The American Home Front During World War II: The Economy

Black and white photo. Stewart, in full uniform, sits on a shop counter and talks on the phone. His father is in the background, helping a customer. The shelves are full of goods.
Actor and Colonel Jimmy Stewart visits his father’s hardware store in Indiana, Pennsylvania while on furlough. Life Magazine, September 24, 1945.

Life Magazine, September 24, 1945, p. 127.

Around the world in World War II, economies of the countries at war shrank and consumer consumption fell. [1] The US economy was an exception, described as “a glittering consumer’s paradise,” fueled by a massive increase in employment. [2] American consumers, with money in their pockets for the first time since the Depression, went shopping, out to dinner, and to the movies. Even in the face of rationing and material shortages, they bought new clothes, new homes, and record amounts of books, jewelry, and liquor. [3]

Popular Culture

Perhaps not surprisingly, the war dramatically shaped popular culture. Posters about supporting the war effort were everywhere. Broadcasters transmitted real-time war news directly into homes with radios. Images of the war were everywhere in newspapers, magazines, and even in newsreels that played before films in the theaters. Books, movies, radio shows, and music all carried pro-war and pro-American messages. [4]
White plastic pin. In the center is a shield with red, white, and blue stars and stripes. Eagle wings stretch out from the sides, framed by a laurel wreath. The banners with the text are blue.
A “sweetheart” pin made of plastic indicating that the wearer’s husband is in the service. Photo by Megan E. Springate.

Collection of the author.

In Hollywood, the studios were all-in. They made movies that incorporated patriotic war stories, boosted morale, increased recruitment, and encouraged home front support. Superman, Batman, Daffy Duck and others also got into the act both in print and on the big screen. [5] Outside the studios, leading entertainers encouraged people to sign up and to buy war bonds. Several – most notably Bob Hope -- traveled to entertain the troops at home and abroad, often broadcasting the shows over the airwaves. Several famous actors and other celebrities served in uniform, including Bea Arthur, Clark Gable, Betty White, Jackie Robinson, and Jimmy Stewart. Many actresses posed for pinup photos to remind servicemen “what they were fighting for.” [6]

There was social pressure during the war for people to show their patriotism. Some displayed service flags and Victory Home decals and wore sweetheart jewelry. Others drank the Cuba Libra cocktail, popular after the Andrews Sisters entertained troops with the “Rum and Coca-Cola” song. [7] Sweetheart jewelry – a revival from World War I – was mostly made of plastic to conserve metals. Bracelets, brooches, pins, lockets, rings, and necklaces displayed military emblems, American eagles, and service stars. Wearing sweetheart jewelry demonstrated patriotism, and served as a reminder of loved ones in service. It was also a source of fashion and accessorizing that was acceptable during wartime restrictions. In some cases, women used sweetheart jewelry to show that they were “taken” – that their husband, boyfriend, or fiancé was serving in the military. [8] Businesses also demonstrated their patriotism to the public in advertisements, but also to their employees through bond drives, display of service flags, and displaying posters. [9]
Illustrative color poster. A large creature that looks like a grasshopper clutches a fistful of dollars and a lunch box as it steps away from a bustling factory.
“Don’t be a Job Hopper. Our soldiers are sticking to their guns; STICK TO YOUR JOB!” Poster by Walt Disney, War Manpower Commission, for the Office of War Information, 1944.

Collection Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum (MO 2005.


Even with restrictions on driving personal vehicles and civilian public transit, Americans during World War II were “frantically mobile.” The movement of people before December 1941 was nothing compared to what happened after Pearl Harbor. Men between ages 18 and 64 were required to register, and military service was extended to the duration of the conflict plus six months. [10] In 1942 alone, the military more than doubled, from 1.8 million to 3.9 million, pulling the remaining unemployed workers of military age into service. The government awarded over $100 billion (about $1.9 trillion in 2023 dollars) in military contracts in the first six months. To entice workers to their factories, businesses raised wages. Many farmers left their fields to work in industry, and laborers hopped from job to job chasing higher paychecks. To put a stop to this, the federal government formed the War Manpower Commission, which took over control of allocating civilian workers. [11] To help stabilize the labor market and support military production, union leaders agreed not to strike during the war. Despite their promise, there were a handful of strikes. Many of these were by white workers protesting Black war workers moving into high paying jobs. [12]

Agricultural Workers

With millions of Americans serving overseas and millions more working in war industries, there was a shortage of agricultural labor. Further complicating the problem was an increased demand for food to feed citizens at home, the US military, and to provide food to Allied forces. In 1942, some crops died in the fields for lack of labor. To help address the shortage, the government created the United States Crop Corps and launched the Bracero program. They also leased out as many as 265,000 Prisoners of War and granted furloughs to about 26,000 Americans of Japanese descent incarcerated at War Relocation Centers to work on nearby farms. Approximately 6,200 conscientious objectors went to work in agricultural fields, and thousands of active service members were furloughed to work their family farms. [13]

United States Crop Corps

Members of the Crop Corps worked the fields, managed livestock, and harvested and preserved crops. Two specific programs were targeted at youth and women. The Victory Farm Volunteers was for youth ages 11 to 17. A total of 2.5 million urban youth worked on farms during the war, with about 20% of them living with the farmers or in a nearby camp. [14] The Women’s Land Army began recruiting members even before Pearl Harbor -- at the insistence of Eleanor Roosevelt. About 1.5 million women joined the Women’s Land Army in World War II. Most members had no agricultural training, but learned on the job. Men who were past the draft age also took part. [15]

There were problems with the program. Not all farmers were keen to have inexperienced people working on their farms. In the Midwest, there was also a feeling that city women were immoral. As the war progressed, and farmers had increasing experience with the Crop Corps, their skepticism waned. Many camps were substandard, and lacked basics like laundry facilities or enough toilets. Participants also had to pay their room and board – which sometimes exceeded their pay. And there were racial tensions, including southern states choosing to exclude women of color from the program. [16]

Color photo of a short-handled hoe. It has a wooden handle and a rusted iron blade.
Braceros used short-handled hoes like this in the fields. Outlawed in 1975, these caused injuries by requiring workers to bend so close to the ground. This short-handled hoe, made in 1936, belonged to Cesar Chavez’ father.

Collection of the National Museum of American History (1998.0197.01).

The Bracero Program

Mexicans were among the almost 230,000 temporary foreign agricultural workers brought to the US during the war. [17] The Bracero program began in September of 1942, and by 1944 over 62,000 had come to the US under the program. The agreement guaranteed wages, health care, adequate housing, and food (board). [18] Braceros worked in 38 states across the country, and required to return to Mexico once they finished their 6 or 12 month contracts. Thousands more – likely exceeding the number that came legally -- came through unauthorized channels. Both farmers and Mexican workers realized they could keep more money by working outside the legal system. [19]

While many farmers appreciated the work they did, many Braceros suffered discrimination, poor health care, substandard housing, violence, and wage theft.[20] Despite their treatment and the backbreaking work, many Braceros kept working. They were hoping to make more in the US than they could in Mexico, and many sent money home to support their families. Angered and frustrated by the abuses they faced, some Braceros organized. They protested, rallied public support, and called for the end of the program. Their eventual success was integral to the farmworker movement associated with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. When the Bracero program was finally abolished in 1964, almost 4.5 million Mexicans had taken part.[21]
Illustrated color full-page ad featuring a white couple, he in uniform, looking off to the left towards the image of a single family home. In front of them is a depiction of a hope chest.
“Hope Dawns Anew in Lovers’ Hearts at Easter.” World War II-era advertisement for Lane cedar hope chests. Life Magazine.

Life Magazine.

Women in the Workforce

Among war workers were six million women – largely older and married – new to the labor market. Supporting the war effort, they also earned money to offset wages lost when their male family members went to war. Women worked as welders, police officers, munitions makers, and clerks. [22] Many already in the workforce quit their jobs and moved into defense work. Among these were over 400,000 African American domestic servants. [23] Across the board, employers paid women less than they did men in the same jobs. And, despite the popularity of Rosie the Riveter, it was “understood” that these women would be out of work when the servicemen returned. [24]

This “understanding” came with expectations that women would go back to being more traditionally feminine. This meant wearing dresses, staying at home and keeping house. These expectations are evident in advertising what the US was fighting for (i.e. in ads for War Bonds) and in ads placed by manufacturers who had converted their production for the war effort. In publication after publication, companies kept themselves in front of consumers, promising they would be back after the war to help the public create the ideal life they had fought for. These images almost exclusively portray a white, middle class, nuclear family future, despite the significant role that intergenerational families, working class people, and people of color played in winning the war. They were also adamantly heterosexual, even though LGBTQ+ people were able to find each other and form community due to the patterns of population movement and single-gender spaces. [25]


By the end of the war, one in every 5 Americans had moved. [26] The largest loss of population was in the South. Almost 1.5 million Black residents relocated to states in the North and West in the Second Great Migration. [27] In many places, despite the laws enacted during the war, African Americans found themselves discriminated against in the workplace and in housing. [28] Violating its own policies of nondiscrimination, the federal government housed some African American workers in segregated neighborhoods. In Oak Ridge, Tennessee, African Americans working for the Manhattan Project lived in small, substandard housing units called hutments. [29]
Illustrative color poster. An off-white poster featuring a black and white illustration at the center of a man, woman, and child sitting on a bench with several suitcases resting in front of it. Text is in red, blue, and white.
“Share Your Home with a War Worker’s Family. The extra income will buy War Bonds. Phone War Housing Center.” Poster, US Government Printing Office 1943.

Collection Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum (MO 2005.13.34.297).

As hundreds of thousands of workers, servicemen, and their families streamed into industrial and training centers there was a housing crisis. There were simply not enough places for them to live.[30] The government encouraged people to take in boarders and to subdivide their homes into apartments.[31] People lived in crowded conditions, sometimes with people sharing a bed and sleeping in shifts (called “hot beds”). One Nebraskan recalls living in a home with eight other people that had two more living in the chicken coop out back. In Oklahoma, two families totaling 15 people shared a single room.[32]

Those with children and those who were not white often found themselves unable to find housing. And when they did, it was often terrible.[33] With high demand and low supply, landlords raised rents, some doubling almost overnight. The government quickly put rent controls in place in these areas, and eventually began building war worker housing.[34] In the case of the Manhattan Project Sites, the government displaced entire communities to build secret cities to house workers. Government-built housing developments were largely designed to be temporary, and were built to match, with “paper thin walls and shoddy build quality.”[35]

Across the country, Americans found themselves living in new circumstances. As well as those moving to industrial centers to work, more than 16 million service members traveled to training and embarkation areas often far from home. [36] Some people bristled at living and working around people they would not have before the war. In some places, the influx of workers was seen as “a menace from the outside” or an “invasion.”[37] Tensions routinely fell along racial lines, and race riots, protests, and lynchings took place across the country. These included the Zoot Suit Riot of 1943 in Los Angeles and other violence in Alabama, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington, DC – to name a few.[38] Whites violently protested African Americans moving into war housing – even when that housing was built specifically for Black war workers. At the Sojourner Truth Housing Project in Detroit, military and police moved in. At a shipyard in Mobile, Alabama, white workers rioted when the company promoted 12 Black workers. In Pennsylvania, the Army took control of the Philadelphia Transit Company after white workers went on strike protesting the promotion of eight Black porters to drivers. Race riots in Detroit left 35 people (the majority Black) dead, over 700 wounded, and 1,300 arrested.[39]

The upheaval brought by the war also affected the makeup of individual households. Parents and grandparents took in mothers, mothers-in-law, and children whose husbands and fathers had gone to war. While the women worked, the grandparents (usually the grandmother) took care of the children.[40] It was common to have multiple families living in a single multi-generational household.[41] Where this was not possible, federal and local centers opened to take care of children who would otherwise be left on their own. School lunch programs also expanded, ensuring that children were receiving adequate nutrition.[42]
Black and white photo of a white family – man in a suit, woman in a dress and apron, and young boy. The man is smiling and showing the woman a fist full of dollars. She looks at him exasperated and points to groceries on the counter.
“What good is a $10 raise… if it then costs you $12 more to live?” Detail, advertisement by the War Advertising Council, Life Magazine, April 3, 1944.

Life Magazine, April 3, 1944, p. 130.

Battling Inflation

Americans during World War II had money, and they wanted to spend it. And yet, there was a general shortage of goods and materials, and – in areas with wartime employment – a lack of enough housing. The mismatch between supply and demand brought with it the real risk of runaway inflation. With the excesses of the Roaring 20s and resulting Great Depression still fresh in their minds, the government took strong measures to control the economy. One method was by limiting access to goods in short supply accompanied by price controls. These ensured that most Americans could access and afford these goods. Teams of investigators policed the rationing system, exposing and charging those who chose to operate outside it.

The government also limited how much money was in circulation. If people had less ready cash, they were less able to drive up prices. The Victory Bonds program and an expansion of income taxes were the primary methods the government used to decrease the amount of money in circulation. Branded as ways to fund the war and bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars, the primary function of these programs was to control the economy. The government’s efforts were largely successful, and inflation was kept to a manageable 4% during the war years.[43]

Even with hundreds of thousands of service members returning and the closure of defense factories, the American economy continued to prosper – fueled, in part, by pent up demand for goods.

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