Slacks and Callouses, a Memoir from World War Two

Slacks and Callouses, New York, 1944

The subtitle of this wartime memoir, “An account of the experiences of two teachers in an aircraft factory,” tells the story.  Written by San Diego High School English teacher Constance Bowman and illustrated by her Art teacher friend, Clara Marie Allen, it chronicles the summer vacation of 1943 that they spent building airplanes.  The wartime labor shortage was so acute that factories were willing to accept even short term workers. These two women, both in their mid-twenties, took on the challenge.

The book is a lot of fun to read. Even though it is based on just one summer’s experience, it gives an inside look at what it was like to work in a busy wartime factory.  Bowman was unmarried and Allen’s husband was in the army.  They didn’t have children, so their time was their own.  They chose to work the swing shift, from 4:30 in the afternoon to 1:00 am, for eight cents an hour more than a daytime job. 

You get a real sense for the desperate need for factory workers during World War Two. Just about anyone was welcome to the shop floor.  “C. M. and I took our places on the row of chairs along the wall and inspected the other new employees who were there ahead of us. They were evidently the scrapings from the manpower barrel—like us. Older women and old men. Scrawny mothers with children tugging at the hems of their housedresses. Fuzzy high school boys.”(5)

The labor shortage gave workers power on the shop floor.  Most women didn’t like the dress code, which included a uniform, so they ignored it.  Everyone wore slacks, but they decided what kind. The two teachers marveled at set of friends who wore beige, light blue, and even pink slacks to work, together with filmy blouses.  The drawing above, which shows women in all kinds of pants outfits, gives a sense of the range of choices—from overalls to tight fitting concoctions.

Half way into the summer, the management suddenly decided that all women had to wear caps that completely covered their hair. Bowman and Allen were among the few who complied. “Most of the girls looked the way they usually did. Some of them had on hair coverings, snoods, bandanas, nets and turbans, and some of them didn’t. Nobody had on a cap.”(161) One woman was told to go home and get something to cover her hair.  She refused and challenged her boss to fire her instead.  Of course he didn’t.  By the end of the week, everything was back to how it was before.

For a devoted pants lover like myself, it was interesting to learn that Bowman and Allen didn’t enjoy wearing slacks to work.  For them, it marked a lowering of status.  Shop employees paid no attention to them, men didn’t offer their seats on buses, and drunken sailors assumed they were women of easy virtue when they made their way home late at night.  One wonders if this wasn’t partially the shock of middle class women suddenly being treated like part of the working class.  Whatever the reason, these two were glad to put on skirts again once the summer was over.

For more on this fascinating book, take a look at this great post by The Vintage Traveler.

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4 Responses to Slacks and Callouses, a Memoir from World War Two

  1. eimear says:

    I adore those drawings! must see if I can get to read the story – sounds wonderful

  2. Lizzie says:

    I too, enjoyed this little book. It’s like a direct link to the attitudes of the time. Thanks for the link.

  3. JS says:

    The book looks like fun. But the issue of covering one’s hair is no joke. Some years ago, a Yale senior doing a science experiment got her long hair caught in the equipment and was killed.

    “They were evidently the scrapings from the manpower barrel”

    Bette Davis – They’re Either Too Young Or Too Old

  4. susan says:

    This book was reissued in 1999 by the Smithsonian so I was able to find a copy at my local library! Thank you for writing about it.

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