Women as consumers during World War Two

Katherin Tawny Paul, Class of 2005

Senior Thesis Topic: The Role of Women as Consumers during World War Two

I used funds granted to me by the Evalyn Clark Memorial Travel Fund to cover my living expenses while I conducted research for ten weeks in New York City on the role of women as consumers during World War Two. The research that I conducted complemented research that I completed last spring at Vassar and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, and will contribute to my senior thesis.

I spent my time in New York primarily at the New York Public Library in midtown (NYPL), the Schomburg Center for Research in Black History and Culture in Harlem, and conducting interviews in Harlem. Because the NYPL was a full government repository during World War Two, I was able to obtain access to numerous important government documents related to the consumerist movement during the war. Primarily, these documents were published by the Office of Price Administration (OPA) and the Office of War Information.

By looking at government documents at the federal level, I found that federal officials held a very optimistic vision of consumption during World War Two. Consumption was linked to a set of political ideals that were centered around the American housewife. OPA officials saw consumption as a form of participation in public life and an opportunity to make an important contribution to the war effort. Consumption (or limiting consumption) of certain goods was a symbol of American nationality. Being a good citizen meant being a good consumer. Consumption was linked to democracy because it was seen as a massive grass roots effort. The OPA looked to local participation to lend legitimacy to its rationing and price regulation programs.

After gaining a sense of the government’s vision of consumption, I evaluated the OPA’s approach to consumerism by examining the extent to which local communities in New York participated in the consumer movement. I consulted the papers of local civic organizations such as the New York League of Women Voters, the papers and pamphlets of local consumer councils, and local newspapers and community bulletins. Despite a high degree of local participation, activity at the local level confirmed my suspicions that the OPA worked from the top down. Despite the OPA’s insistence that consumerism was a grass roots movement, directives came from experts and professionals in government, not from volunteers at the grass roots level.

Finally, I researched the role that race played in the consumer movement by using resources at the Schomburg center to examine food consumption in Harlem. I found that the situation in Harlem complicated the OPA’s vision of democracy. Equal access to the consumer market and inflated food prices were major problems in Harlem during the war, which led to active community protests and riots in 1943. The NAACP and the New Amsterdam News conducted several investigations exposing these problems. Both reported that merchants in Harlem overcharged customers and sold rotten or poor quality food.

While poor quality products and price ceiling violations were rampant in Harlem, consumers there had little recourse. The nature of the OPA’s appeal to consumers segmented the African American market. While the OPA encouraged housewives to deal with price ceiling violations by talking to their local shopkeepers, most stores in Harlem were owned by white merchants who had little rapport with the community. But despite the OPA’s lack of initiative with women in Harlem, a group of local women in the Consolidated Housewive’s League effectively worked to improve food problems in the neighborhood. Even without the OPA’s help, women in this community played an essential role in improving the conditions of food consumption.

I not only did research in Harlem, but I spent my summer living there. Over the course of the summer as I began to know members of the community, I met women who lived in Harlem during the war years. Many were willing to share their memories of the war and lend insight to my project based on their experiences. Thus not only was I able to conduct archival research in New York, but I also had the opportunity to work with oral histories for the first time. Speaking to women was a very powerful and important part of my project, both because it added a personal and emotional touch to my research, and because it enhanced otherwise limited resources.

The experience of doing research in New York City not only made an incredible contribution to my thesis, but it allowed me to develop my skills as a researcher and a student of history. I was introduced to the joys and frustrations of research at a major public institution and to the challenges of working with oral histories. I am extremely grateful to those who have worked to establish the Evalyn Clark Memorial Travel Fund for providing me with this invaluable learning experience.