War Bonds, Scrap Drives & Housing Shortages: St. Paul's as World War II Home-front

A Special Role: St. Paul's Church and World War II

The Great paradox: Wartime Prosperity & Shortages

Immediately after World War II, this building, which had functioned as the parish hall since 1925, was transformed into living quarters, a development that sheds light on perhaps the most significant domestic development of the war. The residents were the minister’s trusted young secretary Adeline Holley and her new husband Tom Vitkowski, who served with the Army in the European theater of operations. The newlyweds lived in the refashioned carriage house beginning in early 1946.

How and why did that happen?

Along with the rest of the country, the Mt. Vernon area experienced an unprecedented surge in employment and income due to government spending and private sector mobilization in support of the war effort. There were several war-related manufacturers in southern Westchester County. These included a General Electric Plant that opened blocks from St. Paul’s in mid-1944 and employed 300 workers.

On a national scale, employment at these defense industries and a myriad of related trades and services created virtually full employment, lifting the nation out of the Great Depression. The needs of the war economy created 17 million new jobs across the country, and opened the labor market to significant participation by women, with 6.3 million women gaining employment. A majority of these women were married, which was an unprecedented development in American history. The iconic image of Rosie the Riveter has immortalized this component of the social history of the nation during World War II, even though wages for women lagged behind pay for men performing similar work.

The record levels of employment generated unprecedented prosperity. Per capita income rose from $373 in 1940 to $1,074 in 1945, and total personal income went from $81 billion to $182 billion in the same period. This led to one of great paradoxes of the war years: Americans had more money than they could spend, especially in light of the decreased availability of consumer items, along with rationing of basic commodities and the national imperative of diverting resources toward the war effort. In 1942, for instance, the difference between disposable income and available goods approached $17 billion.

The war also created the highest levels of internal migration in American history. Over four million workers -- with their families, some nine million people -- left their homes for employment in war plants. The increase in the movement of African American families from the rural South to the urban North, especially Detroit, left an indelible change on the demographics of the country. These patterns of migration also caused a considerable level of wartime inter-racial strife and violence, particularly attacks by white workers and residents on black families.

In a policy designed to direct building materials toward the needs of the military, the War Production Board in April 1942 banned all nondefense construction and put stringent limitations on the alteration or improvement of existing residential buildings. These policies, along with the large numbers of people on the move, generated a national housing shortage, both during and immediately after the war. By the spring of 1945, all American cities reported a lack of available single family homes and apartments.

The diversion of resources toward the war effort also led to critical shortages of the staples of residential living -- sinks, furniture, bedframes, electrical appliances, and plumbing fixtures. In 1945-46, returning veterans struggled to locate housing all across the country. In light of these circumstances, perhaps it is not surprising that the church made the parish hall available as living quarters to a returning decorated soldier and his new wife, a devoted congregant.

Financing the War: The St. Paul’s Bell and the Bond Drives

Somebody passing St. Paul’s Church in late April 1941 would have observed a curious procedure which was ultimately connected to the drive to give Americans a role in the struggles of World War II through the purchase of War Bonds. Two muscular workmen were using a pulley rope and counter weight to slowly and carefully lower the 1758 bronze church bell -- constructed at the same London foundry as the famed Liberty Bell -- out of a window on the north side of the church tower, and then into a truck for transportation to Manhattan.

The immediate cause of the removal of the church’s prized possession was the utilization of the bell to help raise funds for the restoration project. But the small bronze bell was soon leased to the Treasury Department for the duration of the war for use in the campaign to encourage purchase of War Bonds. The bell traveled the country from 1942-1945, and was placed on the stage at bond drives. It was identified as a tangible link to America’s founding generation, and the property of a church associated with the origins of the Bill of Rights

Under the authority of the Treasury Department, the massive drive to sell War Bonds emerged as both a method to raise revenue and to enhance the connection of citizens to the war effort. The Defense Bond campaign began in the fall of 1940, more than a year before the United States officially entered the war, in response to rapid German victories in Western Europe. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau conceived of the Bond campaign as a strategy to educate Americans about the vital issues, particularly the future of democratic governments, at stake in the European war.

The sales effort increased after Pearl Harbor, and the notes were renamed War Bonds but the emphasis remained on facilitating a way to contribute, responding to the “what can I do to help” query. The idealistic notion of using the bonds as a vehicle to educate people about the importance of democracy and worldwide values of freedom and self-determination was eclipsed over the duration of the war. Most people purchased bonds to help family members serving in the armed forces, to invest their money wisely, to combat inflation, or to save for postwar purchases. An illustrative bond drive notice in a June 1944 issue of the Daily Argus listed 7,300 city residents serving in the war and urged readers to “Buy Your Bonds in Mount Vernon for Those Mount Vernon Boys”.

The lack of available consumer goods and the surge in employment and wages also led to bond purchases as one of the obvious outlets for Americans’ money. The bonds sold at 75 percent of their face value in denominations of $25 up to $10,000. They matured after ten years, yielding a minimal 2.9-percent in interest on principal. The War Finance Committee was placed in charge of supervising the sale of all bonds, and the War Advertising Council promoted voluntary compliance with bond buying. Popular contemporary art was used to help promote the bonds such as the Warner Brothers theatrical cartoon, "Buy Any Bonds Today?" Locally, the Mt. Vernon Daily Argus carried daily reminders and promotions about the importance of purchasing bonds.

More than a quarter of a billion dollars' worth of advertising was donated during the first three years of the National Defense Savings Program. The government appealed to the public through popular culture. Norman Rockwell's painting series, the 'Four Freedoms' toured in a war bond effort that raised $132 million. Bond rallies were held throughout the country with famous celebrities, usually Hollywood film stars, to enhance the bond advertising effectiveness. Irene Dunne appeared at a very successful rally at Mt. Vernon City Hall in 1942. Boy Scouts, women’s groups, veterans’ organization, and ethnic civic associations canvassed the city in 1944, often door to door, to secure pledges and purchases of bonds.

Many motion pictures during the time, especially war dramas, included a graphic shown during the closing credits advising patrons to 'Buy War Bonds and Stamps,' which were sometimes sold in the lobby of the theater. The Music Publishers Protective Association encouraged its members to include patriotic messages on the front of their sheet music like "Buy U.S. Bonds and Stamps."

Over the course of the war 85 million Americans purchased bonds totaling approximately $185 billion, about half of the total cost of the war. A portion of those sales came through rallies where the St. Paul’s colonial bell “played a prominent part,” as a War Finance Committee official acknowledged in a letter to the church following a 1944 ceremony.

Salvage was the word: Citizen Participation

During the war years, observers of the historic St. Paul’s cemetery would have noticed a significant change: much of the burial plot iron work enclosures were removed. Detached from stone corner posts, the long iron rods were donated as part of a series of drives for valuable war materials held in Mt. Vernon, part of a nationwide series of salvage campaigns.

These efforts represented one of the most recognizable channels for public participation in the war effort, helping millions of people to sense they were contributing to the struggle. The scrap drives of 1942 overlapped with American military reversals which created a considerable level of national fear about invasion and defeat. People were anxious to do something, almost anything to help, in addition to sending their sons and daughters into the armed forces. Goals, quotas, and tabulations of donated scrap created rivalries among communities, including in Westchester County, and fostered community pride in places like Mt. Vernon. The city of about 65,000, roughly one tenth of Westchester’s population, boasted in December 1942 of collecting one-fifth of all metal gathered for the year, “the best mark in the county,” proclaimed the Daily Argus.

The campaigns revealed an interesting mixture of success and failure on a materialistic level. Rubber collection was an example of a drive that did not meet expectations of contributing to the war effort. The country faced a significant shortage of rubber in 1942, generated largely by Japanese conquests in East Asia which shut off access to natural supplies of the material. In June, President Roosevelt launched the great national rubber drive, urging Americans to turn in “old tires, old rubber raincoats, old garden hose, rubber shoes, bathing caps, gloves,” usually at local gas stations. The response was tremendous, yielding an estimated 450,000 tons of scrap rubber. Newsreel footage captured youngsters rolling old bicycle and automobile tires into gigantic piles at collection centers. In Mt. Vernon, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts participated in a well- publicized, successful drive for rubber scrap launched in July from City Hall. Station wagons and trucks reached all sections of the city, announcing their presence with buglers before the youngsters rang door bells and knocked on doors seeking rubber donations.

But the problem was the lack of an efficient, cost effective means of re-cycling used rubber into the kind of material that could be utilized for modern production. A sizable percentage of the scrap rubber collected in 1942 was never used for military purposes. The real solution was the development of synthetic rubber and insuring that rubber produced by American factories was used exclusively for military purposes. Gas rationing, for instance, was designed primarily to reduce automobile use and curtail the need for new tires.

Metal scrap drives were more successful, including the efforts that left a mark on the physical landscape of the St. Paul’s burial yard. Iron and steel could readily be melted down for use in the production of ammunition. Beginning in 1942, housewives donated pots and pans; children contributed their metal toys, farmers gave over their tractors; people removed bumpers and fenders from their cars; communities melted down metal Civil War canons. One campaign accumulated five million tons of steel in just three weeks, and scrap-metal drives continued for most of the war. These drives supplemented increased steel-making production, construction of new factories to produce the metal and improved designs for weapons. .

Other elements of citizen participation might seem trivial -- and contemporary critics cited these efforts as insignificant morale boosters -- but they undoubtedly contributed to the overall success of the American war effort. In 1943, for instance, Victory Gardens produced 40 percent of the country’s fresh vegetables. In Mt. Vernon, the demand for plots led the city to double the number of available gardens in 1943 compared with the previous year. Salvaged kitchen fat was used to produce glycerin, an ingredient in drugs and explosives. The Civil Air Patrol, which included a Mt. Vernon chapter, was organized in 1941 to monitor the coasts and assist in search and rescue operations, and played a vital role. In the 18 months before the Navy took over patrol duty, the CAP spotted 173 U-boats, located 363 survivors of sunken ships and downed aircraft, and reported 91 ships in distress.

Last updated: April 9, 2019