Unlike the First World War, rationing during the Second World War was mandatory and regulated by the Federal government. Because purchased foods were restricted, Americans were strongly encouraged to keep victory gardens. And because commercially canned goods were needed for shipment overseas, ordinary people were encouraged to preserve the fruits of their victory gardens at home.
Propaganda posters like the one above made great efforts to frame the drudgery of home food preservation in wartime terms. Housewives were encouraged to "can all you can," while the poster cheerily chirped, "It's a real war job!" presumably to put the kibosh on all the naysayers who insisted otherwise.
The girl says, "We'll have lots to eat this winter, won't we Mother?" implying that a well-stocked home pantry like the one in the background provided security against future food shortages or tightened rations.
Both the promotion of home canning and the implementation of wartime rationing reflected an agricultural system not designed to provide massive surpluses. Coming out of the Dust Bowl era of the Great Depression, agricultural practices in the United States had improved, but most of the food produced at home was still consumed at home. Cuts had to be made domestically in order to free up the food supply for shipment overseas.
In the decades since the Second World War, American agriculture has been transformed, both by the leftovers of chemical warfare and explosives production (pesticides and chemical fertilizers come to mind) but also by the mindset that producing unlimited food brings global security. Improvements to global shipping have meant that it is now as easy (or easier, and certainly cheaper) to get garlic from China as it is from the farmer down the street. Or apples from New Zealand or Peru than from a local orchard.
Home preservation and home kitchen gardens are certainly no longer necessary, given the world of food at our fingertips at both grocery stores and online. With home food preservation no longer necessary, canning and gardening have taken on a sheen of delight. For many people, it is preferable to can your own jam from berries you picked yourself, rather than buy from the store. But I think the romance that hangs around home food preservation today belies the struggles of the past - when poorly preserved foods or inadequate supplies meant illness and hunger. When a poor harvest didn't just mean higher prices at the grocery store, but threatened real starvation.
it's important to remember that food preservation during World War II played an important role in both nutrition and improving the everyday diet of Americans. But it's also important to recognize the amount of labor spent on both victory gardens and home canning at a time when American labor was already stretched thin in the war effort as factories ramped up production and speed, women took on the work of fighting men, and everyone hustled to get things done with fewer people and fewer resources.
The size of the United States meant that we never quite had the same threats of deprivation as the U.K., which is perhaps why they are so much better at telling their WWII home front stories than Americans are. The size and scope of our continent meant we could be self-sustaining and still provide food abroad, whereas the United Kingdom had to learn how to do without regular food shipments to its tiny island.
So the next time you do some home canning, whether from necessity or for fun, I hope you remember the people of the past.