We've all had those days. Days where we forgot to bring lunch to work and can't get away to buy it, or when we bring a sad, cobbled-together lunch, or when we pick up fast food or something with empty calories. For many of us, a slow-moving afternoon or the distraction of a rumbling stomach isn't the end of the world. But during the Second World War, people didn't have the luxury of distraction of fatigue.
This bold propaganda poster from c. 1943 features a yawning male worker leaning on the surface of what appears to be a stamping or hammering machine. He says, "Ho hum," feet crossed, leaning on his elbows, as a heavy block of metal descends toward his head. The poster reads, "Avoid fatigue! Eat a lunch that packs a punch!"
During WWII, the United States engaged in total war. That meant that nearly every aspect of American society shifted toward the war effort. Nowhere was this more clear than in the everyday work of people in manufacturing. Men who weren't drafted for the war or working on farms often worked in factory settings. Factories that previously made machinery for consumer use - automobiles, refrigerators, washing machines, etc. - now found themselves manufacturing warplanes and Army jeeps and munitions. Factories worked on round-the-clock schedules, with three shifts a day. Some people worked much longer than 8 hours at a time. Although great strides had been made in ergonomics in factory work during the 1940s, the pressure of keeping up with military contracts and quotas was great. People often got too little sleep, and rationing made food supplies tight.
During the war the U.S. federal government issued the Basic 7 - the first national nutrition guidelines ever issued. Based around the idea of balancing vitamin intake with protein, carbohydrates, and fats, the Basic 7 helped ordinary Americans better understand nutrition. Which is exactly what this poster is alluding to.
"Eat a lunch that packs a punch" was a slogan also showed up in other posters, and alluded to calcium to keep bones strong, protein to build muscles, and Vitamin A to improve eyesight, among others. But this poster focuses on fatigue, which was a very real threat to the war machine. Tired workers made mistakes, hurt themselves, and could hurt or kill others. Operating flat out didn't leave room for mistakes, and a labor shortage thanks to the draft made skilled workers difficult to replace. Unbalanced meals, or not enough to eat, did not give war workers the energy they needed to perform at the highest levels at all times.
The pressure of wartime work must have seemed unbearable at times. And with women increasingly joining the workforce and/or managing victory gardens and food preservation at home, not to mention coping with rationing, the idea of packing a large and nutritionally balanced lunch must have seemed like a lot of extra work for people. But while cafeterias were sometimes available, most people in factory work still packed their lunches. And while working at high speeds with dangerous equipment, it was worth it to make sure you weren't going to be too tired to do your job.
There was no room for slacking off at work during the war, and getting proper nutrition to keep in peak physical health was so important the federal government spent a great deal of money advertising basic nutrition concepts (along with lots of posters about workplace safety) to ordinary Americans. Total war meant total commitment, total effort, and total focus. Staying healthy and well-fed was all part of total war.
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Sarah Wassberg Johnson has an MA in Public History from the University at Albany and studies early 20th century food history.