Material Drives on the World War II Home Front

Color illustration of a white Uncle Sam holding a handful of scrap including tires, a tractor, a refrigerator, boots, and a bedframe. Color illustration of a white Uncle Sam holding a handful of scrap including tires, a tractor, a refrigerator, boots, and a bedframe.

Left image
“Throw YOUR Scrap Into The Fight! American Industries Salvage Committee.” Poster, Office of War Information, ca. 1944.
Credit: Collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 515814).

Right image
“Scrap.” Poster, War Boards, United States Department of Agriculture, 1942.
Credit: Collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 515359).

“Shortages in domestically produced raw materials were not expected, for the mobilization plans were not based upon a war of such magnitude that it would exhaust current production of steel, copper, aluminum, brass, and other material resources of the United States. Early in 1942, however, it became clear that the mighty military effort then being developed would cause grave shortages in the above-named metals and in many other raw materials.”[1]

Rationing was one way that the government offset shortages in needed war materials. Another was a program encouraging companies and citizens to collect and contribute them. As a way of making the program relevant and that individuals could make an important contribution, promotions spelled out how much of each material went into a wartime product.[2] Celebrities including Mickey Mouse and Bing Crosby urged Americans to “Salvage for Victory” and “Get In The Scrap.”[3] These programs provided needed materials for the war effort, but also gave civilians meaningful ways to contribute. The main items collected were metal, rubber, paper, and kitchen fats. Other items, including milkweed floss and women’s stockings, were also collected for the war effort.

Because people donated items made of these materials, there are fewer of them left to represent the years leading up to the war. Material drives for aluminum, copper, and shellac, for example, claimed evidence of American pre-war music and radio history. Shellac is a resin that comes from the lac bug. From the late 1800s through the mid-1900s, it was used to make record albums.[4] As part of the war effort, records were collected and the shellac re-used to press new albums for distribution to the troops overseas. Hundreds of millions of records were donated. The aluminum and copper masters used to press albums were also donated, as were aluminum disks holding recordings of early radio broadcasts. With these masters gone, we don’t really know what pre-war culture we have lost. The Library of Congress maintains a list of recordings compiled from surviving catalogs that it is looking for. But it isn’t a complete list of what has been lost. It is only through chance finds of surviving recordings that let us hear these pieces of history.[5]

Color illustration of a white woman’s arm feeding cans as bullets into a machine gun. “Prepare Your Tin Cans for War”: remove ends and paper labels; wash thoroughly; flatten firmly. Color illustration of a white woman’s arm feeding cans as bullets into a machine gun. “Prepare Your Tin Cans for War”: remove ends and paper labels; wash thoroughly; flatten firmly.

Left image
“Save Your Cans: Help pass the Ammunition.” Poster, Salvage Division, War Production Board, c. 1944.
Credit: Collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 515347).

Right image
“Get In The Scrap.” Poster, Bureau of Industrial Conservation, War Production Board, 1942.
Credit: Collection of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum (MO 2005.13.35.280).

Black and white photo of a huge pile of scrap metal behind buildings in Evansville. The people in the photo look very small, indicating the size.
Scrap metal drive in Evansville, IN (an American World War II Heritage City), 1944. Photo by Thomas Mueller.

Collection of the David L. Rice Library, University of Southern Indiana (MSS 264-0998).


The war effort needed tons of metals—for tanks, ammunition, planes, warships, and for packaging rations. These included tin, copper, aluminum, steel, and iron. Rationing and the transition of civilian factories to wartime production limited what metal goods were available.[6] Things like refrigerators, cars, and even cutlery were just not available during the war. Other items, like processed foods, were rationed—not only because the food was scarce, but also because the cans themselves were.[7]

Scrap steel is a key component in turning iron ore into steel.[8] Before Pearl Harbor, the US had sold tons of it to Japan. To offset the resulting shortage, the government collected scrap from industry, agriculture, and civilian homes. In 1942, a peak of 24 million tons of metal was salvaged. Only slightly less was salvaged in each of the rest of the war years.[9]

Black and white photo of two white girls in an attic. They are collecting metal items like buckets, roller skates, and fans as well as rubber boots.
“School children get in the scrap. The children are going into the field as a junior army engaged in a major campaign for victory. This picture shows scrap being dug out of an attic by the ‘junior commandos’.” Photo by Howard Liberman, Office of War Information, October 1942.

Collection of the Library of Congress

Families donated pots and pans, metal toys, broken tools and equipment. Some (including actress Rita Hayworth) removed metal fenders from their cars. Towns and cities (including Dayton, Ohio) sent historic cannons and monuments for salvage. Others salvaged metal fountains and wrought iron fences from cemeteries. In Rapides Parish, Louisiana the local sawmill added their scrap metal to the local school’s metal drive.[10] Storekeepers collected empty tin toothpaste and shaving cream tubes from customers before selling them a new one.[11]

Across the country youth groups including the Girl Scouts of the USA organized regularly occurring can drives. They would collect the clean, crushed cans put out by householders and sell them for scrap as a fundraiser.[12] Even though processed foods were on the ration list, 90% of consumers still bought them. This meant that throughout the war, there was a regular supply of cans for salvage.[13]


Rubber was critical to the war effort. The military needed it for gas masks, boots, tires, seals, pontoon bridges, and life rafts -- among other things. When Japan conquered Malaya and the Dutch East Indies early in 1942, they cut the US off from its primary source of natural rubber.[14] Rubber was so important that the head of the Army and Navy Munitions Board said that unless they had a good replacement, the US would have no option but to "call the entire thing [World War II] off."[15]

Illustration showing how much rubber needed for each, with a picture of each item: 1.11 lb for a gas mask; 17 to 100 lbs for a life raft; 306 lbs for a scout car; 1,825 for a heavy bomber.
“America Needs Your Scrap Rubber.” Poster, Bureau of Industrial Conservation, War Production Board, 1942.

Collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 513799).

US companies knew how to make synthetic rubber, but there wasn't enough manufacturing capacity. And so, the government put conservation efforts in place. Most civilian rubber use was as car tires. As well as requiring people to sell back any tires in excess of five (the four on their car plus a spare), the government implemented gasoline rations and lowered the speed limit. These reduced wear on those tires still in use, lengthening the time until they needed to be retread or replaced.[16]

For the last two weeks of June 1942, the government held a nation-wide rubber drive. Civilians brought their used and surplus rubber items to collection stations (often located at gas stations or garages), where they received a penny a pound.[17] People brought in hot water bottles, rubber bands, rubber boots, garden hoses, and their rubber duckies.[18] Through this effort, the government collected about 450,000 tons of scrap rubber. And though it could not be used for military products, it was used to re-tread car tires and for other civilian uses. This, in turn, freed up other, better quality rubber for the war effort.[19]

As noted above, there were the beginnings of an American synthetic rubber industry at the start of World War II. But synthetic rubber was expensive compared to natural rubber. And so, even though B.F. Goodrich marketed synthetic rubber tires in 1940, there was not enough industrial capacity to supply the US and its military.[20]

To fix the supply problem, the government paid to build and open 51 synthetic rubber factories. And they contracted with the four big rubber companies (Jersey Standard, Firestone, B.F. Goodrich, and Goodyear) for 400,000 tons of synthetic rubber per year.[21] The result was that by 1944, there was enough synthetic rubber being produced to meet the demand.[22] Reclaimed rubber was no longer required for the war effort.

Black and white photo of the exterior of a service center. A white man looks up at rubber items hanging from ropes that have been strung up. They include a tire, rubber boots, a hot water bottle, and a hose.
“Salvage. A Des Moines garage and salvage center strings up a ‘come on’ display of rubber articles to stimulate contributions.” Photo by Ann Rosener, Office of War Information, September 1942.

Collection of the Library of Congress (


Just as typewriters were needed for all the paperwork involved in the war effort, so was paper. Paper for draft cards, record keeping, letters home, orders, and discharge papers. And for packing field rations, making ammunition and parachute flares, paper training targets, and for paper wallboard and insulation for barracks. Altogether, several hundred thousand military products used paper.[23]

Black and white newspaper photo of two white children with Paper Trooper chevrons on their sleeves, holding certificates.
“Teaming Up – Robert, 8, and Lois Higgins, 11 one of the first brother / sister combinations to sign up as Paper Troopers, admire their new War Production Board Certificates of Merit.” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, 1945. Pittsburgh is an American World War II Heritage City.

Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph (Pittsburgh, PA), January 14, 1945, p. 13.

Despite government limits on paper use by publishers in the US, there still wasn't enough paper for the war.[24] As well as the booming demand by the military, civilian product packaging was also using more paper to replace cans. And there was a shortage of wood pulp needed to make paper. Men who had worked as lumberjacks were moving into better-paying war production jobs. And there was less pulp wood available for import, since countries like Canada, who exported a lot of their product to the US, needed their own increased wartime supply.[25]

Promotions urged homemakers to save their waste paper and donate or sell it to a collector. In Manitowoc, Wisconsin, the town held a “waste paper ball” with music and dancing. The cost of a ticket was a bundle of scrap paper.[26] Across the country, youth groups and schools organized regular paper drives, arranging pickup from local residents.[27] These “Paper Troopers” could earn chevrons and ranks based on their successes.[28] In Manitowoc, the Boy Scouts collected almost 2 million pounds of scrap paper between 1942 and August of 1946.[29]

Not everyone involved was a patriot. In 1944, a junk dealer in Raleigh, North Carolina collected scrap paper intended for a Jaycees (Junior Chamber of Commerce) paper drive. The Jaycees had made arrangements with another dealer to collect the 25 tons of paper and pay them $14 per ton, which they then would use for charitable purposes. Court proceedings showed the value of the stolen paper as $350 (about $6,000 in 2023). The crooked junk dealer was ultimately charged with 3-5 years in prison. He fought his sentence all the way to the US Supreme Court (but lost).[30]

Color illustration of a metal garbage pail full of newspapers and packaging, with flames coming out the top. Color illustration of a metal garbage pail full of newspapers and packaging, with flames coming out the top.

Left image
“Don’t Burn Waste Paper: Our war effort needs it: Call A Collector!” Poster, Division of Information, Office for Emergency Management, ca. 1944.
Credit: Collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 514136).

Right image
“Save Waste Paper: Give Or Sell It! Call Your Salvage Committee Today!” Poster, Office of War Information, 1944.
Credit: Collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 515345).

Black, red, and white illustrations of a pan with bacon in it; fat being poured into a can; a can inside a refrigerator; and a woman giving a can to a butcher.
“Save Waste Fats. Save waste fats and greases. Strain into clean can. Keep in cool dark place. Sell it to your meat dealer.” Poster, Bureau of Industrial Conservation, War Production Board, 1942.

Collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 515344).

Kitchen Fats

The fat salvage program began in 1942 in Chicago, organized by a group of soap manufacturers. Its success (and complaints that lard – an edible fat – was being released by the government for soap manufacture) prompted a nation-wide collaboration between government and private industry.[31] Soap making uses purified fats like those contributed to the war effort. A byproduct of the process is glycerine, used to make the explosive nitroglycerine.[32]

Homemakers (especially in the South) were already saving fats – almost 75% saved bacon and other grease to cook with.[33] The challenge was to divert the fats for wartime use. The public campaign emphasized the war impact of salvaging them. One ad proclaimed that only 1 tablespoon of waste fats per day would load 1,542 machine gun bullets per year. Another described one pound of fat enough to “fire four 37-mm anti-aircraft shells & bring down a Nazi plane” and “enough dynamite to blow up a bridge and stop an invader.”[34]

Kitchen fats included those left over from cooking: bacon grease, pan juices, rendered down meat trimmings, fats skimmed from stews, gravies, and boiled sausage, etc. Once strained into a container, fats needed to be kept cool place so they wouldn’t turn rancid. Pressured by soap manufacturers, the War Production Board and the Office of Price Administration agreed to pay consumers for their fats. For each pound of kitchen fats turned in at their butcher, consumers received 4 cents and 2 red ration points. These red points, used for rationed meats, were in addition to those issued by the ration boards to each person.[35] As their part of the agreement, the soap and glycerine industries formed the American Fat Salvage Committee, and contributed money to advertise the program.[36]

Black and white image of a white-appearing man moving a large pile of cans with a wheelbarrow and shovel.
“Huge quantities of tin cans are reclaimed at a fat rendering plant for forwarding to a detinning plant.” Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, Office of War Information, February 1943.

Collection of the Library of Congress (

From August 1942 through September 1946, the war effort collected more than 711 million pounds of kitchen fats. Almost 75% (528,759,000 pounds) came from civilian kitchens. Girl Scouts in Billings, Montana collected more than 23 of those tons in just 2 months. Military kitchens were the source of the rest.[37]

Altogether, salvaged fats met about 12 percent of total needed for soap production during the war. While there was a shortage of wartime soap, studies showed it was due to increased demand rather than limited production. Some thought that soap rationing would have been in the public interest; the soap dealers clearly felt differently.[38]

Milkweed and Stockings

Milkweed Floss

When Japan occupied what is now Indonesia during World War II, they cut the US off from the kapok tree. Fibers from the kapok were what made life preservers float.[39] With military action in both oceans and beyond, the military needed life vests. Based on scientific studies, the government landed on milkweed floss as a suitable alternative. Just a single pound of milkweed floss could keep a 150-pound person afloat for more than 40 hours. The challenge? Before the war, milkweed was a weed that people worked to get rid of. To grow a crop of it mature enough for military use would take 3 years.[40]

A color photo closeup of a brown and dried milkweed pod that has split open. A cloud of white floss and brown seeds spill out.
A milkweed pod bursts open revealing its seeds and floss. Photo by PookieFugglestein, 2013.

Photo by PookieFugglestein (Wikimedia).

The government needed 1.5 million pounds of floss in 1944. Each pound of floss needed an average of 825 milkweed pods.[41] To secure the needed milkweed, the government reached out youth groups like 4-H. Armed with 50-pound mesh onion bags, armies of children picked milkweed along the sides of roads, in meadows, and other wild places. Two bags, each of which held 600 to 800 pods, produced enough floss to make a life vest. The government paid from 15 to 20 cents per bag.[42]

After picking, the bags of pods were shipped to Petoskey, Michigan where the Milkweed Floss Corporation of America would process them to extract dried floss. The floss was then shipped to life vest manufacturers.[43] By the end of the war, over 2.5 million pounds of milkweed had been gathered, largely by children.[44]

Black and white newspaper photo of two white men and a stack of 50-lb onion bags full of milkweed pods. Black and white newspaper photo of two white men and a stack of 50-lb onion bags full of milkweed pods.

Left image
“Oliver Lee (left) and C.J. Murphy help load milkweed pods collected in the county into a freight car for shipment.” Indianapolis Star 1944.
Credit: Indianapolis Star, November 22, 1944, p. 24.

Right image
“4 dozen pairs of all-silk stockings contain enough silk to make ONE POWDER BAG for a sixteen-inch gun.” Layout for a print ad, Office of War Information, Graphics Division, c. 1942.
Credit: Collections of the National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 7387564).

Women's Stockings

Women’s stockings – both nylon and silk – were collected for the war effort. Silk had been imported to the US largely from Japan. When Japan restricted and then eliminated all sales to the US before Pearl Harbor, the US was left with a shortage.[45] After developing ways to recycle silk and nylon stockings, the War Production Board began accepting donations. Between November 1942 and March 1943, 880,000 pounds of stockings (about one pair for every 2.7 women in the country) were collected. Among those collecting were the Girl Scouts of America (now the Girl Scouts of the USA).[46]

Silk was used for the gunpowder bags for large caliber guns. It was completely burned away when the gun was fired. All other available materials left a residue that needed to be cleaned between shots. Nylon from nylon stockings was re-spun into products like parachutes, ropes, and other materials.[47] While parachutes had been made from silk, just as the war was beginning, the US was developing a way to make them using nylon. This process turned out to make a superior product, and so recycling nylon stockings went into effect. A parachute contained nylon equivalent to 2,300 nylon stockings.[48]

Silkscreened poster in black, white, yellow, and green showing an explosion next to a ship.
“Visibility Zero Unless You Lend Your Binoculars to the Navy.” Poster, Work Projects Administration, NY, ca. 1942. Before the WPA program ended, some of the artists were printing posters supporting the US buildup for war.

Collections of the Library of Congress (

The Military Asks for Loaners

Most of the military asks were for donations to be used for the war effort. But in rare cases, they also asked the public for loans. One ask was binoculars. One was for the family dog.

Hey, friend… can you spare a pair? Before Pearl Harbor, only a few thousand pairs of binoculars were made in the United States every year. But once America was in the war, the military needed hundreds of thousands of pairs. To fill the gap while factories like Westinghouse in Mansfield, Ohio retooled to make them, the US Navy used a technique that was successful in World War I.[49] In 1942, they asked Americans to lend them binoculars.

To be suitable, the binoculars had to be either 6x30 (to see ships and large objects during ordinary navigation) or 7x50 (to see aircraft and ships at extremely far distances). And, because of the difficulty in getting spare parts, they would accept loan of only Zeiss or Bausch and Lomb binoculars. Americans were asked to tag their binoculars with their name and address, and send them to the Naval Observatory in Washington, DC. The Navy then paid $1 for each pair they kept for use, with the promise to return them if they were still in use after the war.[50]

In Mansfield, Ohio a Westinghouse factory transitioned from an idled refrigerator plant to shipping 100,000 pairs of binoculars to the US Navy within a few months (after the initial order, they supplied the US Army). A new air filtration system was installed, women were told they couldn’t wear makeup to work (which many saw as a relief), and mass-production processes were put in place. Women working in the plant brought their knowledge to the production floor. They introduced using diapers (lint free and absorbent) to clean and polish lenses, and sewing machine bobbin technology to the waterproofing process. Employees were also given Vitamin A supplements to support their vision – needed for the precision work. Once military production of binoculars was underway, several hundred thousand pairs a year were made, and the Navy no longer needed to borrow them from the public.[51]

An envelope that has been mailed to Ohio. On the left is a black and white line drawing of a solder with a bulldog on a leash. To the right are the recipient’s address and two cancelled stamps. An envelope that has been mailed to Ohio. On the left is a black and white line drawing of a solder with a bulldog on a leash. To the right are the recipient’s address and two cancelled stamps.

Left image
“Enlist Your Dog for Defense!” World War II patriotic postal cover promoting the War Dog program. Lithograph by Matthew J. Huss (Diana), Evanston, Illinois, 1943.
Credit: Collection of the National Postal Museum (2002.2035.205).

Right image
“Shep will show ‘em…” Detail from magazine advertisement for Sparton Precision Electrical outlining the price of freedom, ca. 1943.  Ft. Hancock was designated a National Historic Landmark on Dec. 17, 1982. It is part of Gateway National Recreation Area.
Credit: Collection of the National Museum of American History (2017.3036.01).

Fido Goes to War

Before World War II, the US military was not convinced that dogs would be useful in war. Dogs were serving with other militaries, including the Germans, France, and Russia. After the Japanese attacked the US home front, civilians including those from the dog show world established the Dogs for Defense program.[52] They showed the benefits of dogs in wartime, and became the official dog recruiting organization for the US military. Owners volunteered over 40,000 pet dogs for wartime service.[53]

After meeting basic requirements and passing a preliminary physical, 18,000 of the volunteered pet dogs were sent to one of several Army training centers.[54] These were located in Nebraska, Virginia, Montana, Mississippi, and Maryland.[55] After the War, dogs were returned to their owners if possible. The rest were adopted out, with priority given to servicemen and families whose pets had been killed in action. Only a very small number of dogs could not be retrained for civilian life.[56]

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. It was funded by the National Council on Public History's cooperative agreement with the National Park Service.

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Last updated: May 16, 2024