008), 17#2 pp 197-211.
  • Overy, Richard James. The Origins of the Second World War (Routledge, 2014).
  • Parrish, Michael. "Soviet Historiography of the Great Patriotic War 1970-1985: A Review." Soviet Studies in History 23.3 (1984)
  • Rasor, Eugene. The China-Burma-India Campaign, 1931-1945: Historiography and Annotated Bibliography (Greenwood Press, 1998) online
  • Rasor, Eugene. The Southwest Pacific Campaign, 1941-1945: Historiography and Annotated Bibliography (Greenwood Press, 1996) online
  • Reynolds, David. In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War (2004)
  • Rousso, Henri. The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France Since 1944 (1991)
  • Schumacher, Daniel. "Asia's ‘Boom’of Difficult Memories: Remembering World War Two Across East and Southeast Asia." History Compass 13.11 (2015): 560-577.
  • Shaffer, Robert. "G. Kurt Piehler, Sidney Pash, eds. The United States and the Second World War: New Perspectives on Diplomacy, War, and the Home Front (Fordham University Press, 2010).
  • Stenius, Henrik, Mirja Österberg, and Johan Östling, eds. Nordic Narratives of the Second World War: National Historiographies Revisited (2012).
  • Stone, Dan. Historiography of the Holocaust (2004) 573p.
  • Summerfield, Penny. Reconstructing women's wartime lives: discourse and subjectivity in oral histories of the Second World War (Manchester University Press, 1998); emphasis on Britain.
  • Thonfeld, Christoph. "Memories of former World War Two forced labourers-an international comparison." Oral History (2011): 33-48. in JSTOR
  • Weinberg, Gerhard L. A world at arms: A global history of World War II (Cambridge UP, 1995).
  • Weinberg, Gerhard L. "World War II scholarship, now and in the future." Journal of Military History 61.2 (1997): 335+.
  • Wolfgram, Mark A. Getting History Right": East and West German Collective Memories of the Holocaust and War (Bucknell University Press, 2010).
  • Wood, James S. "A Historical Debate of the 1960s: World War II Historiography‐The Origins of the War, AJP Taylor, and his Critics." Australian Journal of Politics & History 26.3 (1980): 403-410.
Europe at the height of German control (in blue) in 1942
  1. ^Trevor-Roper, Hugh (2011). The Wartime Journals. London: I.B.Tauris. ISBN 978-1848859906. 
  2. ^Bullock, Alan (1992). Hitler And Stalin: Parallel Lives. New York: Knopf. ISBN 9780771017742. 
  3. ^R.J.B. Bosworth, "Nations Examine Their Past: A Comparative Analysis of the Historiography of the" Long" Second World War." History Teacher 29.4 (1996): 499-523. in JSTOR
  4. ^Rigg, Brian Mark (2005). The Rabbi Saved by Hitler's Soldiers: Rebbe Joseph Isaac Schneersohn and His Astonishing Rescue. University Press of Kansas. pp. 11–35 – via JSTOR. 
  5. ^Uldricks, Teddy J. (2009). History and Memory. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. pp. 60–82 – via JSTOR. 
  6. ^Tim Cook, Clio's Warriors: Canadian Historians and the Writing of the World Wars (UBC Press, 2011).
  7. ^Gordon Martel, ed. Origins of the Second World War Reconsidered (2nd ed. 2002) p 1.
  8. ^James S. Wood, "A Historical Debate of the 1960s: World War II Historiography-The Origins of the War, AJP Taylor, and his Critics." Australian Journal of Politics & History 26.3 (1980): 403-410.
  9. ^For historiographical overviews see Martin S. Alexander, "The fall of France, 1940." Journal of Strategic Studies 13#1 (1990): 10–44; Joel Blatt, ed. The French Defeat of 1940: Reassessments (1997); John C. Cairns, "Along the Road Back to France 1940" American Historical Review 64#3 (1959) pp 583–603; John C. Cairns, "Some Recent Historians and the" Strange Defeat" of 1940." Journal of Modern History 46#1 (1974): 60–85; Peter Jackson, "Returning to the fall of France: Recent work on the causes and consequences of the 'strange defeat' of 1940." Modern & Contemporary France 12#4 (2004): 513–536; and Maurice VaÏsse, Mai-Juin 1940: Défaite française, victoire allemande sous l’oeil des historiens Étrangers (2000).
  10. ^Martin S. Alexander, "The Fall of France, 1940" in John Gooch, ed. (2012). Decisive Campaigns of the Second World War. p. 10. 
  11. ^Marc Bloch, Strange Defeat: a Statement of Evidence Written in 1940 (Oxford U.P., 1949), p 36
  12. ^Carole Fink, "Marc Bloch and the drôle de guerre Prelude to the '"Strange Defeat'" p 46
  13. ^Clark, Alan. Barbarossa. Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated, 1966. ISBN 0-451-02848-1
  14. ^Gordon, Philip H. (2007). "Review of Europe at War, 1939-1945: No Simple Victory; Europe East and West". Foreign Affairs. 
  15. ^Davies, Norman (2006). Europe at War 1939–1945: No Simple Victory. London: Macmillan. pp. 63–67. ISBN 9780333692851. 
  16. ^Hans Otto Frøland, Mats Ingulstad, and Jonas Scherner. "Perfecting the Art of Stealing: Nazi Exploitation and Industrial Collaboration in Occupied Western Europe." in Industrial Collaboration in Nazi-Occupied Europe (Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2016). 1-34.
  17. ^Ben Shepherd and Juliette Pattinson. "Partisan and Anti-Partisan Warfare in German-Occupied Europe, 1939–1945: Views from Above and Lessons for the Present." Journal of Strategic Studies 31.5 (2008): 675-693.
  18. ^Tony Judt, Resistance and revolution in Mediterranean Europe, 1939-1948 (1989).
  19. ^M.R.D. Foot, SOE: The Special Operations Executive, 1940-1946 (London: Pimlico, 1999).
  20. ^Johan Östling, "Swedish Narratives of the Second World War: A European Perspective" Contemporary European History. May2008, 17#2 pp 197-211, quote pp 199-200.
  21. ^Tatiana Brustin-Berenstein, "The historiographic Treatment of the abortive Attempt to deport the Danish Jews." Yad Vashem Studies 17 (1986): 181-218.
  22. ^Gunnar S. Paulsson, "The 'Bridge over the Øresund: The Historiography on the Expulsion of the Jews from Nazi-Occupied Denmark." Journal of Contemporary History 30.3 (1995): 431-464. in JSTOR
  23. ^Hans Kirchhoff, "Denmark: A Light in the Darkness of the Holocaust? A Reply to Gunnar S. Paulsson," Journal of Contemporary History 30#3 (1995), pp. 465-479 in JSTOR
  24. ^Nils Arne Sørensen, "Narrating the Second World War in Denmark since 1945." Contemporary European History 14.03 (2005): 295-315.
  25. ^Robert Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance (2015).
  26. ^Olivier Wieviorka, The French Resistance (Harvard UP, 2016).
  27. ^Henry Rousso and Arthur Goldhammer, The Vichy syndrome: History and memory in France since 1944 (Harvard Univ Press, 1994).
  28. ^Philippe Burrin, France under the Germans: Collaboration and Compromise 1996).
  29. ^Bertram M. Gordon, Collaborationism in France during the Second World War (Cornell UP, 1980).
  30. ^Richard Vinen, Unfree French: Life under the Occupation (2006)
  31. ^Hanna Diamond, Women and the Second World War in France, 1939-1948: choices and constraints (2015).
  32. ^Sarah Fishman, We Will Wait: Wives of French Prisoners of War, 1940–1945 (Yale UP, (1991).
  33. ^Miranda Pollard, Reign of Virtue: Mobilizing Gender in Vichy France (U of Chicago Press, 1998).
  34. ^Francine Muel-Dreyfus, Kathleen A. Johnson, eds., Vichy and the Eternal Feminine: A Contribution to a Political-Sociology of Gender (Duke UP, 2001).
  35. ^Paula Schwartz, "Partisianes and Gender Politics in Vichy France". French Historical Studies (1989). 16#1: 126–151. doi:10.2307/286436. JSTOR 286436.
  36. ^Hugh Clout, "Alsace–Lorraine/Elsaß–Lothringen: destruction, revival and reconstruction in contested territory, 1939–1960." Journal of Historical Geography 37.1 (2011): 95-112.
  37. ^Hein A.M. Klemann, "Did the German Occupation (1940–1945) Ruin Dutch Industry?." Contemporary European History 17#4 (2008): 457-481.
  38. ^Clemens Maier, "Making Memories The Politics of Remembrance in Postwar Norway and Denmark." (Doctoral Dissertation European University Institute, 2007) online Bibliography pp 413-34.
  39. ^Harald Espeli, "Economic Consequences Of The German Occupation Of Norway, 1940–1945." Scandinavian Journal of History 38.4 (2013): 502-524.
  40. ^Rodney Allan Radford, "The Ordinariness of goodness: Myrtle Wright and the Norwegian non-violent resistance to the German occupation, 1940-1945" (Diss. University of Tasmania, 2015).online
  41. ^Hans Otto Frøland, Mats Ingulstad, Jonas Scherner, eds. Industrial Collaboration in Nazi-Occupied Europe: Norway in Context (Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2016).
  42. ^Monika Żychlińska and Erica Fontana, "Museal Games and Emotional Truths: Creating Polish National Identity at the Warsaw Rising Museum." East European Politics and Societies 30.2 (2016): 235-269. online
  43. ^Michael C. Steinlauf, Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust (Syracuse UP, 1997).
  44. ^Markus Meckl, "The Memory of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising." European Legacy 13.7 (2008): 815-824.
  45. ^Franziska Exeler, "What Did You Do during the War?" Kritika: Explorations in Russian & Eurasian History (Fall 2016) 17#4 pp 805-835.

,      Pages 568-573

, California State University, Long Beach

This paper provides an historical account of the American consumer experience during World War II. It begins with a brief review of the consumption context established in the 1920s and 1930s. Subsequent sections describe price controls and rationing, government poster campaigns and commercial war advertising, the role of women as war consumption managers, neighborhood stores and shopping, and product and packaging changes. The concluding section examines some implications of this era for the history of American consumer culture.

Twice in their history, American consumers have significantly and collectively altered their purchasing patterns to achieve patriotic ends. In the 1760s and 1770s, colonists organized mass boycotts of British goods in order to force Parliament to rescind objectionable taxes. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and many other patriots urged their fellows to forego imported "superfluities" and, instead, to be frugal and produce their own goods. Such views were aired at town meetings and widely disseminated via letters reprinted in colonial newspapers. This "nonimportation movement" was successful in that the many onerous taxes, such as the Stamp Act and most of the Townshend Duties, were repealed, but it took six years of fighting to finally settle the political dispute with Great Britain. In effect, the American Revolution was abetted by a consumer revolution (Breen 1988; Witkowski 1989).

The second major episode of American patriotic consumption ocurred during the World War II. The bombing of Pearl Harbor and subsequent declarations of war required a great mobilization of American society, directed and financed by the federal government and conducted through businesses, the media, and numerous local institutions. The War Production Board allocated scarce materials and stopped or limited the production of civilian goods, while the Office of Price Administration imposed price freezes and forced housewives to learn and live with a complex system of rationing. People were bombarded with messages asking them to be frugal, to recycle, and to produce at home more of what they consumed. "Produce and Conserve, Share and Play Square" exhorted one War Food Administration slogan. Finally, gasoline shortages forced consumers to shop closer to home, helping small grocers, and wartime scarcity necessitated changes in product and packaging materials, forms, and colors (Marchand 1994; Sitikoff 1994; Ward 1994).

The past fifteen years have witnessed a surge of interest in the field of American consumer history. Major studies have been conducted by historians, material culture scholars, and consumer researchers. Examples of the latter work include studies of colonial consumers (Witkowski 1989), the Mormon migration (Belk 1992), the creation of the soap opera in the 1930s (Lavin 1995), 20th century advertising themes (Belk and Pollay 1985), and consumer historiography (Smith and Lux 1993). Unfortunately, consumer researchers have neglected the history of the World War II consumer home front. This paper attempts to fill the gap with a brief narrative that addresses the major events of the period as well as some of their antecedent conditions and legacies for postwar consumers.

The story of American consumers between 1941 and 1945 is fascinating and clearly worth retelling for its own sake. All consumer researchers should know some substantive history of their subject matter as well as some intellectual history of their scholarly field. The World War II period is especially relevant to studies of macro-level consumption and to public policy and environmental analysis because it provides an example of how government can organize various private and public interests to persuade consumers to voluntarily make changes in their shopping habits, rate and duration of product use, and recycling behavior.

The writing of consumer history has more than just academic significance. The factors that create brand equity, for example, have an historical dimension and can be investigated with historical methods (Low and Fullerton 1994). Major companies, such as Levi Strauss and Wells Fargo, incorporate their heritage into corporate and brand images. Some brands have become national icons that resist reformulation as Coca-Cola discovered in the 1980s when it launched "New Coke." Computer technology has enabled advertisers to bring late celebrities like Fred Astaire and Marilyn Monroe back to life as endorsers in current TV ad campaigns. Finally, as a variety of "living history" museums have learned, there is a broad market eager to sample past lifestyles (Leon and Piatt 1989). History itself is a very marketable commodity.


By 1920, many American marketing institutions and managerial practices had attained what might be termed their "modern" form. Manufacturer brands, fixed pricing, and department and chain stores had come of age in the late 19th century (Leach 1984; Low and Fullerton 1994; Strasser 1989), and the first self-service grocery store, Piggly Wiggly, had just opened in 1916 (Boorstin 1973). As the automobile became increasingly common, its use encouraged new service institutions including drive-in restaurants, the first of which, Royce Hailey’s "Pig Stand," opening in Dallas in 1921 (Green 1992). Direct-mail catalogs had become a great success through the attentive customer service of A. Montgomery Ward an the promotional genius of Richard Warren Sears (Boorstin 1973). Advertising agencies had evolved into something close to their present form during the first decade of the century and would reach the height of their influence during the twenties (Fox 1984; Pope 1983). Newspapers featured large display ads placed by department stores and national magazines carried full page ads, many in color, for national brands (Norris 1990; Presbrey 1929). The first radio station commenced broadcasting in 1920 (Barnow 1975) and radio would become a mass advertising medium a few years later, in 1928, when equipment and transmission problems were overcome, the audience reached a critical mass, commercial sponsorship was accepted, and programming formats suitable for advertising were developed (Spalding 1963/64).

Innovations in marketing management undoubtedly had a great impact on American consumers in the 1920s, but perhaps just as important was the flood of new products first introduced and/or mass produced during this period (see Table 1). The electrification of household technologies, such as washing machines, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, irons, and toasters created wonderful labor saving devices that, ironically, did not reduce women’s work since standards of cleanliness also rose (Cowan 1983; Lupton 1993). Encouraged by admen, who Marchand (1985) calls the "apostles of modernity," American consumers were learning to have faith in these and other technologies including commercial canning and frozen foods.





Such consumerism did not diffuse throughout American society as completely as it would in the 1950s and thereafter. Mass consumption attitudes and participation were most characteristic of the urban, middle and upper classes. As shown in Table 2, farmers lagged in the acquisition of basic conveniences, such as the inside flush toilet, while the slower pace of rural electrification restrained demand for new many household appliances. Most national advertising in the 1920s and 1930s was pitched to the middle and upper classes, depicted sophisticated characters and lifestyles, and was written by admen who came from these same backgrounds (Marchand 1985).

The 1930s presented a serious challenge to mass consumption. With the economy mired in a Great Depression and unemployment rates averaging 17.9 percent from 1930 to 1940, many people were forced to greatly lower their material expectations and to scrimp wherever they could (Hill, Hirschman and Bauman 1997). Advertising fear appeals played upon people’s anxieties (Marchand 1985). Although the 1930s saw increases in the percentage of U.S. households with inside flush toilets (see Table 2) and electric lighting and appliances (see Table 1), not every family could acquire a thoroughly modern consumer infrastructure.

Thirty-three percent of all Americans had no running water in 1940, 67 percent had no central heat, 47 percent had no built-in bathing apparatus in their homes, 48 percent had no interior access to automatic or other washing machines, 48 percent had no refrigerator, and 33 percent cooked with wood or coal (Green 1992, pp. 7-8).

In 1942, 58% of all U.S. families owned at least one automobile (55% urban v. 69% farm), a percentage about the same as in 1930 (60%) and more than double the 1920 figure (26%) (Lebergott 1993). The 1930s did see continual development of mass audiences for radio, the movies, and professional sports whose stars were lionized by the mass media (Green 1992).

By 1940, American consumers were beginning to feel a rekindled sense of security and optimism. Although still quite high at 14.6 percent, unemployment had dropped as the economy gained momentum and began shifting to a wartime footing. Planning for the future was the theme of the 1939 New York World’s Fair with its slogan, "The World of Tomorrow," and symbol, the Trylon and Perisphere. Some Americans remained somewhat ambivalent about all this futurism and throughout the 1920s and 1930s they expressed a deepseated historical yearning. Henry Ford (Greenfield Village), Henry Francis du Pont (Winterthur Museum), and the Rockefellars (Colonial Williamsburg) assembled great collections of early Americana, while middle-class consumers favored colonial-style furnishings and architecture purchased in stores or through mail-order catalogs (Green 1992; Marling 1988). Within American consumer culture of the time, science, technology, and modernism competed with nostalgic visions of the past.


World War II brought full employment and prosperity to America. The gross national product leaped from $91 billion in 1939 to $166 billion in 1945 and the economy created 17 million new jobs (Blum 1976). Family incomes soared and grew even faster for African-Americans and for households at lower economic levels than for the population as a whole. Even taking into account a 25 percent inflation during this period, total purchases of all goods and services were about 10 percent higher in the first quarter of 1943 than in the first quarter of 1940. As the large inventories at the end of 1941 were depleted, however, the sale of durable goods at retail dropped 33 percent from 1941 to 1942 and an additional 50 percent from 1942 to 1943 (Williams 1972/orig. 1943). The most crucial shortages were in the areas of housing and medical services. Consumers began spending more on entertainment and recreation.

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, some Americans began to hoard consumer goods (Blum 1976). The Office of Price Administration (OPA), created in April, 1941 in anticipation of a coming war economy, soon froze many consumer prices and rationed common items such as gasoline, coffee, butter, shoes, sugar, and meat. Rationing was an extremely complex and far-reaching endeavor that required the concerted efforts of the OPA and its 93 district offices, a multitude of volunteer boards, public school systems, local newspapers and radio stations, and, above all, countless retail grocers. There were four different rationing programs. Certificate rationing, which began in January 1942, permitted, on the basis of need, the purchase of single items such as automobiles or tires. Differential Coupon Rationing allowed some people like physicians to have more commodities, such as fuel oil or gasoline, than others. Uniform Coupon Rationing, used for shoes, sugar, coffee, and other items, applied the principle that everyone should share alike. Point Rationing, the final program which began in February 1943, was based on the British model and gave every person his or her own individual coupon book. Consumers could then choose food according to individual preferences (Ward 1994). The government enlisted the aid of the media and private business to help consumers learn these changing rationing systems. These programs were very successful. After rising 12 percent in 1941 and 1942, food prices increased just four percent over the remainder of the war.

Material allocations, price controls, and rationing frequently led to compliance problems and varying degrees of black market activities. Business Week reported how some department stores played their own game of rationing by first filling the orders of their best charge customers (Casdorph 1989). In 1944, the OPA investigated several thousand businesses and found that 57 percent were violating price controls. Black markets for consumer goods became widespread, but most transactions were between private individuals rather than large-scale dealing. People traded straight pins, radio tubes, cooking utensils, garbage can lids, and used vacuum cleaners. Wrist watches sold for as much as $50 above ceiling prices (Casdorph 1989). Nevertheless, the awareness that millions of American service men and women were risking their lives overseas kept illicit buying and selling from getting too far out of hand. In the 1943 RKO movie, Tender Comrade, star Ginger Rogers lambased a woman who bragged about her hoarding skills and joined other women in denouncing a black market butcher in their neighborhood (Fyne 1994).

Other government agencies controlled discretionary spending through new income taxes and constant appeals to buy War bonds. To save tires and gas, a 35 miles per hour national speed limit called "Victory Speed" was imposed and, in January 1945, even horse- and dog-racing tracks were closed (Fussell 1989). By the Fall of 1944, however, OPA officials had concluded that military production was so great, and the stockpile already so large, that metals and other strategic materials could be released temporarily for civilian use. "Reconversion" began in earnest in May, 1945, and on V-J Day the OPA issued 184 price decontrol orders. Fears that suspending price controls would cause runaway inflation did not materialize and all price controls were finally lifted in November, 1946 (Ward 1994).


Several different agencies of the U.S. government sponsored poster campaigns to achieve both mandated as well as voluntary compliance with their programs for mobilizing the consumer home front. A variety of sizes, from car cards to billboards, were printed in runs of 75,000 to 170,000 and widely distributed in public areas. More than 8000 artists, who belonged to "Artists for Victory," designed posters. A realistic, three-dimensional style replaced the flat, abstract images typical of the First World War. Unlike the earlier propaganda, which inspired fear and hatred of the enemy, President Roosevelt preferred more positive imagery that involved Americans and personalized the war effort (Crawford 1979; Nelson 1991).

Poster campaigns usually stressed one of five major consumption themes. First, some posters carefully explained the rationing system, while others urged compliance with ceiling prices as in "Keep the Home Front Pledge" (1942) from the War Food Administration (WFA) and the "Seven Keys to Victory" (1943) from the Office of Economic Stabilization. Second, numerous campaigns encouraged recycling such as "Save Your Cans" (1941-42) from the War Production Board, Salvage Division, "Don’t Burn Waste Paper" (ca. 1942) from the Division of Information, Office of Emergency Management, and "Save Waste Fats for Explosives" (1943) from the Office of War Information (OWI). Third, still other posters stressed frugal consumption such as "Food Is a Weapon, Don’t Waste It!," "Use It Up-Wear It Out-Make It Do!," and "Is Your Trip Necessary?," all published by the OWI in 1943. Fourth, still more campaigns encouraged home food production and canning. Examples include "Grow More... Can More ... in ’44" by the War Food Program and "Your Victory Garden Counts More Than Ever!" (1945) by the WFA. A final group of posters asked Americans to forego immediate consumption and instead to buy War Bonds.

At the onset of the Second World War, the American advertising business was saddled with a poor image. As the mouthpiece of capitalism, advertising was associated with the business failures of the Great Depression (Marchand 1994). The persistant use of grossly exaggerated advertising appeals, such as the fraudulent health claims made by Fleischmann’s Yeast (Fox 1984) and various cigarette brands (Witkowski 1991), had handed the consumer movement a potent issue and Congress additional reason to pass, in 1938, the Wheeler-Lea Amendment that strengthened the Federal Trade Commission. To make matters worse, poor business judgment during the first years of the war created a public relations disaster. In the face of product shortages and conservation campaigns, some advertisers went on selling as if nothing were amiss. Others boasted about their contribution to the national effort or even traded shamefully upon tragedy. General Electric, for example, boasted that one its "Mazda" light bulbs had survived the sinking of the battleship Oklahoma and a New York radio station "allowed the advertising of funeral parlors and burial plots after news broadcasts of heavy casualties" (Fox 1975, p. 34). By 1942, there was serious talk of banning advertising outright or, nearly as bad, eliminating advertising’s cost deductibility (Fox 1975).

The ad industry responded by forming a War Advertising Council comprised of representatives from advertisers, ad agencies, and the media. The agencies, which held the balance of decision-making power in the Council, gave their artists and copywriters leave to work on public service campaigns for the war effort. The media donated time and space, while the advertisers supplied additional financial backing.

By war’s end, the Advertising Council could look back on some impressive achievements. Eight hundred million dollars in war bonds had been issued; fifty million victory gardens had been planted . . . Five Hundred thrity-eight million pounds of waste fats, twenty-three million tons of paper, and eight hundred million pounds of tin had been salvaged; and all goals set by the Red Cross and National War Fund had been reached and exceeded (Fox 1975, p. 54).

The appearance of selfless public service shored up the ad industry’s image with a sometimes hostile public. However, the rhetoric of war advertising went a step further. It repeatedly stressed that the war was being fought to preserve the American way of life and that it was being won by the American way. Ultimately, the message was that free enterprise, and the freedom to advertise, should not be questioned (Fox 1975).


Women had accounted for 80 to 85 percent of all purchases in the United States as early as the First World War (Leach 1984), and had become the target of much product development and consumer advertising in the 1920s and 1930s (Marchand 1985). In the 1930s, most housewives practiced frugal consumption. To save money, they relearned traditional domestic arts and how to make do with what they had (Hill, Hirschman, and Bauman 1997). "When the nation went to war, the rhetoric changed. Concern for family was replaced with a call to enlist in a great national effort" (McFeely 1994, p. 106). Women were thus assigned the responsibility for managing the nation’s home front consumption.

Women needed to understand rationing programs and cope with their restrictions, to shop different stores in search of scarce supplies, to prepare meals in the face of meat, sugar, and butter shortages, and to recycle tin, rubber, and kitchen fat (to make glycerine for explosives). Since the military had priority, the federal government promoted "meatless days" for civilians, but in the 1940s, few Americans knew any vegetarian recipes beyond macaroni and cheese. Advice was abundant. In addition to government information programs, corporations distributed meal planning guides and included helpful tips in advertisements. Magazines, such as Woman’s Day, newspapers, and radio programs kept audiences informed.

Jessie Young, the "radio homemaker" of Iowa station KMA, broadcasting from her own kitchen, suggested recipes like Marbled Macaroni with tomato sauce and Spam, and Mock Hamburgers made of oatmeal and eggs flavored with onions and sage and cooked in tomato juice. Billie Burke, better known as the Good Witch in "The Wizard of Oz," played a point-perplexed housewife talking to guest authorities from government and industry about the latest food information on a weekly radio program called "Fashions in Rations" (McFeely 1994, pp. 112-113).

Consumption and production roles blurred as women took war job, tended Victory Gardens, and learned the almost-forgotten art of home canning. Because of a shortage of workers, laundry and dry cleaning services became scarcer and women had to wash more clothes at home (Williams 1972/orig. 1943). Housewives who had always relied on paid help for child-care and cooking, now had to do these jobs themselves. Indeed, millions of women had to run their households alone and tens of thousands had to do so terribly burdened by the anguish of having lost a loved one.

The War affected women’s dress. Manufacturers used rayon for hosiery after silk and nylon were removed from domestic use. When rayon also became scarce in the fall of 1942, women complained about the lack of hosiery. In order to economize on fabric, women’s hats became smaller, skirts shorter, and many items of clothing simpler and more informal (Williams 1972/orig. 1943). Swimwear companies replaced the billowing bathing skirts of the 1930s with fabric saving one- and two-piece outfits (Blum 1976). The "turbans" women wrapped around their hair for safety while working in defense plants (see Daniel 1995, p. 557), started to be worn as an article of fashion. Interestingly, the men in Washington did not repeal Order L85, the ban on long skirts, until October 19, 1946 or more than a year after the Japanese surrender.


World War II rationing and price controls put neighborhood grocery stores into close, often onerous contact with federal agencies which deluged them with requests to promote the most plentiful food commodities, educate their customers about changing rules, and administer price ceilings and ration coupon redemption. Grocers were also held responsible for recycling waste fats. On the other hand, the war brought a temporary edge in the fierce competition from national and regional chains and the emerging supermarkets (Marchand 1994). During the 1920s, chains had accounted for over a third of all grocery sales and, despite the passage of some anti-chain legislation during the depression, this figure increased to 38 percent in 1940 and 1941. While retail food sales surged 70 percent during the war years, chain store market share slipped to 33 percent from 1943 to 1945.

Wartime restrictions on automobile usage curtailed home delivery and kept shoppers in their own neighborhoods and the disappearance of new refrigerators necessitated frequent trips rather than weekly excursions to the supermarket. Shortages of food and paperboard obviated the need for elaborate displays that had been giving a promotional edge to supermarkets. Meanwhile, the local stores regularly accepted sales on credit (the larger stores did not), catered to children who often made small purchases for their families, and, as live-in businesses, offered the convenience of extended hours. Small, independent retailers found an unlikely ally in national food advertisers. The grocers enjoyed high margins when selling branded items and the large corporations gained favorable public relations by associating themselves with Norman Rockwell images of small business. By the end of the war, however, the advertising tableaux of these same corporations emphasized a futuristic world-of-tomorrow (Fox 1975; Marchand 1994) that seemed inimical to the quaint, crowded ambience of the local market.


Because of material shortages mandated by the War Production Board and other agencies, consumers had to become accustomed to new types and styles of products and product and packaging materials. For example, zinc replaced copper in pennies and half and half got its start as "wartime cream." Shoppers resisted buying magarine as a butter substitute because, thanks to the dairy lobby, it ws subject to a ten percent federal tax if colored to look like butter (McFeely 1994). When naphtha, a petroleum-based ingredient used in soap products was needed for fuel, Procter and Gamble had to reformulate its P and G "White Naphtha" laundry soap and explain the reasons on the package.

Since tin was in short supply, companies switched from metal cans to glass jars and paperboard lids. For example, Procter and Gamble’s Crisco started the war in a tin can wrapped in paper. Then the wrapping shrank and soon thereafter a glass jar replaced the tin. Finally, a milk-bottle type paper cap substituted for the metal cap (Ward 1994). Consumers discovered that some brands could be packaged in more than one way at a time. To help shoppers recognize its package, Boraxo printed a picture of its familiar metal can on the front of its wartime paperboard carton (Ward 1994). In addition, conservation messages were printed on much packaging and children’s toys, games, and advertising were infused with patriotic symbols and characters. American Tobacco even used purported wartime demands for camouflage paint as an excuse to change the color of its Lucky Strike package from dark green to white and to proclaim that "Lucky Strike Green Has Gone to War!". This was a brilliant advertising campaign. Lucky seemed to making a real sacrifice for the war effort and, as previous company research had shown, the dark green pack had never been very appealing anyway (Sobel 1978).

Before the war, plastics boasted something of a luxury image. Bakelite, the trade name for phenol formaldehyde, was used to make stylish radio cabinets and streamlined, Moderne-style irons and electric shavers (Katz 1984). "Plastics were considered up-to-date, and they had an aura of affordable glamour" (Hine 1994, p. 143). They were also deemed expendible and, in an effort to ready the nation for war, the federal government issued a materials-limitation order in November, 1941 that could have stopped production of plastic packaging. An alarmed industry had the order overturned and soon was working with the military to create a multitude of new packaging materials and applications that eventually were adapted for civilian life. For example, Stoppette deodorant introduced the first mass-marketed, plastic squeeze bottle shortly before the bombing of Hiroshima (Hine 1994). These technological advances expanded the plastics business tremendously, but also imparted a down-market image to the material that persists to this day.


World War II was a signal event in the history of American consumer culture. Above all, it ended the Great Depression and created an affluent society. War jobs enabled lower income groups and African-Americans to participate more fully in the consumer mass market than they had in the 1920s. The War effort necessitated the movement of millions of people and, in so doing, subsumed regional differences and created the more unified national market that companies would so successfully address in the 1950s. Price controls and rationing proved to effective, at least during the war years, but were unpopular enough to ensure very sparing use by postwar policy-makers. On the other hand, government poster programs set a precedent for later attempts to reduce smoking, drug use, and energy consumption via mass media campaigns. The War Advertising Council changed its name to the Ad Council and maintained the tradition of industry-sponsored public service advertising. Scarce resources stimulated innovation in the use of plastics for products and packaging, a development that would in time greatly transform the everyday material dimension of consumer culture.

This history provides a lesson for our own time on how the federal government can take advantage of local institutions to implement its programs. The rationing system required the cooperation of retail grocers, public schools, nd the local media. Recycling depended upon local businesses, schools, and scout troops. "Never again would the grass-roots organizations of the United States be so effectively mobilized in one cause. Never again would big government reach down to individuals with such a personal touch" (Ward 1994, p. 101). Of course, the harsh reality of a major war insured the success of these initiatives. Yet, given the American penchant for personal liberty, it is remarkable how stoically most people accepted such control over their lives. Perhaps individualism had become less pronounced because other cultural values, such as collective/communal action and self-sufficient modes of production, had been evoked during depression-era "consumer survival" (Hill, Hirschman, and Bauman 1997). These values were in retreat by the 1950s as frugal consumption gave way to an acceptance of planned obsolescence and a throwaway mentality. How ironic that the wartime economy of shortages engendered a sense of purpose and sharing among consumers, while today’s economy of plenty seems to drive many people further and further into fragmented, self-centered consumption.

Although delineating all the legacies of World War II for American consumers is beyond the scope of this paper, it is fitting to conclude by examining two postwar continuities: one institutional and the other artifactual. First, postwar consumerism turned against neighborhood grocery stores. Families moved to the suburbs where open land for development served by an automobile friendly infrastructure suited the construction of large supermarkets which today dominate the food trade. However, independently-owned small-scale stores, whether one-of-a-kind or franchises like 7-Eleven and Stop 'N’ Go, continue to flourish in reasonably large numbers. Although tied to the automobile and stocked with products (lottery tickets, videos, and condoms) never sold in the 1940s, they still offer convenience at high prices and, like many neighborhood groceries of the past, cater to a largely working class clientele.

The productivity of American industry had been so prodigious that by the war’s end the government had amassed an enormous stockpile of surplus military property worth $34 billion (Chiles 1995). The War Assets Administration launched a vigorous and highly creative marketing campaign to sell this stuff. It distributed promotional brochures around the world, but much of the government effort was directed, once again, at the American consumer whose material sacrifices had made the abundance of war supplies possible in the first place. Barrage ballons were cut up and made into tents, tarps, and raincoats. Gas masks, aircraft tubing, and tank periscopes were recycled as parts in children’s toys (Chiles 1995). Army-Navy surplus stores opened across the country and stayed in business for years. The amphibious vehicles known as DUKWs (or Ducks), still carry tourists through the forests and waters in and around Wisconsin Dells. Other surplus materiel has entered the collector’s market where it is still being bought and sold, displayed and even cherished.


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