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The School Garden Army in the First World War

This guest post was written by Constance Carter, the previous head of Science Reference who now volunteers here at the Library.

Keep the Home Garden going

Promotional World War I poster by artist William McKee. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

As the seed catalogs replace the Christmas catalogs, our thoughts turn to gardens and gardening. In 2017, gardening occupies an important place in the 100th anniversary of World War I. The Library’s collection of materials on school gardens, the School Garden Army and the gardening programs of World War I are extensive.  In 2005, the Science Reference Section arranged an exhibit of 150 books, pamphlets and magazine articles on school gardens published between the late 1890’s to the mid 1920’s.  This was organized for Chef Alice Waters, founder of the Edible Schoolyard, who had been unable to find 19th century and early 20th century material on school gardens.  Our colleagues in the Prints and Photographs Division supplemented our display with its colorful collection of World War I posters and prints relating to school gardens and the School Garden Army.

The First World War gave a real boost to the School Garden Movement, which began in this country as a way of developing courses about nature, providing a taste of the country to inner city children, and motivating youth to work together.  School gardens flourished as an integral part of the war effort and were an important source of local food.  Adopting the motto, “A garden for every child, every child in a garden,” the School Garden Army was created by the U.S. Bureau of Education, with funding from the War Department and the blessing of President Wilson.  It was comprised of boys and girls, ages 9 through 15.  Each participant pledged to “consecrate my head, heart, hand and health through food production and food conservation to help the World War and world peace.”

The Army’s logo consisted of Uncle Sam as the Pied Piper being followed by children carrying a hoe, rake, shovel, and trowel, and by a smaller child sowing seed.

Uncle Sam as the Pied Piper being followed by children carrying gardening equipment

Poster featuring Uncle Sam playing a fife, leading a group of children carrying gardening tools and a seed bag. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

The logo graced the covers of the School Garden Army’s many instruction manuals, which are available in the Library’s collections and still extremely useful.  The guides provide suggestions on preparing the soil, sowing seed, caring for the plants and harvesting the crops.  In addition, they give directions for building cold frames, garden benches, and row markers.  Michigan State University Library has digitized the manuals and included the Library of Congress School Garden webcast on its website at http://libguides.lib.msu.edu/SchoolGardens.

As Hugh Findlay recorded in his article, The School Garden Army 6,000,000 Strong (Independent, v. 94, May 4, 1918: 211), “America expects every child to enlist in the National Army of Producers.”  The message from President Woodrow included by Findlay noted

“…every boy and girl who really sees what the home garden may mean will, I am sure, enter into the purpose with high spirits … the movement to establish gardens … and to have children work in them is just as real and patriotic an effort as the building of ships or the firing of cannon.”


Poster encouraging children to join the United States School Garden Army. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

The School Garden Army felt and operated like a military unit. Many manuals included the number of members in a company, the requirements for enlistment, the maximum number of soldiers in a company, the number of officers and their insignias, and the like.  Children were reminded that a good gardener kept his/her tools clean and in top-notch condition just like a good soldier.  They were also given instructions on how to avoid strains and sprains while weeding, as well as being mindful of stepping on the seedlings.

We salute these young citizen soldiers who raised most of the food for their local communities during World War I.  One hundred years later, the school garden is once again becoming a vehicle for teaching students about the wonder of nature and the diversity of living things, as well as fostering an appreciation for the environment and better nutrition and health.

To read more about the School Garden Army and WWI gardens find Rose Hayden-Smith’s Sowing the Seeds of Victory: American Gardening Programs of World War I; Rae Katherine Eighmey’s Food Will Win the War: Minnesota Crops, Cooks, and Conservation during World War I; and Laura J. Lawson’s City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America in the collections of the Library of Congress or your local library.