Introduction to Life on the World War II Home Front in the Greater United States

Color illustration of a house window with green shutters. A blue star service flag hangs in the window, and a sticker proclaims “This is a V Home.” Lists ways to support the war including raise and share food, war work, buy war bonds.
“Help Bring Them Back To You! Make Yours A Victory Home!” Poster, Office of War Information, 1943.

Collection of Northwestern University Libraries, Government & Geographic Information Collection (ark:/81985/n2bg2kb9x).

What was it like to live on the World War II home front in the mainland United States and its territories? The war was an all-out effort, calling on civilians to do their part to support the military effort. That war may seem like it happened long ago, but the innovations and sacrifices still affect our lives today.

The United States’ involvement in World War II did not occur only on foreign soil and in foreign waters and foreign skies. It also affected the lives of Americans on the home front. Much of this impact was associated with mobilizing for the war. People moved to new places across the country to work and to train and their lives changed. Factories re-tooled and ran around the clock to produce weapons and other military supplies. Whole new industrial centers sprung up across the country, often including worker housing. Goods like cars, toys, and fridges disappeared from the market. Even doctors and nurses became scarce. The government rationed other goods like some foods and gasoline. People across the country grew their own food and collected needed materials to support the war.[1] This set of articles explores the American places and people on the home front affected by World War II.

Most studies of the home front focus on mobilization efforts within the continental United States. Indeed, this was the focus of the US government during the war. And it has served as the popular memory of the war – a clean division between war “over there” and the home front “over here" (except for the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawai’i, which was not yet a state.) [2] But Americans at home also experienced conflict. Civilians watched for enemy aircraft and kept their lights off at night. Enemy submarines patrolled American waters. Enemies attacked and sometimes captured parts of the US, killing American civilians. Death and destruction accompanied the takeovers and the later liberation by US forces. Spies on American soil sent secrets to their enemy handlers. The war also shaped the home front as the US government incarcerated hundreds of thousands of people. These included Americans of Japanese, Italian, and German descent, Alaska Natives, and prisoners of war.

These articles explore life on the home front by looking at the things people invented, created, and used and the ways that everyday life changed. They include the effects of war mobilization and of conflict on the home front, especially as it relates to civilians. While the US did not formally enter World War II until December 1941, buildup and war in Europe and increasing tensions in the Pacific affected Americans at home. These articles focus on the full extent of World War II, from 1939 to 1945. They also look at (though not as in depth) the years leading up to the war and the effects of World War II on the home front after 1945.
Color US map of the continent plus 12 inset maps: Wake Island, Alaska, Guam Island, Puerto Rico, Philippines, Hawaii, Tutuila, Manua and smaller islands of the Samoan Group, and Plan of Panama Canal Zone.
“Map of the United States Showing Territorial Expansion of a Century – 1804 to 1904.” By August R. Ohman, Copyright 1904.

Collection of the David Rumsey Map Collection, Stanford University Libraries (2087.002).

Defining the Home Front: Geography

When World War II started in 1939, the United States was made up of 48 states plus several jurisdictions (territories and possessions). It was also home to many Indigenous groups. Some of these were federally recognized tribes with a special government-to-government relationship with the US government, based on treaties and other agreements. A few of the US jurisdictions were military-only, but in most, civilians lived, worked, and played. [3] Some of these places had been under US jurisdiction and colonization since the mid-1800s; others more recently. By the end of the war, the United States had lost some of these territories and possessions, and gained others. [4]

The military, media, and the general public often treated the US territories and possessions as foreign soil. This kind of thinking excludes those who lived there and the war on their doorsteps from discussions of the home front. Why did people think differently about these places? It may have been the “newness” of these places to US jurisdiction or an extension of the American isolationist trend that followed World War I. It may have also been part of the desire for America to appear as an anti-colonial force on the world stage; or the “foreign-ness” of the various cultures, languages, and environments in these places. As well, in the early 1900s, the US Supreme Court determined that the Constitution did not apply to these places. [5] They were not, however, “geographical crumbs” [6] -- though many of them were small in size. Almost 19 million people – 12.2% of the US population -- lived in these US jurisdictions in 1940. [7]

From as early as 1904, writers have used the term “Greater United States” to include these areas. This is a useful concept when considering the home front. Indeed, many early 1900s maps included these places as part of the US -- a practice that had largely disappeared by World War I. [8]

Evidence and Absence: How Do We Know What We Know?

Color photo of a lightbulb that is painted black and has a “Wabash Blackout Unit” label on it.
Blackout bulb for use during World War II. Manufactured by the Wabash Appliance Co., Brooklyn. The bulb fit into a regular socket. All but the very tip was painted black. Light shone through the yellow end. It allowed some light in homes while limiting how much was visible outside.

Collection of the Spurlock Museum of World Cultures, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (1944.03.0021).

What was the material culture of the World War II home front? Think about landscapes, buildings, and things and the ways in which people made, used, and were influenced by them. Places and things often have multiple meanings and their uses range from functional to symbolic. [9] By looking at the material culture of the home front, we can explore the effects of World War II on everyday Americans in their everyday lives. And see how everyday people affected the war.

Many different sources provide information about the material culture of the home front. Things that can be touched and experienced include the items and objects from the time, but also the built environment and landscapes. Photographs, newspapers, magazines, films, posters, and other archival materials --themselves objects -- provide images and descriptions. Researchers can glean information from letters, oral histories, and other first-person accounts. Museums and archives, archaeological sites, and the built environment provide sources of information. Studies that look at the broader histories of World War II help to place these sources into context.
Black and white drawing of long barracks-like buildings with tar paper, tilting chimneys, and wires.
Mess Hall at Tanforan Assembly Center. “Here in camp, we lost other things which money cannot buy.” Trees in the background separate the Assembly Center from the racetrack, keeping those under forced incarceration out of sight of race-goers. Drawing by Kenneth Iyeki, August 1942.[13]

Collection of Densho, Kenneth Nobuji Iyeki Collection (ddr-densho-392-26).

Each of these sources have challenges. One of the biggest is that much has been lost since the war ended. Buildings and landscapes have been demolished “in part because no one knew they were important.”[10] People donated objects made of materials needed for scrap drives for recycling, removing them from the material record. Other things were not preserved or collected because people thought they were not important or “historic” enough. Archaeologists do not excavate every site, and no museum or archive can collect everything. Instead, the focus is on recording and preserving what law and institutional policies deem important. [11] Oral histories, photographs, films, and newspaper accounts also record only what people felt was important. The wartime government also censored and promoted certain written, broadcast, and visual information. For example, Dorothea Lange’s photos of the War Relocation Administration’s Japanese incarceration camps were kept from the public during the war. They included aspects of the forced resettlement of Japanese Americans that the federal government did not want released at the time. They made her photos available after the war ended. [12]
This article was written by Megan E. Springate, Assistant Research Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Maryland, for the NPS Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education.

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Last updated: November 16, 2023