Face powder and gun powder

Written by Michael Gubicza on March 7th, 2011

Everyone recognizes the image of “Rosie the Riveter,” that symbol of female power and resolve born of World War II. Not every woman could be Rosie, but every woman wanted to do her part to assist the war effort. Or at least, that’s the impression we got while processing the Historical Society of Pennsylvania collection of World War II papers this past month, our first processing project at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

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Among the highlights of the collection are photographs taken from inside the Stage Door Canteen, a USO club that offered servicemen on leave in Philadelphia free food and entertainment. And, most importantly, the club had hostesses for those without a date! We gather that this line must have been the most effective advertising technique, because we saw it everywhere. Girls, girls, girls! We found photos of girls dancing, girls serving drinks, and…well…what else do girls do? Oh yes, they look pretty.

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But times were tough during the war, so staying pretty was no easy business. Food was rationed, travel was discouraged (gas was rationed too-as were tires!), scrap metal was collected in great quantities. Among the most daunting challenges for our lovely hostesses at the Stage Door was a make-up shortage due to rationed ingredients. It must have been a happy day for servicemen and hostesses alike when a substitute was finally discovered. When we found a press release with this statement in it, we sighed with relief too: “American women-housewives, career girls, and war workers-won’t have to choose between face powder and gun powder!”

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To be sure, being a woman during war time wasn’t all about being pretty. It was also about cooking. And that, too, was made difficult by all the rationing we already mentioned. Luckily, the government had a few crack suggestions for cooking up delicious dishes out of surplus food items. Check out these recipes for spinach. If you’re brave enough to try the Spinach Salad with Mayonnaise Dressing, let us know how it turns out! Molded veggies are always a classy choice.

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We don’t want to give the wrong impression, though. We found some strong female personalities in this collection, and the servicemen’s appreciation for them had nothing to do with their beauty or cooking skills. “Mother” Weber, a member of St. Mark’s Church, corresponded with over 76 Philadelphian servicemen lonely for a voice from their home town. She saved money for their birthday presents (a $1 bill) by skipping her weekly movie. There was Harriet Favorite (her name says it all!), the bold and capable president of the Stage Door Canteen. There were the women who went to work in factories, real-life Rosie the Riveters. And, of course, there were also servicewomen who served our country right alongside the men, and partied with them in USO clubs or in their own Servicewomen’s Club. All of these women did their part with grace and courage, whether their responsibilities required the use of face powder or gun powder.

 

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