Sunday, March 01, 2009

Evolution of The Victory Garden

I've been hearing the term "Victory Garden" thrown about more and more these days. I had to wonder, how many people really know what a Victory Garden is. Or, should I say was? I grew up hearing the term, having parents who grew up during the depression and who lived through WWII. Their families had Victory Gardens, and they often spoke to me about those gardens, which went beyond vegetables to include chickens, and usually a milk cow. I've seen my Mother shudder at the sight of a butter churner in antique stores. Yes, she had to churn her own butter, but that's another story all together.

My curiosity got the better of me and I decided to blow off chores and do some research on Victory Gardens. I discovered a rich history in American gardening and I'll share what I discovered in my own little series here. So story number one, where did Victory Gardens begin?

I had a vague recollection that WWII Victory Gardens had their start in WWI. When I started researching WWI Victory Gardens I discovered that The U.S. has had a long history of encouraging backyard gardens as a way to get by and even to control the impoverished.

Between 1890 and 1910 a group of middle and upper middle class city dwellers started the City Beautiful Movement. It started out of their fear of the masses of poverty stricken citizens they reluctantly co-existed with. Between 1860 and 1910 the US population had tripled which put a lot of strain on urban areas. Nearly 19,000 people lived in 303 alleys in Washington DC. Sanitation, crime and overpopulation were becoming major issues. It was believed that by beautifying the city it would inspire civic loyalty and improve morals in the poorer civilians, which would, in turn, reduce crime.

Part of this movement involved city gardens, which they hoped would improve the health of the poor population by getting them outside and providing them food and giving them a rest from the stresses of life. One group in Minneapolis grew so much in their City Beautiful garden that they began supplying local stores with their produce.

During the depression of 1893 to 1897 backyard gardens were also encouraged due to increasing poverty and unemployment. Detroit Michigan was hit particularly hard at this time and Mayor Haze S Pingree put out a request to owners of vacant lots to be used by the unemployed to grow vegetables for subsistence. These vacant lot plots later became known as Pingree's Potato Patches. It was hoped, that in doing this, that the food supply would increase and supplement income, and that a sense of self respect and independence would grow as well as gaining the benefits of fresh air and exercise. The gardens ended up saving the city money. Detroit invested $3000 in supplies and in the first year yielded $12,000 worth of vegetables. This allowed the city to not have to raise taxes to support the unemployed and saved Detroit $9000.

2000 people participated over several years between Detroit and Buffalo. One goal for the potato patches was the hope that recent immigrants, like the Polish women pictured above, would socialize and become more ingrained in the "American Way". Similar programs existed in Minneapolis and Denver.

The U.S. has always had a rich agrarian history, but I've never really looked into the city side of that history before. I find it fascinating how city gardening has been used in the past to help the poor become more nourished, not just physically, but emotionally in the past. I have to wonder why (I think I know why) it's not being encouraged so much today.

Next I'll share what I've learned about the Liberty Gardens of the Great War, or better known as World War I.


Heather said...

Kim, wow. I didn't know any of that but have myself used the "Victory Garden" term a lot lately. I am on the design committee for the community garden planned in my little town (870 pop.) and I hope the result will be positive though I doubt it. I will hope for the best. Rural Idaho sometimes doesn't appreciate things that some do to improve a community. I have too much of my own garden to tend to be too much help once it gets going but I love the idea. I can't wait to read the next installment.

Randy Emmitt said...

Good read, thanks! We are doing sort of a victory garden ourselves. And we've signed up for a CSA at the Durham Farmers Market

Tatyana said...

Thanks for this post! I learned something new and it makes me feel good.

RainGardener said...

These are all soooooooooo good. I'm a little late since I only found you after #2. All 3 are just truly amazing posts pertaining to history and gardening. And so appropriate considering the state of the economy right now and so many people growing their own food who never use to.
I think everyone will find these posts among the best - you have done an incredible job in your research and writing them.