Search exhibits | Exhibit home

With Mother at the Factory...Oregon's Child Care Challenges

Posters urged women to join the labor force during the war. Mothers of young children were discouraged but not prohibited from working. (Image no. ww1646-48 courtesy Northwestern University)

Enlarge image
Posters urged women to join the labor force during the war. Mothers of young children were discouraged but not prohibited from working. (Image no. ww1646-48 courtesy Northwestern University)

Society Finds New Ways to Care for Children
As mothers with children moved into the labor force to fill the void left by millions of men going off to war, they encountered many problems, including finding good child care. During the war the number of working women rose nationally by 57 percent and in Oregon it tripled during 1942 alone. The largest gains in employment were for married women over 35 years old, most of whom were not responsible for the care of young children. While the federal government discouraged mothers with very young children from working, tens of thousands of these women still took jobs in defense industries, adding to the child care problem. Their movement into the labor force drew scorn from many observers who thought they should stay at home with their children. But even though the government "frowned upon" the development, it still moved forward with plans to support nurseries, day care centers, extended school services, and related programs. Meanwhile, officials at Kaiser shipyards in the Portland area built innovative day care facilities that drew national attention.

Baby in cribMoving into the workforce
Women had many motives for going to work during the war. Government promotional campaigns using billboards and posters aimed to move public opinion to support women's war work with the message: "Do the job HE left behind." Meanwhile, magazines, newspapers, movies, and radio programs exalted "Rosie the Riveter" as a war hero. (listen to the Four Vagabonds sing "Rosie the Riveter."-via Marr Sound Archives) But women also saw more than patriotism to drive them into the workforce. Economic necessity caused many to take jobs, not surprising since nearly one in five American families was headed by women. Some mothers sought work to supplement low family incomes. Wives of servicemen, for example, often had trouble feeding their families on their government allotment checks of 50 dollars per month plus 20 dollars for each child. Certainly, some mothers, after a decade of austerity during the Depression, saw work as a ticket to a higher standard of living. And, despite society telling them that they were doing their patriotic duty by staying at home to care for their children, some mothers wanted to make a more direct contribution to the war effort or simply wanted to be in what they saw as a more challenging environment.(1)

The federal War Manpower Commission recommended that women with small children be the last group called upon in local labor shortages but did not forbid their employment. The resulting rise in their employment led to questions by some members of the Oregon State Advisory Committee on Child Care, Health and Welfare. In March 1943 the committee focused particularly on the methods of unions supplying labor to shipyards in the Portland area. According to one committee member, the "unions do not make any inquiries as to whether or not women interested in employment have children." Another member of the committee who worked in the personnel manager's office of the Oregon Shipyards "made a study of women with small children employed in the shipyards and found that there are 830 mothers of children from the age of one to six years employed there."

"She pointed out that these women are hired through the unions which will not stand in the way of women who have to support their families."(2)

Women were certainly streaming into the Oregon defense workforce, particularly beginning in 1942. A.G. Johnson of the state child care committee, gave a report in February 1943 showing a steep rise. Portland's war industries employed about 7,000 women in November 1942 but was climbing at a rate that Johnson said would result in 40,000 women in June 1943. He went on to state that "a check of six shipyards reveals that the number of women employed in the shipyards has increased 25% in one month and that the number is going to increase more rapidly in the future." Other Portland area plants were showing significant gains as well. For example, at the time of the report "55% of the employees of the Columbia Air Craft industry are women."(3) The number of mothers also was rising according to the annual report of Council of Social Agencies: "Despite the recommendations of the War Manpower Commission..., thousands of young mothers in their twenties and thirties have accepted jobs in war industries and other businesses in Multnomah County. Of the 8,000 women employed at the Oregon Shipyards in January, 1943, 32% of them had children, 16% having pre-school children."(4)

Women filled many jobs that previously had been in the exclusive domain of men. Here a woman operates a piece of road building equipment on an Oregon Highway Department project.

Women filled many jobs that previously had been in the exclusive domain of men. Here a woman operates a piece of road building equipment on an Oregon Highway Department project. The move into the labor force often left mothers in need of child care services. (Biennial Report, Highway Dept. Records, OSA)

Other defense industry areas such as Pendleton, Hermiston, and Corvallis also reported growth in female employment. The Pendleton area was projecting a 25 percent increase in women workers in the next five months while in Corvallis, near Camp Adair, "the employment office manager has reported that additional facilities are needed to provide care for children of soldiers wives who are anxious to gain employment. The present facilities are not sufficient for the number of children who will need care in the near future and there are no facilities to care for children under two years of age."(5)

Coping with new challenges
The rapid growth led to inevitable problems, both for the new employees who were mothers and for employers. One state child care committee member tied some of the problem to the shortage of housing. He knew of two families with a total of 13 children living in a four-room house in Portland: "This is a situation in which a mother of six children, who is employed in the shipyards, invited a father of seven children from New York to share the home with them." One teenage girl looked after the children while the mother was at work.(6) Nationally, stories told of "latchkey kids" who were left alone at all-night movie theaters while their mothers worked eight-hour shifts at defense plants. Another story told of two brothers, only eight and six years old, who "were kept out of school about six weeks to take care of two younger brothers, ages 3 and 15 months."(7) Meanwhile, Mrs. E.W. St. Pierre, director of civilian war services for the Oregon State Defense Council, visited shipyards in the Portland area late in 1942 where:

She talked to a number of women and found that the majority of them were mothers, many of whom had children under five years of age. Many had no relatives who could care for the children while they are employed and had been making their own placements in private homes. One mother stated that she had had to move her children eight times already, due to overcrowded or other unfavorable conditions.(8)

Officials also recognized the additional burdens borne by working mothers. Although fathers often shouldered some of the domestic duties, typically the grueling "double day" fell to the mothers who would do all of the housework, make child care arrangements, and work full time. Moreover, many families left behind their extended families when they moved to Oregon from other states and had not developed social networks that could help with child care. Therefore, it was not surprising that "women's absenteeism in the shipyards is four to five times as great as that of men due in large part to the breakdown of plans for the care of their children or the illness of their children, causing mothers to remain at home."(9)

A drawing shows the wheelspoke plan developed for the two large Kaiser child care centers in the Portland area. (Image source: 15)

A drawing shows the wheelspoke plan developed for the two large Kaiser child care centers in the Portland area. (Image source: 15)

New programs offer help
A number of programs arose to address the child care problems. Although some federal aid for child care was distributed before 1943, the major government commitment came in the form of the Lanham Act. The sprawling act covered a variety of wartime community services and included money to fund child care programs across the nation. The resulting centers, also funded with matching money from state and local governments, quickly grew in enrollments. By their peak in 1944, 3,102 centers were serving nearly 130,000 children. By the end of the war, Lanham Act programs had provided some care for up to 600,000 children.(10)

A related federal program helped provide child care for school-age children. Started by the federal Office of Education in the fall of 1942, the Extended School Services programs helped to organize longer hours at schools to provide a "supervised environment." Many Portland area schools applied Lanham Act funds to care for thousands of children, usually age 5 to 14. By the middle of 1943, 40 Portland schools were open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. six days a week. The Portland Parks Bureau offered supplemental programs in the form of "26 recreational areas supervised by Park Bureau 4 housing areas, community centers, summer camps, etc." Vanport schools had school and after school programs for children from 5 to 14 years old. The program ran from 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. seven days a week with attendance averaging about 200 per day out of a school population of 550 students.(11)

One of 15 child care rooms in a Kaiser operated center. This room would be the home base for about 25 children. Here they would play, eat, and take naps during the course of the day. (Image source: 15)

One of 15 child care rooms in a Kaiser operated center. This room would be the home base for about 25 children. Here they would play, eat, and take naps during the course of the day. (Image source: 15)

 

The Kaiser shipyards think big
Neighborhood groups, civic groups, and communities also developed their own programs for dealing with the child care problem, however none was more innovative or gained more national attention than the ideas implemented by the Kaiser shipyards in the Portland area. But the Kaiser plan drew significant opposition in large part because it intended to place huge day care centers right next to the shipyards. Many more traditional Oregonians believed that mothers with young children had no business working when they should have been at home providing the proper environment for their offspring. However, they argued that if the mother had to work, then child care facilities needed to be based in neighborhoods, not next to potential strategic bombing targets, and that the centers needed to be small, not huge government subsidized facilities reminiscent of the "communist" system.

The critics were not just the everyday crackpots either. Saidie Orr Dunbar, the chair of the Oregon State Advisory Committee on Child Care, Health and Welfare, argued strongly against the plan in May 1943: "We are devoting much time and careful planning to the sudden announcement of the Kaiser Shipbuilding Company that they propose to build three huge nurseries in connection with their three plants. The announcement stated that children would be accepted from six months to six years of age. None of us believe that manpower shortage actually demands the services of mothers of six month's babies. Child care standards are brushed aside and great damage will be done if we begin to industrialize six month old babies."(12)

The Salem Statesman newspaper looked at the politics of the issue in an April 1943 editorial entitled "Nurseries At Kaisertown":

Some Oregonians questioned First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt's motives in relation to child care. (Image courtesy voanews.com)

Some Oregonians questioned First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt's motives in relation to child care. (Image courtesy voanews.com)

Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt finally had her way. Down at Kaisertown (nee Portland) the government is going to spend a million dollars building nurseries for children of mothers who work in the shipyards. Real authorities in the field of child care wanted nothing of the kind. They preferred, and rightly, that mothers with small children stay home and take care of their babies, leaving welding and wiring to those without such responsibilities; and if special provision for children was required, that small nurseries close to home be provided.

But Eleanor with her zeal for social reform at public expense backed the big nursery plan, so now Portland is to have three of the nation's "largest" nursery and child care centers, so the Portland paper says. This means the expenditure of a million dollars, the use of critical materials such as lumber, plumbing, wiring, the employment of scores of workers who are needed elsewhere. The state committee on child care opposed this plan, but Eleanor prevailed with the maritime commission, so the job is ordered. This has been the Russian system of child care; and we don't like it.(13)

A Day in a Kaiser Child Care Center

The following description from a Kaiser shipyards booklet takes the reader through a day at one of its child care centers:

"6:15 a.m. Arrival health inspection: To protect all the children, each is examined by his teacher. A runny nose, a red throat, a rash, tiredness- anything suspicious and the child is taken to the Infirmary. Here a registered nurse, always on duty, gives him special care.

Child-size sinks and toilets helped children learn to take care of themselves. (Image source: 15)

Child-size sinks and toilets helped children learn to take care of themselves. (Image source: 15)

7:15 a.m. Breakfast: This is a typical breakfast: Baked apple, scrambled eggs, whole wheat toast, milk. When children eat in a group, it is easy for them to learn to like new foods, to eat full meals, and to feed themselves.

8:00 a.m. Play indoors: A chance to learn how to get along with others and to try out new things to do: Block-building, for example, with hundreds of blocks; playing house; painting; clay work; carpentry; music. This all helps language grow.

9:15 a.m. Toileting and dressing for outdoors: Child-size toilets and wash basins; lockers with hooks low enough for the child to reach - all build independent, competent young people who learn how to manage for themselves.

9:25 a.m. Fruit juice and cod liver oil: A morning 'bracer' for added energy is one more way in which the Centers help build strong, healthy children.

9:30 a.m. Outdoors: Tricycles, packing boxes, and blocks for big building, jungle-gyms and teeter-totters are popular outdoor equipment. They help children learn to share and to take turns. Things that must be used together are good medicine to prevent 'spoiled' children.

Nap time helped to balance the active day. (Image source: 15)

Nap time helped to balance the active day. (Image source: 15)

11:15 a.m. Rest: Comfortable cots where the child can relax and rest provide a good balance to vigorous play and insures a happy, well child.

11:30 a.m. Lunch: A story first, and then this as a typical lunch: Liver loaf, creamed onions, buttered potatoes, crisp raw carrots, milk, and for dessert, a creamy rice and fig pudding.

12:15 p.m. Sleep: Every child has a nap. Being in a group makes it easy for children to learn good habits in sleeping and dressing.

2:30 p.m. Outdoors: More play. Another chance to practice getting along well with people - and to have fun doing it.

3:00 p.m. Snack: A high spot in the afternoon and one that the children look forward to is 'snack' time - milk, a sandwich, and a slice of apple to help keep energy high.

4:00 p.m. Home: With memories of a full, happy day; with things to talk about; with tomorrow's fun to look forward to."(19)

Operation of the Kaiser centers
Despite the objections of critics, the child care centers at Kaiser Company's Portland Yards and at the Kaiser operated Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation moved forward from planning to completion in 1943. As the critics lamented, the centers were located "right at the entrance to the shipyards, convenient to mothers on their way to and from work." And, the centers were large, with each one of the 24-hour facilities caring for up to 1,125 children between 18 months and six years of age. While the federal government paid for the construction and most of the operation, through cost-plus contracts, the management of the centers was left to Kaiser employees. Although intended primarily to serve Kaiser's women workers, the centers were open to the children of any shipyard employee. Parents were to pay five dollars for a six-day week for one child with a charge of 3.75 dollars for each additional child.(14)

Play timeThe design of the centers featured a wheelspoke plan with a large grassy courtyard area at the hub. This area had plenty of swingsets, teeter-totters, slides, monkey bars, sand boxes, and a wading pool for play time. Surrounding the hub were 15 rooms, each measuring 30 by 15 feet and equipped for 25 children. The classrooms boasted large windows, many of which faced the shipyards so that children could see where their mothers worked. Every classroom also had its own bathroom with a personalized touch since "each child has a low hook for his towel, with his name or picture to mark the hook as his own. The Centers provide each child with towels, bibs, a toothbrush and a comb." Moreover, the child-size toilets and sinks made it "easy for children to keep clean, to be self-reliant and to learn how to do things for themselves."(15)

An infirmary was available for children who were "mildly ill or below par physically" to receive care while their mothers remained on the job. Mothers with seriously ill children or children with communicable diseases were "called from work." Kaiser officials reasoned that "when parents know that there are well-equipped and professionally staffed facilities available at the Centers in case of illness or accident, they are less apt to worry about their children." The infirmary also provided immunizations against diphtheria, whooping cough, and tetanus along with inoculations for smallpox. This offering had the dual benefit of reducing absenteeism while it promoted community health.(16)

Lunch timeEach center also had a large kitchen that provided every child with "all the food he needs during his stay at the Center, including his daily requirement of cod liver oil." The children ate in the "familiar atmosphere of their play rooms. A child nutritionist planned all of the meals including those made for the "Home Service Food" program. This effort provided pre-cooked packaged take-home meals for 50 cents each that included enough to feed a mother and one child. These also contained directions for reheating and for "supplementary salads and vegetables to make a full dinner." The meals would be ready for the mother to pick up along with her child at the end of her shift and went a long way in reducing the stress of planning, shopping, and cooking meals for already overworked women.(17)

Children and mothers responded well to the program that Edgar F. Kaiser, son of company founder Henry J. Kaiser, championed. The children liked "coming to work" with their mothers and the convenient location of the centers were reassuring to parents because they knew their children were close at hand. From opening day in November 1943 until June 1945 the two centers provided a total of just under 250,000 child care days. Officials calculated that the centers made it possible for mothers to work almost two million hours in the shipyards, the equivalent amount of time needed to build six Liberty ships. Contrary to their many critics, the centers proved to be cost effective. Considering the resulting productivity gains, supporters declared that they were patriotic as well.(18)

Notes:
1. William M. Tuttle Jr., World War II and the American Home Front: Part Two (Washington D.C.: National Park Service, 2004), Page 63.
2. "Minutes of Meeting," Oregon State Advisory Committee on Child Care, Health and Welfare, March 10, 1943. Page 3, Folder 2, Box 28, Defense Council Records, OSA.
3. "Minutes of Meeting," Oregon State Advisory Committee on Child Care, Health and Welfare, February 10, 1943. Page 3, Folder 2, Box 28, Defense Council Records, OSA.
4. "Annual Report 1942-1943," Council of Social Agencies, Portland Oregon, 1944. Page 7, Folder 7, Box 25, Defense Council Records, OSA.
5. "Minutes of Meeting," Oregon State Advisory Committee on Child Care, Health and Welfare, February 10, 1943. Page 3, Folder 2, Box 28, Defense Council Records, OSA.
6. "Minutes of Meeting," Oregon State Advisory Committee on Child Care, Health and Welfare, October 14, 1942. Pages 1-2, Folder 1, Box 28, Defense Council Records, OSA.
7. William M. Tuttle Jr., World War II and the American Home Front: Part Two (Washington D.C.: National Park Service, 2004), Page 62.
8. "Minutes of Meeting," Oregon State Advisory Committee on Child Care, Health and Welfare, October 14, 1942. Page 1, Folder 1, Box 28, Defense Council Records, OSA.
9. "Annual Report 1942-1943," Council of Social Agencies, Portland Oregon, 1944. Page 7, Folder 7, Box 25, Defense Council Records, OSA.
10. William M. Tuttle Jr., World War II and the American Home Front: Part Two (Washington D.C.: National Park Service, 2004), Page 64.
11. "Minutes of Meeting," Oregon State Advisory Committee on Child Care, Health and Welfare, July 14, 1943. Folder 2, Box 28, Defense Council Records, OSA.
12. Letter from Saidie Orr Dunbar to Jerrold Owen, May 22, 1943. Folder 1, Box 28, Defense Council Records, OSA.
13. "Nurseries At Kaisertown," Salem Statesman, April 28, 1943. Box 8 of 28, Superintendent's Correspondence, Education Dept. Records, OSA.
14. "Child Service Centers" Descriptive Booklet, Kaiser Company Inc., 1945. Oregon State Library Holdings; William M. Tuttle Jr., World War II and the American Home Front: Part One (Washington D.C.: National Park Service, 2004), Pages 65-66.
15. "Child Service Centers" Descriptive Booklet, Kaiser Company Inc., 1945. Oregon State Library Holdings.
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid.
18. Ibid.
19. Ibid.

Next >>

An Oregon State Archives Exhibit - Copyright © 2008