The Tragedy of the Spoiled Victory Garden Canned Green Beans.*


United States Army

On this day in 1945 Germany signed an unconditional surrender at Allied headquarters in Reims, France, to take effect the following day. Thus ended the European conflict of World War II. Like so many other institutions, the South Side branch of Carnegie Library was deeply affected by the war, as evidenced by the war-time annual reports. The branch had the same Head Librarian during the Great Depression and all of World War II. The only thing I know about Ann Macpherson is that she was salty, sassy, an advocate for her customers and her community, found the loss of “her boys” devastating and rejoiced in the baby boom at the end of the war (and if I wrote half the stuff she wrote I’d be looking for another job).

It is easy to forget to how long and difficult the Great Depression was, but in 1939 things were finally turning around:

The atmosphere of renewed hope and vigor was as palpable as the bleak depression and finely-strung patient endurance of the past ten years. Not that prosperity had returned, but that a respite had been given.

And a little later:

In the shift from depression to wartime economy, South Side has sent over 6000 men into the armed forces; men are working to capacity; children have left school for jobs in droves; or have obtained work permits for after-school employment; and money is flowing freely.


USAAF 3rd Bomb Group photographer Jack Heyn reading at his bunk, Dobodura Airfield, Australian Papua, mid-1943 , Jack Heyn

In 1942, well into the bustling war-time economy, Ms. Macpherson writes:

It has not been easy for many of the unemployed, so prevalent on the South Side during the last ten years, to get in step again with war-time schedules. So many borrowers report exhaustion from the varying shifts, much overtime, unforeseen demands and the inexperience of their help, more recently women. The complain they find no time to do the tinkering around the house their wives expect.  They say they cannot concentrate on books they know are worthwhile, “By the time I read two newspapers and listen to the radio, it’s time for bed.” Yet many borrowers are reading the books of the war of the news-interest type, party of the labor literature, and an occasional academic discussion of the better world they hope to see.

Can you imagine saying you don’t have time for books because you are busy reading two newspapers a day? And when they did have time to read, what did they read?

Books about the war are read with avidity by the younger boys, and normally by older men. Women refuse them absolutely, except where they describe army life or the countries where their men are fighting. War cartoon books lead in popularity. So far the discharged solders in the community seem not to have been overseas; their reading is general, although both they and their families are interested in psychology- not in rehabilitation books.  With the birthrate again on the upswing, books in child care are in demand. (1944)

Soldiers were coming home educated!

Reports of camp and overseas reading have been astounding; psychology in general, but especially Freud, seems to have been given a thorough going over; in fiction, the general fear seems to be that he will be given something namby-pamby, and great as is his appreciation of Pocket Books, he is glad to get away from them; apparently there are too many missing pages at the beginning and the end of the well-thumbed classics. Some are definitely checking war books with their own experiences, some are reading on some certain country- one at least to understand England because he married an English girl out in Australia. There is also a GI crop of babies planned for, and books for expectant mothers are in demand- by the husband. (1945)


African-American US Navy Steward’s Mate 2nd Class James Lee Frazer reading the Bible aboard a ship, 9 Jan 1945, United States National Archives

And, of course, the library is always about the questions, the questions, the questions:

The reference work has been as erratic as usual…Most exciting, of course, the chap who wants a contour map as he is to help bomb Pittsburgh or the young doctor back from Casablanca who kept a taxi waiting while the library located his new assignment in Virginia, to which even the recruiting office had been unable to direct him. He stopped in weeks later to report he had made plane connections and been in charge of a small hospital of his own and the next step was the Pacific in the “most coveted position of the Marine Corps.” (1942)

The war was changing our library customers in big and little ways. One thing Ms. Macpherson noted was changes in immigration:

From the time the branch was opened, work with foreigners was the theme of annual reports. The foreigner of those days no longer exists; the foreigner of today is less picturesque, he is almost non-existent in the sense of a helpless immigrant in a strange land…(1943)

But it’s still Pittsburgh. It wouldn’t be home if someone wasn’t starting something:

Recurrent tides of Polish and Lithuanian patriotism may send a few young people to read foreign books, but the young people are little interested in the nationalism which is a hindrance to the Americanism. The children are pretty weary of the old-world quarrels which are brought into the neighborhood and fostered by the nationalistic clergy and foreign-language newspapers. (1943)


American sailor reading in his bunk aboard USS Capelin, August 1943, United States National Archives

1945 ended on a high note for the branch, particularly in regards to the returning soldiers:

His experiences have given him in general the following attitudes: he “never wants to see a gun again”; he is “all confused”; he has a profound respect for education; he needs little orientation in intercultural appreciation–as one quotes, “in the army all blood is type O”; he is very modest, and is sure the “heroes” did not return; he thinks his own little niche in world geography, i.e., the South Side, is “pretty swell”; he wants a better job than he had when he went away; he feels pretty rich, if he has been overseas several years with no place to spend his money; he has not faith that there will not be “another war in twenty or thirty years” and sometimes thinks “America is too soft-hearted and should finish the job”; he is already disillusioned about the peace; he is Anglophobe or Anglophile; Russophobe or Russophile in about the same ratio as before the war.

All in all, at the present moment, he is rejoicing in his sanity, his physical stamina, and his retained or regained sense of humor; he realizes the meaning of radar and the atomic bomb; and if he is inclined to be materialistic, he at least still has tremendous zest for living.

And finally, proof that the library has always been and always will be a civilizing force:

When re-registering the servicemen, it is interesting to have them present the old library card with a flourish and remark it has never left their wallet since they left home, while one lad when asked if he had his old card, said, “Until it was taken from me in a German prison camp.” The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh  library cards have traveled over all the war zones, and renewing the card seems to be part of the rite of returning to civilian life.


Happy VE Day! (Tomorrow!)


*Where did I find the title of this post? It comes from one inexplicable sentence written in 1943: “The tragedy of the spoiled Victory Garden canned green beans was not averted by the library books, but the danger of food poisoning was.” No story, no follow-up…


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3 responses to “The Tragedy of the Spoiled Victory Garden Canned Green Beans.*

  1. Eva

    Love this Suzy! Thanks!

  2. Beth L

    Great stuffy, Suzy!

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