Friday, July 22, 2011

The Girl is...thinking about rationing during World War II

In The Girl is Murder, Iris makes reference to the various rations that are currently underway: sugar, gas, butter, coffee, clothing, and other home items. So what is rationing?
Rationing is a way of mandating a reduced use of resources that are either no longer easily attainable, or need to be used elsewhere, usually by the military. Rationing began in the U.S. in 1942 with the tire ration, a necessity since the source for rubber needed to make tires, East Asian countries, had been conquered by the Japanese and was no longer available to the Americans. In order to slow down the wear and tear on tires people already owned, the speed limit was lowered, a gas ration was instituted to limit the amount of driving you could do, along with a ban on pleasure driving and races like the Indie 500.
Other rations, like restrictions on food, were instituted because the troops needed the food. Similarly, clothing was rationed so that the cloth could be used to make uniforms.  Because a lot of factories were converted to make products needed for the war – planes, ammunition, etc. – a lot of products were no longer available, like new appliances, cars, and even typewriters.
In addition to rationing, programs were started to encourage people to collect things for the war effort. People saved fats and turned them in so that they might be used to make things like nitroglycerin for bombs. They turned over their silk and nylon stockings and underthings so that they might be used to make parachutes.  They collected tin cans and newspapers for the effort.
Just like in today’s increasingly green world we’re encouraged to “reduce, reuse, and recycle,” during World War II people on the homefront were told to “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without” to decrease the amount of waste and demand for various products.
As a way of combating the restrictions on food and contributing to the war effort, a lot of people began creating "V-Gardens." They would can their surplus food and donate it when possible.
So how was rationing controlled? Each person in a household received a rationbook which included coupons for the controlled items. Once you used up your coupons, that was it until the next ration book was issued. Ration stamps were valid only for a set period, to forestall hoarding, though plenty of people tried to hoard certain goods before rations started.
To receive a ration card for gasoline, you had to prove you had a legitimate need for gas and owned no more than five tires (anymore than five tires would be confiscated). You were then assigned a letter than determined how many gallons you would be allotted. An A sticker meant you could receive a piddly 3 to 4 gallons of gasoline per week. B stickers were issued to workers in the military industry, entitling their holder up to 8 gallons of gasoline per week. C stickers were granted to persons who were essential to the war effort, such as doctors. T rations were made available for truckers. Lastly, X stickers on cars entitled the holder to unlimited supplies and were the highest priority in the system. And the most frequently counterfitted.
That was the other side of rationing: a rising black market on those goods that were no longer available. A lot of people, particularly the mob, saw rationing as an opportunity to make money by creating counterfit ration tickets and supplying the restricted goods at greatly inflated prices. And while the government tried to counter these illegal efforts by reminding people that this was illegal and immoral, there were enough people who were tired of doing without to keep this underground effort in business.
It’s entirely possible that rationing wasn’t actually necessary during World War II, at least not the extreme that it was instituted. Instead, it may have been a way to improve morale but letting people who couldn’t serve believe that they were contributing to the war effort. By making a sacrifice people who otherwise felt powerless about the war, believed they were making a difference.
How do you think people might react to rationing today? Do you think instituting rationing would make you feel more invested in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Girl is...thinking about fashion of the forties

At the beginning of The Girl is Murder, Iris is thrust into the world of public school, where not only does she have to deal with going to school side by side with boys for the first time, but she’s no longer able to disappear into the comfortable anonymity of a school uniform. And you know what that means: agonizing about what she's going to wear each day.
So what did young women wear in the forties?
Keep in mind that shopping options weren’t what they are today. You could buy off the rack, but it would cost you, especially during the war when the options were severely limited by restrictions on cloth. Your wardrobe tended to be small, and much of it was probably home-sewn, or passed down from an older sibling and adapted to look a little bit more modern (raise the hem, change the buttons, add a belt).

For girls, clean and tailored was the look, whether young or old. Shirt and blouses were tucked in, clothes were fitted, never too big, (clothing rationing, to the joy of men everywhere, meant shorter skirts and tighter sweaters). The exception was the sloppy joe sweater, which was long and loose fitting. For school, you most likely would’ve worn dresses and skirts cut to knee length, and a blazer or a cardigan. 

For casual wear, teen girls often wore baggy blue jeans that were often rolled up just below the knee (and sometimes they’d embellish their pants with paint and drawings). In fact, teens were encouraged to wear more pants than in past years, especially girls who got wartime jobs, where clothing (and long hair!) could present a real danger. Plus, pants had the added advantage of being good hand me downs since they weren’t gender specific (of course, try convincing your little brother of that).
Hair tended toward more elaborate for adolescent girls since clothing was so heavily rationed. So if you wanted to express your individuality, you did it by twisting, curling, and teasing your locks like your favorite Hollywood stars, especially Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable. Similarly, hats were a great way to express yourself and they weren’t rationed the way other pieces of clothing were.
Shoes were flat unless you were going swing dancing. Girls would wear loafers, oxfords, or saddle shoes with short, cotton socks. Shoes were heavily rationed too (more on that in a future blog) so odds were good that you didn’t have a lot of pairs to rotate through.
Since nylons were also being rationed, if you didn’t wear socks, you went barelegged. Young women who didn’t like the casualness of this look (which also meant – gasp – having to shave) would put makeup on their legs to mimic the effect of stockings, and draw seams up the backs of the legs to create the illusion that they were fully dressed.

Oh, and as for bras and underwear? They were formidable -- all about creating shape, not ensuring comfort. If you couldn't afford to buy one, or -- gulp -- receive one as a hand me down, yours may have also been home sewn using parachutes or old wedding dresses to provide the silk.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Girl is...thinking about swing dancing

In The Girl is Murder, Iris is indoctrinated into the world of swing dancing when she visits a Harlem dance club with her new friend Suze. There she is schooled on this type of dancing that is synonymous with jazz and other musical styles from the 1940s.
So what is swing dancing? It originates a lot earlier than World War II, earlier than even jazz of the 1920s. It began in African American communities and really flourished there, though it was adopted by all aspects of society. There are a lot of different named dances that are considered swing, the best known of which are the Lindy Hop and the Jitterbug. When we think of swing dancing, we tend to think of the “swing out” – a move where whomever is leading the dance leaves a closed position with their partner and moves into an open position. It sounds simple and dainty, but swing has evolved this move so that often times the swing out involves feats of athleticism, daring gymnastics, and even what reads to an audience like brutality toward one’s partner (there’s definitely a sense that the dancers are often trying to top one another). Like Jazz, one of the key elements to swing is that it involves improvisation, even though there are a lot of key steps that are considered standard during the dances, and a relaxed sense of timing that gives the best performances a sense that they’re being done with a lot more ease than could be possible.
But the best way to understand swing, is to watch it. This is one of my favorite clips, from the 1941 film “Hellzapoppin,” in which the dancers are doing the Lindy Hop:

Keep in mind these folks were the best of the best; most average joe’s performed a much more staid version of this dance, as demonstrated in MGM’s short “Groovie Movie,” which attempts to demystify the jitterbug:

Music is of course key to swing dancing (and a subject for another day) but there is also a whole culture that springs up around it. As in The Girl is Murder, swing dancers, and jazz musicians, had their own lingo from which terms like “hep cat” gave rise, and they had their own fashion. Zoot suits became associated with swing, though their roots were elsewhere, and women donned dresses with bias cut skirts that could fan full out when they twirled, often revealing whatever they had on beneath it. The goal was to be fashionable, but able to maintain a full range of movement.

Just a reminder that the launch party for The Girl is Murder is tomorrow (Saturday!) at 2:00 at Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, PA. I hope to see you there!

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Girl is...thinking about young adult books

We interrupt our normal blog about World War II popular culture, for this brief commercial: I have books. Beautiful, shiny new books. And next Saturday, you can have one too, if you join me for the launch of The Girl is Murder at Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, PA at 2:00 PM. We’ll be celebrating with locally brewed root beer and cream soda, and other assorted treats.
Here’s a quick blurb for those of you who aren’t familiar with my spanking new series:
It's the Fall of 1942 and Iris's world is rapidly changing. Her Pop is back from the war with a missing leg, limiting his ability to do the physically grueling part of his detective work. Iris is dying to help, especially when she discovers that one of Pop's cases involves a boy at her school. Now, instead of sitting at home watching Deanna Durbin movies, Iris is sneaking out of the house, double crossing her friends, and dancing at the Savoy till all hours of the night. There's certainly never a dull moment in the private eye business.
And here’s a little praise:
“What makes this such a standout is the cast. Sounding like they’re right out of the 1940s (well, a 1940’s movie, anyway), the characters, young and old, pop off the pages. Iris, intriguing and infuriating, captures the tension inherent in the teenage years, no matter what the decade. This joint is jumping.” —Booklist, Starred Review
I know what you’re thinking: I’m a grown up. Why would I buy a young adult book unless I was getting it as a gift for a young adult?
Allow me to dispel a few misconceptions about what Young Adult means in the book world:
1.     Young Adult books are only for young adults. While you can be too young to read young adult (see picture at right), you can never be too old. If Harry Potter and The Hunger Games have taught us nothing else, it’s that good stories transcend age.
2.     Young adult means vampires and other supernatural beasties. Look, I know that certain books containing sparkly, moody vampires have been enormously popular and have done much to get previously reluctant readers to turn to books for their entertainment. I don’t begrudge them a bit. But if you’ve avoiding reading YA because you think that’s all young adult fiction has to offer, fear not – there are a lot of amazing stories out there with nary a hint of the supernatural.
3.     Young adult means rudimentary writing. Now there are some fighting words! Some of the most exquisite writing I’ve encountered has been in the YA world. Sure, the writing tends to be more compact, the stories more immediate, but that’s hardly a flaw.
4.     Young adult means preachy morals and sanitized plots. Maybe back in the day when Go Ask Alice was all the rage (and even then, while there was a preachy plot, there was hardly a sanitized one – sex and drugs – oh my!), but today’s young adult novels are far from heavy-handed morality tales. Sure, some of the best contain a takeaway for the reader, but that’s hardly the only thing they contain. And the stories are much more sophisticated than you might believe. It’s not all brooding high school students worried about what to wear to the prom. The best characters emulate real people – with all their flaws, naughty words, and bad decisions firmly intact. 
5.     People will judge me for reading kids books. Um, no. Just no. And if you’re that concerned about what the nameless, faceless masses think, get a kindle (it’s harder to figure out what someone’s reading when there’s no cover) or remove the dustcover from another book and disguise it with that.  I recommend War and Peace. What could sound more adult than that?
Look, YA might not be for you and that’s okay. But keep in mind that like most divisions in the publishing world, the YA designation can often feel arbitrary, assigned to a book because of the age of the characters rather than because of their level of sophistication.
Got a YA recommendation to get someone started? Hit the comments!