Rachel Carson devoted her early career to studying and writing about the ocean. During the 1950s, her poetic books about the sea brought her recognition and fame as an author.
Carson’s books helped build a new awareness about the environment. Her most important book, Silent Spring, released in 1962, asked Americans to examine the negative effects of widespread chemical pesticide use.
Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, linked human action to environmental destruction and ignited a national conversation. THF110029
During World War II, a chemical called DDT protected troops by killing disease-spreading insects. After the war, numerous products containing DDT became commercially available to American consumers for pest control.
In Silent Spring, Carson urged the public to live in harmony with nature and cautioned against the overuse of DDT, which destroyed insect populations and threatened other wildlife species. America reacted. The government banned DDT in 1972. The environmental movement—sparked in part by Carson’s book—continues today.
An interactive digital experience in Henry Ford Museum features the stories of Rachel Carson, Luther Burbank, and George Washington Carver.
Learn more about Carson’s life and work in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, where a new digital experience in the Agriculture & the Environment exhibit explores
The post-WWII “chemical craze” that prompted Carson to act
The long-term environmental effects of pesticide misuse
Books and magazines from the beginning of the environmental movement
Carson’s influence on the evolution of environmental activism
As we celebrate Earth Day, do you know which iconic symbol for the environmentalism movement came first? The bird wing design on an Earth Day poster or the “Give Earth a Chance” button? If you thought it was the button, you’re correct.
Students at the University of Michigan formed ENACT (Environmental Action for Survival Committee, Inc.) in 1969. They prototyped the button and started selling it in late 1969, months before the official Earth Day on April 22, 1970. This button was reputedly worn during Earth Day 1970.
Advertising Poster, "Earth Day April 22, 1970.” THF81862
If you picked the wing, the artist that created the poster, Jacob Landau, used a stylized wing in earlier artwork. Landau, an award-winning illustrator and artist, taught at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He created this poster for the Environmental Action Coalition which coordinated New York Earth Day activities in 1970.
Newsweek itemized threats that ravaged the environment in its January 26, 1970 issue. All resulted from human actions. Emissions and sewage polluted the air and water. Garbage clogged landfills. Population growth threatened to overtake available food supplies. Solving these challenges required cooperation and unity on the part of individuals as well as local, state, and national governments. Editors believed that replenishing the environment to sustain future generations could be “the greatest test” humans faced. They featured the “Give Earth a Chance” button with the caption: "Symbol of The Age of Conservation?"
What to do to save the Earth? The overall goal of replenishing the environment to sustain future generations required action on many fronts. More than 20 million people across the United States participated in the first Earth Day. The teach-ins informed, marches conveyed the intensity of public interest, and graphic arts spoke volumes about what needed to be done.
“March 1975, Bazaar, Fight Air Pollution, What You Should Be Wearing,” Poster, 1970. THF288328
This 1970 poster envisioned high fashion of the future, complete with a gas mask accessory. The moral of the story? Self-protection would not solve the problem of environmental pollution.
The Clean Air Act of 1970 empowered states and the national government to reduce emissions through regulation. This applied to industrial emissions as well as mobile sources (trains, planes, and automobiles, among others).
Interest in Recycling Grows
Poster by Eli Leon for Ecology Action, “Recycle” 1971. THF284835
Recycling emerged as a natural outgrowth of Earth Day, but local efforts could not succeed without explanation. First, consumers had to be convinced to save their newspapers, bottles, and cans, and then to make the extra effort to drop them off at centralized locations. This flyer showed how every-day consumer activity (grocery shopping) contributed to deforestation, littering, and garbage pile-up. Everybody could participate in the solution – recycling.
Recycling cost money, and this caused communities to balance what was good for the Earth, acceptable to residents, and possible within available operating funds. Even if customers voluntarily recycled, it still cost money to store recyclables and to sell the post-consumer materials to buyers.
Recycling Bin, Designed for Use in University City, Missouri, 1973. THF181540
City officials and residents in University City, Missouri, started curbside newspaper recycling in 1973, one of the first in the country to do so. Some argued that the city lost money because the investment in staff and trucks to haul materials cost more than the city earned from the sale, but saving the planet, not profit, motivated the effort. Eight years into the program, in 1981, city officials estimated that newspaper recycling kept 85,000 trees from the paper mill.
Today, more than 1/3 of post-consumer waste, by weight, is paper. Processing requires energy & chemicals, but recycled paper uses less water and produces less air pollution than making new paper from wood pulp. Maybe you buy greeting cards of 100% recycled paper, like this late 1980s example from our digital collections.
Environmentalism and Vegetable Gardening
Awareness of environmental issues affected the habits and actions of gardeners. Home gardening became an act of self-preservation in the context of Earth Day and environmentalism.
Lyman P. Wood founded Gardens for All in 1971, and the association conducted its first Gallup poll of a representative sample of American gardeners in 1973. It helped document the actions of gardeners, those proactive subscribers to new serials such as Mother Earth News. It confirmed their demographics and their economic investment.
Raising vegetables using organic or natural fertilizers and traditional pest control methods became an act of resistance to increased use of synthetic chemical applications as concern about residual effects on human health increased.
How to Grow Vegetables and Fruits by the Organic Method, 1971. THF145272
Interest in organic methods remains high as concern about genetic-engineered foods polarizes consumers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines biotechnology broadly. The definition includes plants that result from selective breeding and hybridization, as practiced by Luther Burbank, among others, as well as genetic modification accomplished by inserting foreign DNA/RNA into plant cells. This last became commercially viable only after 1987. These definitions affect seed marketing, as this “organic” Burbank Tomato (not genetically engineered) indicates.
Charles C. Hart Seed Company “Burbank Slicing Tomato” Seed Packet, circa 2018. THF276144
What Gardening Means Today Gardening as an act of personal autonomy
"Assuming Financial Risk," Clip from Interview with Melvin Parson, April 5, 2019. THF295329
Social justice entrepreneurs believe gardens and gardening can change lives. Learn about the work of Melvin Parson, the Spring 2019 William Davidson Foundation Entrepreneur in Residence at The Henry Ford, in this expert set. You can also learn more from Will Allen in an interview in our Visionaries on Innovation series.
Environmentalism The 1970 “The Age of Conservation” has changed with the times, but individual acts and world-wide efforts still sustain efforts to “Give the Earth a Chance.” You can learn more about environmentalism over the decades by viewing artifacts here.
To read more about Adam Rome and The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation (2013), take a look at this site.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. This post came from a Twitter chat hosted in celebration of Earth Day 2020.