In the early years of World War I hundreds of thousands of Belgian refugees fled to England to escape their war torn country. Lord Perry, of Ford of England, worked with Henry Ford to establish a home for these refugees to help get them on their feet while they found work and homes of their own in England. For this purpose, Perry leased Oughtrington Hall in Cheshire, England with money donated from Henry and Clara Ford to house up to 100 refugees at a time.
The idea of helping the refugees appears to have been discussed in person between Perry and the Fords in October 1914 while Perry was visiting the states. On returning to England, Perry wrote Clara Ford in December of 1914, saying he’d secured Oughtrington Hall for $35.00 per month, with the landlord giving the rent money to the Belgian Refugee Fund. By December 29, 1914 the first group of refugees had arrived consisting of “six better class adults, 14 better class children and 3 nurses for the children; one wounded Belgian Officer and his wife; 7 discharged Belgian soldiers (these men have been wounded and are sufficiently recovered from their wounds to be discharged from Hospital, but not well enough to rejoin the Army; they cannot go back to their homes in Belgium because they have been destroyed); 4 working class married couples with 5 young children, 3 elderly single men.” The first group of refugees was picked by Perry and included those he considered “the better class” and those of the “working class.” Perry envisioned the wealthy refugees overseeing the children and the working class, and the working class performing the housekeeping, and cooking. The “servant class,” however, rebelled at this notion and Perry was soon writing to Clara noting the working class, “imagine themselves guests and see no reason why they should not be treated as guests with a consequence that they expect to be waited on etc.” Perry compromised by proposing they be paid a servants wage for their labor which would be payable after they left the house to return to Belgium or other employment. The number of refugees in the house continued to grow quickly, by February 1915 there were 93 refugees in the house and in March, 110.
To oversee the group’s needs, Perry appointed a former Ford Motor Company agent in Brussels, Vandermissen as he was the only one in the original group who could speak English. The initial group of refugees battled outbreaks of many contagious diseases, including a scarlet fever and small pox scare. Perry was unable to find a Belgian doctor for some time, so he had to hire local doctors and even use the Manchester plant doctor to see to the refugees needs, however the language gap proved a problem. Eventually, a Belgian doctor was hired, and a surgery and doctor’s office were set up on the grounds. A chapel was built, and a Belgian priest was brought in to see to the refugees’ spiritual needs. Oughtrington Hall was one of the few refugee homes that could house large families and there were always many children in the hall. A nursery and school were established, and the indoor tennis court was heated with a stove to provide a play area for the children. The refugees also raised and sold pigs and cows on the 30 acres attached to the hall.
Perry and his wife, Katie, spent countless hours arranging for the lease, administrating the house, and seeing to the needs of the refugees. They donated much of their own furniture and clothing, “Katie and I have both taken all of our clothes, excepting those that we are actually wearing – both suits and under-clothes – and used them for fitting out some of these poor people.” Perry also requested the Fords send their second-hand clothing to the refugees as well “if it is not too much trouble, it would be nice to receive from you any old clothes of Edsel’s or Mr. Ford’s which could be spared…Such clothes would be of much better quality than we can think of buying, and would further more save money,” a request the Fords followed through with (although only one woman in the hall could fit into Clara’s shoes). However, not all the refugees’ needs were met immediately. When the boiler went out in 1915, Perry refused to pay for a new one as they were only renting, demanding the landlord replace the unit, but it took the landlord sometime to make up his mind and “meanwhile the poor Belgians are very cold.” The money the Fords provided not only furnished the house, and provided food, but also bought clothing, toiletries, and basic items for the refugees (many of whom had left the country with no extra clothes or personal possessions) as well as provided the refugees with pocket money from $0.50 - $1.00 each per week. Perry also purchased subscriptions for magazines and rented a piano and gramophone (asking Edsel Ford to send along any old records). Because the first refugees moved in around Christmas the Perry’s purchased a Christmas tree, decorations, and small gifts for the children.
By 1918, because of war rationing, Perry was forced to reduce the number of refugees in the home and stop taking in new refugees; he proposed to the Fords to gradually start winding up the project and close down Oughtrington Hall. The chapel, priest, and doctor had all left by this time and Perry stated only families with children were left. Perry wrote Clara, “I feel that the conditions under which you have, for so long, rendered help to Belgian Refugees in this country, have materially changed; so much so, that it is probably true to say that there are no Belgian refugees in the same sense that there were three years ago.” He went on to add most of the refugees had found work and had become part of community, the others he believed should be taken care of by the government. Over the three years of operation a constant flow of hundreds of refugees came and went through Oughtrington Hall, the number of refugees fluctuated but appears to have stayed around 100 for the most part. Many found jobs, some at the Ford Manchester plant, and moved into homes of their own, or a relative in Belgium sent them money so they could establish their own residence. In July 1918, Perry transferred administration of the hall to the Manchester Belgian Refugees Committee along with the furniture and all equipment in the house. Kathy Makas is Reference Archivist at The Henry Ford.
Ford Motor Company devoted its employees and manufacturing facilities to military production during both of the 20th century’s world wars. Ford’s efforts in World War I were slow to start, given Henry Ford’s outspoken opposition to the conflict, but once the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, the automaker rose to the challenge. Over the next two years, Ford built passenger cars, supply trucks, aircraft engines, gun caissons, tanks, helmets and body armor. Ironically, one of Ford’s best-known wartime products, the Eagle anti-submarine boats, never saw action before the Armistice. However, the factory that built the Eagle boats subsequently became the core of Ford’s River Rouge plant.
Ford’s efforts for World War II were greater still. Like other American automakers, the company suspended all civilian production in February 1942. Ford famously turned out B-24 bombers at its Willow Run facility, but it also produced a variety of wheeled vehicles including jeeps, amphibious cars, armored cars, trucks and tanks. Ford’s non-vehicle production included military gear of every type, from aircraft engines to guns to helmets to tents.
Red Cross Workers with a Ford Military Ambulance at the Highland Park Plant, 1918. THF 263442
Needless to say, ambulances were among the most crucial vehicles used in both wars. During World War I, Ford personal collaborated with the United States Surgeon General’s Office and frontline drivers to design a Model T-based ambulance ideal for battlefield conditions. The company donated $500,000 to the Red Cross, enabling the humanitarian organization to purchase nearly 1,000 vehicles for wartime use – including 107 ambulances. Beyond those Red Cross units, another 5,745 ambulances were built for the Allied armies.
Red Cross Motor Corps members took classes in auto maintenance. These women are checking under a Ford ambulance’s hood in 1942. THF 265816
Dodge produced most of the frontline ambulances used by American forces in World War II, but Ford units were active on the homefront. The Red Cross’s Motor Corps, established in World War I, rendered important service during the Second World War as well. Corps drivers working in the United States ferried Red Cross staff and supplies, couriered packages and messages, and occasionally stepped in to assist with Army and Navy transportation needs. An estimated 45,000 women were active in the Motor Corps during World War II. Corps members generally drove their personnel vehicles in this service, but Ford-built ambulances were also used in the transport of the sick and wounded.
As you might expect, a car company with as long a life and as many different vehicles in production at various times as Ford Motor Company needed to document down to individual nuts and bolts each part of each vehicle. Over the 50 years between 1903 and 1957, Ford produced more than one million parts drawings, a comprehensive microfiche set of which now reside in The Henry Ford’s Benson Ford Research Center. We’ve just digitized several hundred of these parts drawings, including a couple dozen, like this one, that cover Model T ambulances built by Ford to be used during World War I.
World War II Poster, "Free a Man to Fight," 1943. Made by the artist Leslie Darrell Ragan (1897-1972) and published by the Brett Lithographing Co. for the New York Central Railroad. (ID THF154861 / 2013.49.1 )
Women have always worked and worked hard. But how and where has changed over time. During the 19th century, the growing middle class in America promoted the ideal of a woman's primary work being in the home. This viewpoint promoted a woman's primary role at home to make it a haven for her husband from the evils of the outside industrial world and a place to rear civilized children. This ideal of women's place continued throughout much of the 20th century – except when the U.S. faced global wars. I think that looking at posters in our collection from World Wars I and II provides a fascinating view of women's changing roles during these all-out national defense efforts.
A colleague's insightful blog post from March 19, 2012, focuses on the famous "Rosie the Riveter" poster and many photographs of women factory workers at Ford Motor Company during the 1940s.
The first poster (above), "Free a Man to Fight," shows a woman worker not in a factory but in a railroad's maintenance roundhouse. She is lubricating a locomotive wheel, previously a man's occupation. It is part of the early 1940s home front effort encouraging women to join the work force to replace men serving in the armed forces. New York Central Railroad hired the artist Leslie D. Ragan to make the poster artwork. He is the same artist the railroad company used for their well-known posters in the 1920s and 1930s featuring locomotives and travel destinations.
World War I Poster, "For Every Fighter, a Woman Worker," circa 1918. Made by the artist Adolph Treidler (1886-1981) and printed by the American Lithographic Company for the United War Work Campaign and the Young Women's Christian Association. (ID THF81764 / 53.5.406.1).
The next poster, "For Every Fighter a Woman Worker," shows a young woman in a typical factory work outfit from the First World War. She symbolically holds a biplane and a bomb, standing in front of a large blue triangle. In 1914 the Young Women's Christian Association (Y.W.C.A.) was one of a group of organizations in the U.S. that formed the United War Work Campaign, Inc. This campaign recruited women to serve in industry, government and agriculture positions. The Y.W.C.A. supported the war work in diverse ways, including opening and maintaining many "Blue Triangle" houses, which provided safe and morally upright places for young working women to gather for rest and recreation.
World War I Poster, "Back Our Girls Over There," circa 1918. Artwork by Clarence F. Underwood and printed in the United States for the United War Work Campaign and the Young Women's Christian Association. (ID THF112607 / 126.96.36.199).
Another poster of the United War Work Campaign and the Young Women's Christian Association, this features a young woman in uniform working a telephone switchboard. The background includes marching soldiers through a window. The Y.W.C.A. helped to recruit and sustain women working for the government in military jobs in the U.S. and abroad during World War I.
World War II Poster, "Equipment Is Precious!" 1943. Made by the artist B. Rig and printed by the United States Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Washington, D.C. (ID THF111484 / 89.60.5).
During World War II many women served in offices. This U.S. government poster made in 1943 features a young woman cleaning her typewriter in front of an outline of a combat soldier. The text below, pointedly asked women office workers to "Remember his needs. Your care of office equipment will save vital materials and help him win."
World War II Poster, "You, Too, Are Needed in a War Job! Work in a Food Processing Plant," 1945. Artwork by Frank Bensing (1893-1983) and printed by the United States Government Printing Office for the United States War Manpower Commission, Washington, D.C. (ID THF108510 / 94.5.4).
While many posters focus on harnessing youthful energy for the war effort, the reality during World War II was a collaborative endeavor by all Americans. This poster shows one of the ways mature women could help by working the conveyor line in a food processing plant.
World War I Poster, "The Girl on the Land Serves the Nation's Need," circa 1917. Made by artist Edward Penfield (1866-1925) and printed by United States Printing & Lithograph Company, New York, New York. (ID THF112812 / 89.0.565.88).
Many young men left farms to serve in the military during World War I. An acute labor shortage soon ensued and to help farmers continue producing vital food, the Y.W.C.A. Land Service Committee recruited young women to work on the farms. This poster depicts "farmerettes" wearing uniforms walking next to a team of horses while one carries a rake and another a basket of vegetables. Often working with young women from the cities, the Y.W.C.A. and other groups like the Farm and Garden Association provided these young women with training in agricultural skills.
World War II Poster, "Call to Farms. Join in the U.S. Crop Corps," circa 1943. Artwork by John Vickery (1906-1983) for the United States Crop Corps, Washington, D.C. (ID THF108507 / 94.5.1).
During the Second World War, an agricultural labor shortage again developed. The government formed the U.S. Crop Corps to recruit and train young women from the cities to replace the men called to military service. This poster shows a young woman driving a tractor through a farm field, pausing to turn and give the "V for Victory" sign. The government printed thousands of posters and provided a space at the bottom for use by local groups. This poster has a handwritten note in red pencil following the printed "Enlist Today" by the "Junior Board of Commerce - Philadelphia."
World War I Poster, "Corn, the Food of the Nation," 1918. Made by the artist Lloyd Harrison and printed by Harrison Landauer for the United States Food Administration. (ID THF62409 / 188.8.131.52).
Even with the successful recruiting of young women to work on the farm, another challenge during wartime is inevitably food shortages. During the First World War "Meatless Mondays" and "Wheatless Wednesdays" became campaigns of the United States Food Administration seeking voluntary changes in the eating habits of Americans. The mainstay of many a woman's work continued to be as food shopper and cook for her family. This poster from 1918 shows a woman cooking muffins and pancakes made from corn products like corn meal, grits and hominy. It was a challenge substituting corn for wheat and the government used this poster to encourage women to do this by promoting corn as "appetizing, nourishing, economical."
Our collection of world war posters from the 1910s and 1940s features women contributing to the war effort in so many different ways. I think it is illuminating to see the variety of jobs that the poster artists chose to help rally women for the national effort during these wars.
By Cynthia Read Miller, Curator of Photographs and Prints at The Henry Ford, with much thanks to the catalogers of our hundreds of world war posters, especially Jan Hiatt, Marian Pickl and Carol Wright.