Back in Time for Dinner·DID YOU KNOW?

Farming, spying, being a zoot: six ways to pass the time as a 1940s teen

WWII-era youth didn't have time to be bored, they were too busy collecting fat and watching their neighbours.

WWII-era youth didn't have time to be bored, they were too busy collecting fat and spying on their neighbours.

(Back In Time For Dinner / CBC)

Teenagers today have a lot of pressure on their shoulders. They're expected to do well in school, meet impossible beauty standards and balance a staggering amount of extra-curricular activities, all while negotiating social media and the constant barrage of warnings that the apocalypse is near.

But teenagers during the Second World War faced their own trials. Clothes were homemade and itchy, food rationing meant that anything yummy was boxed up and sent away to soldiers in Britain. Forget stress-eating a bag of chips when things get tough — the '40s teen had to quench those cravings with the occasional salted soybean. Delicious. If a teen wasn't lying about their age so they could to enlist in the war, or taking care of the neighbourhood kids while their moms were away at the factory keeping the country afloat, they had a mile-long long of chores to do.

Here's how the 1940s teen spent their time:

Preparing the (organ) meat for dinner

During WWII, the Canadian government encouraged families to branch out and try organ meats like lamb kidneys. (MiaK/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons)

Rationing meant families were allowed around two pounds of meat per person per week. But there were often meat shortages, so teens had to get used to meatless days. Even when there was meat to be had, the types available in butchers were, well, intriguing at best. The government began encouraging families to branch out and try organ meats: tripe, brain, kidney, heart, offal, tongue, liver. Because of their original bodily functions, some of these meats needed more careful preparation than others. Teens could get stuck in the kitchen, draining pig kidneys. If you didn't get the urine out, a cooked kidney had a distinct bathroom flavour.

Collecting trash

What's more fun than collecting trash? Young teens in the 1940s were given the very important task of scouring their neighborhoods for junk that could be recycled into useful war-effort materials. This included collecting animal fat from their neighbours' kitchens to be used for munitions. Other key collectibles were rubber bands, old boots, tires, rusty nails, car shells, bottles, and cans. Small children were even encouraged to donate their toys and games to the cause. Young teens sorted every item into piles in their backyards for pickup. As a reward, they were often given free movie passes.

Fun Fact: The 10th Toronto Scout Troop collected 510,000 pounds of salvage and bought an ambulance and a truck. How's that for a weekend activity?

Working on some guy's farm

Groups of young women like the Farmerettes kept farms operational throughout the Second World War. (Courtesy the St. Catharines Museum)

Canada was the breadbasket of the Empire. Farmers were told they had to grow more food to meet the demands of feeding both our troops and our allies. Problem was, most of the able-bodied men were at war. With so much work to be done, groups of teens were sent to farms to harvest the crops. To make this easier, schools stopped taking attendance and teaching new material during harvest months, and the government lowered the driving age to 14 so teens could operate tractors and farm machinery. Young women often lead the way: groups like the Farmerettes kept farms operational throughout the war.

Looking for spies, by spying

Teens eagerly joined cadet corps at their local high schools where they learned marching, shooting and blackout drills. There were even rumours of a very real, top-secret spy training school dubbed Camp X, operating in Ontario, to fuel young imaginations with images of espionage.

With all of this talk of secret missions and the constant mumblings of wartime propaganda, this idea of living on high alert remained even after the end of WWII. Luckily for those dreaming of heroism, the Cold War was just heating up in 1947 and teen boys were encouraged to be on the lookout for communist spies. There were posters around town reminding teens to "avoid careless talk" in case someone was listening, and in some cases listed specific contacts you could report people to if you thought they were "acting suspicious." Sound familiar?

Making useful war materials

Do you remember making a pizza pan or a letter holder in shop class? Not in the 1940s. Teens would use their school shop rooms to make useful items like arm splints for injured soldiers overseas. Even cooler? Forty thousand teen boys in high schools across Canada actually worked on the production of scale models of fighting aircraft that were used to train pilots and gunners in the British Commonwealth Air Training Program. These toy models actually enabled trainees abroad to see what the planes looked like before they started flying.

Becoming a Zoot

The zoot suit was a long, loose coat with high-waisted ballooned pants, padded shoulders, an oversized bow tie, and a long-chained pocket-watch. (Ollie Atkins/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons)

Rebellious teens today might loiter outside of a convenience store or send angry tweets, but in the 1940s, disenfranchised teens could be zoots, painted by many adults as anti-war protesters. They wore the zoot suit — a long, loose coat with high-waisted ballooned pants, padded shoulders, an oversized bow tie, and a long-chained pocket-watch. Naysayers thought their outfits were a protest against wartime fabric rationing, and for some this was true. But for others, their outfits were simply an expression of diversity and style.

Military personnel tended to view the zoots as unpatriotic. It wasn't uncommon for fights to break out between the two groups. In June of 1944, Canada had its own zoot suit riot on the Island of Montreal. After months of skirmishes and building tensions between zoots and troops, a group of sailors stormed a dance hall in the city of Verdun, looking to fight the zoots inside. The result was two days of unrest and violence throughout Verdun and neighbouring Montreal, with soldiers and sailors on one side, and zoots on the other.

The Takeaway

It's hard to compare the life of a 1940s teen with that of modern teenager. As the Campus kids discovered in the first episode of Back in Time for Dinner, young people in every decade had their own challenges. What remains similar is that no matter the decade, it seems young adults will always find ways to endure their present moment, whether that means figuring out ways to reduce our carbon footprint or boiling urine off of organ meats in order to have supper. That's survival. 

Farmerettes photo courtesy of the St. Catharines Museum