We’ve all read about Rosie the Riveter, but what about her mother? Over a million women worked in factories in WWI building Liberty engines, airplanes, working in munitions factories, and warehouses. Others volunteered for the American Red Cross driving ambulances, working in canteens, transporting people and supplies in the Motor Corp., and as nurses. Still others set up daycares for working mothers, knitted clothing and medical supplies, and rationed food so that soldiers would have more. With 2017 marking the 100th anniversary of American involvement in WWI, we took a look at how these women contributed to the war effort in the U.S.
Part of the reason little has been said about women factory workers in WWI is that, unlike in WWII, most of the women who worked in wartime industries had already been working in factories prior to the war. It was only in the last few weeks before armistice was signed that middle-class homemakers were being mobilized to work in factories. But the women who did work in the factories manufacturing munitions, airplanes, trucks, and Liberty Engines, were not in these industries prior to the war. Women, during WWI, made a huge shift from traditionally women’s industries such as food processing and textiles to traditionally male industries, such as heavy manufacturing and vehicle production. This came with pushback from their male coworkers, and after the war, many of these women were forced back into traditionally female occupations, but during the war women proved they could perform jobs in these industries in support of the war effort (and also to earn a much better living).
In Detroit, most of the automotive factories were manufacturing items for the war. In addition to providing vehicles, planes, and components, Packard, Lincoln, Ford, and GM all produced the Liberty Engine for airplanes. The factories, short on men during war, employed women to work on the engines. It was said manufacturers preferred women in some of the work as they were more detail oriented and better suited to delicate work requiring a fine touch. Ford Motor Company, who at the time employed almost no women at all, began hiring women in August of 1918, by the time armistice was signed in November they had employed 500 women from one time to another in the factories. From the extant photos, Lincoln Motor Company appeared to have hired even more women, putting them to work at everything from gauging pistons and valves to welding.
Many women worked for the American Red Cross during the war. Detroit had its own chapter of the Red Cross and Ford Motor Company provided ambulances, trucks and cars in a $500,000 contribution. Women of the Red Cross conducted training sessions with their Ford ambulances outside the Highland Park factory. Women also transported sick patients, medical supplies, and doctors and nurses to and from hospitals during the Influenza Epidemic. In addition, volunteers in the Motor Corp used Ford vehicles, and others, to transport supplies to canteens, deliver surgical supplies, knitted garments, and other materials and personnel.
Women also worked from their homes to aid the war effort. Posters of the time encouraged women to volunteer for the Red Cross, asking them if they had a Red Cross service flag in the window of their home, support the YWCA helping women factory workers, join the Women’s Land Army, and to buy war bonds. Women at home were also encouraged to conserve food by using less wheat and meat, growing home gardens, and show children the importance of rationing. Cookbooks giving recipes avoiding wheat included recipes for corn and bran muffins, and potato doughnuts, while other pamphlets instructed housewives in gardening, and home canning and drying. Posters often compared U.S. women to the hard working, hard suffering, women of France, encouraging women to do their part to help out.
While the U.S. was only directly engaged in the war for 19 months, the U.S. industry had long before been manufacturing for the war, and women were engaged in the public and home sectors working in factories, volunteering, and rationing. The shortage of men during the war allowed women to enter jobs they were previously barred from, at the same time the importance of cooking, making, and volunteering took on new proportions for women as well. Though many of the women working in factories had to give up their jobs, and opportunities for women diminished as the men returned from war, women of WWI played a key role in the war effort both in industry and at home.
If you’re looking for more World War I resources, the Benson Ford Research Center can help you find them. We’re open Monday-Friday 9-5, AskUs a question or make an appointment today.
Kathy Makas is a Benson Ford Research Center Reference Archivist at The Henry Ford.
If you’ve been watching Season Three of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation, you’ve already gotten to learn about artifacts from our collection that include the quilts of Susana Allen Hunter, the Herschell-Spillman carousel, and the 1957 Cornell-Liberty Safety Car. We’re always working far ahead on these stories, though, so we’re currently digitizing artifacts for upcoming stories.
One segment will feature Curator of Transportation Matt Anderson explaining the origins of air mail. While sending a letter or package overnight may seem mundane today, it was once new and exotic. Daring pilots captured public attention, as demonstrated by the 1930 publicationCouriers of the Clouds: The Romance of the Air Mail.
See more artifacts related to air mail by visiting our Digital Collections—and keep watching The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation to learn more! Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
“The glory of soaring above God’s Earth and the satisfaction of taking the machine up and bringing it back to the ground safely, through my own skill and judgment, has melted away the boundaries of my life. Racing opens my door to the world. Don’t cut me off from the adventure men have been hoarding for themselves in the guise of protecting me from danger.” – unnamed female aviator, 1929
Several of the women aviators competing in the 1929 Air Derby gathered for this photograph at Parks Airport in Illinois. Included, from left-to-right, are Mary Von Mach, Jessie Miller, Gladys O’Donnell, Thea Rasche, Phoebe Omlie, Louise Thaden, Amelia Earhart, Blanche Noyes, Ruth Elder, and Vera Walker. THF256262
The 1929 Women’s “Powder Puff” Air Derby was the first air race in which women aviators were allowed to participate, despite air races occurring internationally and nationally since 1909. By 1929, 117 women held pilot’s licenses in the United States and were breaking records, including some set by men, left and right. Twenty of these aviators arrived at Clover Field in Santa Monica ready to compete, but perhaps the greater motivation was to show the world how truly capable women aviators were.
The derby, from Santa Monica, California, to Cleveland, Ohio, was to be completed over nine days with the total time in flight recorded each day. The aviator with the shortest flight time overall, for both the DW (heavy aircraft) and CW (light aircraft) classes, would win the top prize. In order to qualify to compete, the aviators, like their male counterparts in the National Air Races, were required to have completed over 100 logged hours in flight. Several of the twenty aviators did not actually meet this qualification but flew anyway. Unlike their male counterparts, however, there were restrictions placed on the women’s aircraft engine strength. One of the aviators, Opal Kunz, had her newly-purchased 300 horsepower Travel Air airplane deemed “too fast for a woman” and was forced to rent a 200 horsepower plane for use in the derby.
The nine-day derby saw multiple mishaps. Both Florence “Pancho” Barnes and Ruth Nichols crashed their planes but managed to escape unscathed. Phoebe Omlie accidentally landed in a field where the local Sheriff nearly arrested her for alleged drug smuggling, while numerous other aviators discovered suspected sabotage efforts to their aircraft. Ruth Elder, lost on the leg to Phoenix and needing directions, accidentally landed in a field of grazing bulls, causing her to panic that the red color of her airplane would incite anger. The farmer’s wife relayed her location and Elder quickly resumed flight without damages. Tragically, on the second day of the race, Marvel Crosson perished when she crashed in the Arizona desert. Despite calls to suspend the race after Crosson’s death, the remaining women decided that finishing the race would best honor their fallen friend.
On the final day, August 26, 1929, fifteen of the original twenty women crossed the finish line in Cleveland, Ohio. Louise Thaden won the DW class and Phoebe Omlie won the CW class. As Thaden was lauded for her first-place finish, she addressed the crowd, “The sunburn derby is over, and I happened to come in first place. I’m sorry we all couldn’t come in first, because they all deserve it as much as I.”
The Henry Ford recently added over 200 artifacts related to women aviators to the Digital Collections. Of the women aviators who competed in the 1929 Air Derby, the collection includes archival materials for five of them; Louise Thaden, Amelia Earhart, Ruth Elder, Mary Von Mach, and Ruth Nichols. Numerous other significant early female aviators that did not participate in the 1929 Air Derby are also represented in the collection.
Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
The “Barnstormers” section of the Heroes of the Sky exhibit in Henry Ford Museum covers early 20th century pilots and aerialists who would perform daring airplane stunts to entertain audiences watching below. The Laird Biplane Boneshaker that appears in the exhibit was flown by Katherine Stinson, an aviator in her mid-20s, on international exhibition tours in 1916 and 1917. We’ve just digitized a couple dozen photographs and clippings that relate to Stinson and the various planes she flew, including this image taken at the Tri-State Fair in Memphis in fall 1916—the back of the photo notes that she flew that day wearing this same ensemble, with the addition of a helmet and goggles. View all the Stinson-related materials by visiting our Digital Collections—and to learn even more about Katherine Stinson, watch for her to be featured in a segment of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation later this year.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
In 2014, the Detroit News donated over 220 photographic negatives to The Henry Ford. They depict photos of and taken from various News aircraft between the mid-1920s and mid-1930s, including a Lockheed Orion and a Lockheed Vega. A substantial number relate to the 1931 Pitcairn-Cierva Autogiro, which has been in The Henry Ford’s collection for over 80 years and is currently on display within Henry Ford Museum in the Heroes of the Sky exhibit. The image shown here includes a hand-written note on the envelope: “Airplanes to ship newspapers.” We have just digitized the complete set of negatives, so you can now visit our online collections to browse the Autogiro-related images, or everything related to the Detroit News, including all of these images.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
The Douglas DC-3 ranks with the Model T Ford and the Volkswagen Beetle as one of the great engineering designs of the twentieth century. The aircraft was safe, reliable, economical, and did more than any other single airplane to make commercial aviation a viable industry.
Ironically, the story of the DC-3 began with a famous airline crash. In 1931, a Fokker tri-motor operated by Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA) went down, killing all seven people on board, including famed University of Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne. When an investigation of the crash revealed that the wood wing of the Fokker was weakened by rot, airlines began scrambling to replace wood-framed planes with all-metal ones. TWA asked several manufacturers for proposals for a new, all metal airplane, with two or three engines, weighing no more than 14,200 pounds, able to carry at least 12 passengers at 150 miles per hour, with a range of 1,080 miles. Douglas Aircraft, which had previously concentrated on military planes, proposed a twin-engine aircraft that they called the Douglas Commercial Number 1, or simply DC-1. TWA chose the Douglas design, but before it went into production an improved version was developed, called the DC-2.
Though the Wright Brothers first successfully flew their heavier-than-air flyer in 1903, it wasn’t until August 8, 1908, that Wilbur Wright offered the first official public demonstration of their creation. In a series of flights between August and the end of the year, Wright quashed many skeptics by showing the flyer’s maneuverability. Images of those flights remain today in the archives of The Henry Ford in a series of glass plate negatives in the Bollée Collection, named after Leon Bollée, a French automaker and aviation enthusiast. We’ve just digitized all of these glass plate negatives, including documentary images of the flyer before, during, and after these flights, as well as many images covering the personal and business interests of Leon Bollée. The fascinating image shown here depicts the Wright Flyer being transported along a narrow road in France—an endeavor that must have had its challenges. View over 150 more newly-digitized Bollée images by visiting our Digital Collections.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
Amelia Earhart. We know her as a famous aviatrix—the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932 and the daring pilot who disappeared attempting an around-the-world flight in 1937.
But long before the celebrity fashion brand frenzy of more recent decades—think Jaclyn Smith, Jessica Simpson, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Jay Z and countless others—Amelia Earhart had her own fashion line.
Yes, the motivation was to make money. Not to support a lavish lifestyle, but to finance her true passion—the adventure of flying.
As a new member of the Historical Resources Department at The Henry Ford, my first couple of months have been a whirlwind. Not only am I responsible for learning the daily workflow routine, but I also have to begin the process of taking in the massive and amazing collection that exists here at The Henry Ford. My initial impression is that you could spend multiple lifetimes working here and still not discover all the stories the collection has to offer. Discovery is what makes my work exciting. What makes my work even more exciting is the ability to share those discoveries with other people. It is in the spirit of sharing these stories, the breadth of our collection, and in the stories themselves that make The Henry Ford a prime location for the setting of a TV show like The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation. All of these stories need to be shared in order to inspire.