Women Made the Breadbasket of Democracy

Picturing PA highlights moments in Pennsylvania history through photographs in the extensive collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

Picturing the Pennsylvania home front during World War II might call to mind images of women working in munitions plants or shipyards. Rosie the Riveter, immortalized in a 1942 war work-incentive poster, was said to be inspired by women employed in the Westinghouse East Pittsburgh Works. Outside the factories, however, women also sustained and transformed agriculture, feeding the war effort. Pennsylvania’s agricultural resources and labor force were constantly divided by wartime demands. With nearly 1.25 million Pennsylvanians serving in the U.S. Armed Forces and many more assuming highly paid industrial jobs, women kept Pennsylvania farms running. Thousands joined organizations like the Women’s Land Army and were assigned agricultural jobs or took on new responsibilities on their own family farms.

Unlike factories or shipyards, it was harder to expand fields and livestock quickly. Fertilizer and feed were in low supply and most farm machinery was scarce. Nevertheless, women ran thousands of farms and brought into cultivation more than 600,000 acres that had been bare before the war. After interviewing a group of Pennsylvania Dutch farm women, one impressed reporter dubbed them “shock troops for Uncle Sam in the Battle of Food Production.”

Many farms stopped raising cash crops and women helped shift agricultural production to vegetables, dairy products, and nonrationed meat like chicken and turkey. Demand for milk especially skyrocketed during the war. Wartime cookbooks encouraged Americans to use milk as a meal substitute for scarce foods needed overseas like wheat, red meat and sugar. Drinking milk was just as patriotic as saving scrap or planting a victory garden.

Thousands of Pennsylvania women entered the dairy industry, working on farms, in bottling plants, and on delivery routes. Ronella Back and Maria Mansell, shown in this 1945 photograph, worked at the Supplee Wills Jones Milk Co. in Philadelphia for the duration of the war.

Despite the difficulties in Pennsylvania, production rose to 73 million gallons of milk annually by the end of the war. It was enough for every Pennsylvanian to have four quarts of milk per week throughout the war years.

Materials pertaining to Pennsylvania women in agriculture during World War II can be found in the Pennsylvania State Archives in Record Group 1, Records of the Department of Agriculture, and Record Group 13, Records of the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.


Tyler Stump is an archivist at the Pennsylvania State Archives.