College Girls Become Farmers During World War I

Volunteers for Food: Vassar Girls Prove Themselves at Agriculture. Delineator, October 1918

Volunteers for Food: Vassar Girls Prove Themselves Adepts at Agriculture. Delineator, October 1918

This full page photo essay shows one way that young women contributed to the war effort in America. With young men going off to war, young women stepped in to tackle some previously male jobs. (AmericanAgeFashion has also written about “Farmerettes.”)

Lower half of the page. Vassar Girls Doing Farm Work, 1918

Lower half of the page. Vassar Girls Doing Farm Work, 1918

Here are some of the photographs at an easier-to-see size:1918 oct college girls vassar crosscut saw

1918 oct college girls vassar haying1918 oct college girls vassar milk platoonThe captions may seem patronizing, even though the Delineator was a woman’s magazine. However, I think they are intended to be light-hearted and morale-boosting. These patriotic college women are cheerfully sawing logs and harvesting crops as their contribution to the war effort. They are not wearing uniforms, as the following pictures show; these dark wool middy tops and bloomers are their normal gym suits or hiking clothes.

A gym suit (left) and a hiking outfit (right), 1925. These sport outfits remained constant for schoolgirls and teens for many years.

A gym suit (left) and a hiking outfit (right), 1925. These athletic outfits remained constant for schoolgirls and young women for many years.

1918 oct college girls planting timeThese gardeners show a variety of clothing. The standing woman in a skirt and jacket is presumably a teacher.1918 oct college girls higher mathDo you suppose the black arm band means the girl on the right is in mourning? The girl on the left (like the one below) is wearing a gardening smock.

College girl wearing a garden smock, 1918.

College girl wearing a garden smock, 1918.

It looks like a more substantial — and practical — version of the one illustrated here:

Garden smock, Delineator, July 1917.

Garden smock, Delineator, July 1917.

I used this illustration in my post about fabric shortages during World War I; the editorial that accompanied this drawing in 1917 emphasized how different America’s experience was from that of our European allies.

Some Grim Statistics

Girls and women in England did hard labor on farms and in factories for years.  For them, the war began in August of 1914. In the United States, President Woodrow Wilson was elected to a second term in 1916 on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” The U.S. did not officially enter the war until April of 1917.  By the end of the war, on November 11, 1918, nine million soldiers and an estimated five million civilians were dead.  116, 516 American soldiers died, out of more than four million American mobilized forces. But the United Kingdom lost between 702,917 and 888,246 men in the prime of life, and another two million were injured. France, Russia, and Romania suffered military casualties of more than 70%.  When the war ended, many women realized that they would never marry, and would have to be self-supporting for the rest of their lives. One such family of women founded the Avoca Handweavers in County Wicklow, Ireland. You can read about them in a lovely post by The Vintage Traveler.

The Study of Fashion Can’t be Separated from the Study of More Important Things

This is just one example of the way the thread of fashion runs through the fabric of history — and a pastime that seems trivial connects us with larger issues. I began by thinking about gym suits and garden smocks, and wound up learning more about the First World War. How appropriate that Memorial Day is being observed this weekend — a time for reflection on all the costs of war.


Filed under 1900s to 1920s, Sportswear, Uniforms and Work Clothes, vintage photographs, Women in Trousers, World War I

9 responses to “College Girls Become Farmers During World War I

  1. There is a theory that World War I and II are actually the same war, and the reason the two parts are divided by 20 years is that is the amount of time it took a generation to get to fighting age. It’s a grim thought.

    On a brighter note, I loved seeing the gymwear in action!

  2. You’ve convinced me that the Delineator was one amazing magazine!

    • I’ve been reading them out of order. When I first saw a Delineator — picked at random — from late 1918, the jingoism was actually shocking to me. So now I’m working straight through from Jan. 1917 to Dec. 1918. There were some very serious topics covered, including a long series on the high mortality rate of babies & young children born in America (“every 7th baby”). (A topic, sadly, in the news again. As is the relatively high mortality rate of new mothers in the U.S.) The Ladies’ Home Journal also tackled women’s health issues. Hoorah for libraries that kept their bound periodicals!

  3. Your posts are so fascinating. I love reading and learning. Thanks so much!

  4. Oh how interesting that the ladies wore middy blouses while doing farm/gardening work! This is a very wonderfully informative blog!! This is going to be fun!

  5. Pingback: Women’s Work Overalls, circa 1917 | witness2fashion

  6. Pingback: “Service Suits” for Girls, Boys, and Women in 1917 | witness2fashion

  7. Pingback: Three Gymnastic Costumes, 1912 | witness2fashion

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