ShadyLane, Inc. Specializing in Senior Living Services

Oral History Project

Romance, Work, and World War II

Women workers at Aluminum Goods Manufacturing Company.

Wisconsin Maritime Museum
They sent their sweethearts off to war, they toughed it out through hard economies, they lived in tight housing, and they're survived to tell us about it. Such tales may not be uncommon, but these are from a recent chat in the lounge of Laurel Grove Assisted Living Center with Germaine Wiegand, Dixie Meyer, Gertie Lasch, and Virginia Barbeau—all 89 and 90 years old. What they had to say relates to current discussion topics, and yet differs since they had not only been there, they survived. Their conversation included many subjects and took some interesting paths. We're serializing it for easier reading. Here's what they had to say about dating.

Teenagers & Make-Up

Make-up has always been a rite of passage into young-womanhood. While their mothers’ generation snitched corn starch from the kitchen to take the glow off their face, these ladies moved smoothly into the Max Factor make-up age. The day you bought your first tube of lipstick was definitely one to remember. In fact, most of us probably even remember the color. All of the ladies remembered when make-up began to color their lives. Virginia was in 8th grade when her older sister–four years older than she–began inviting her to high school basketball games, and made sure she was made up for the occasion. Gert used powder and a little lipstick, but no eye make-up. When asked when she began using make-up, Germaine laughed, “When my parents let us,” but added that she and her sister were adept at eyebrow plucking. For Dixie, make up was not really an issue, because she was far more carried away with fashion. What about nail polish? If worn it was clear, at least until the 1960s. Before that, color was “too showy” and no one wore toe nail polish.

Where the Boys Are

Virginia raised eyebrows when she told the group she began dating at about 16, a year before the others. Where did you meet boys and where did you go on dates drew a picture of a quieter time. Wedding dances, dartball games, and church-organized dances and events were the major places couples would meet. Germaine and her best friend loved to dance, so her Dad would drop her off wherever there was a dance and two young men who had an eye on them–but didn’t dance–would show up wherever the girls were and take them home. Virginia sometimes went to Valders for roller skating, but it was at a dance she met her husband. For Gert, a friend’s wedding led to a date the following week and her own wedding the following year.

Leaving for Work

Dixie, who was born in Oconto County, left school after eighth grade. She went to work for two teachers in Marinette because it would allow her to go to high school. When her housework load kept her from studying, her dad said she might as well return home. After returning, she did housework for a couple who had a cottage in the area, and that led to work in the wealthy Chicago suburbs. There, she held several positions, including housekeeper and nanny. She said she wore a special white uniform when she took their little girl out but usually wore a pretty blue one and a black and white uniform when serving dinner parties. And this leads us back to dating during war-time.

Wartime & Marriage

War changed dating for everyone. For Dixie, who lived in the Chicago north shore suburbs, it meant dances at Fort Sheridan where she and her girlfriends would receive passes. After the dances, the girls were whisked away on buses which would drop them at the Chicago El so there would be no “hanky-pank.” “Ha, right, not us,” she laughed.

When Dixie’s brother was stationed in New York City and wrote that he was lonesome, she quit her job and hopped on a train for New York’s Penn Station. He wrote that his girlfriend would meet Dixie at the station. “How will I know her,” she asked her brother. “She’ll be wearing a red carnation,” he explained. “Can you imagine that, in a place that big looking for a girl with a red carnation?! How many girls would be wearing a red carnation at Penn Station?” she quipped.

Once in New York City, Dixie worked in the fur district and lived in poor, cramped housing. She found a job in a factory that made watch bands for the war effort, and, when they caught up with those orders, they made lampshades. The pay was never enough to make ends meet, so she returned to Manitowoc.

Germaine and her fiancé felt safe to marry during the war because his draft rating was 1B. However, shortly after the wedding he was reclassified and had to report for duty. “Oh, that was a long 35 months,” she said. When he telegraphed from Washington state that he thought he was about to be sent overseas, she quit her job and boarded a train for the west, where they toured the area with friends who lived there. “I was on the train and a man passed my seat,” she remembered, “I said, ‘that looks like Joe Lewis’ and he came back and introduced himself. I met a very famous person.” She reminisced that it was a great trip, a wonderful opportunity to see the country.

Manitowoc

Workers at Aluminum Goods Manufacturing Company. Image courtesy of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum.

Women workers at Aluminum Goods Manufacturing Company.

The war had a major impact on Manitowoc, which was not only a hive of activity for shipbuilding, it was filled with Rosie-the-Riveters who traded their aprons for overalls. All of our ladies worked at least before they were married or before they had children. Dixie worked for the White House Milk Company, walking to work every day from Rapids. White House, the private label brand name for A & P Grocery, ran three shifts producing evaporated milk. This was especially important during the war where evaporated milk was processed in special cans to be shipped abroad and dropped from planes to U. S. soldiers below. The filled cans were processed in a hot water bath which would show leakage. Damaged cans were pulled from the line, leaks were soldered if possible or re-processed. “It was hot and steamy and we worked hard. Some days my fiancé would pick me up so I didn’t have to walk home. That was a treat!” Dixie said. In 1940, President Roosevelt sent everyone in the lab a certificate and a pin for their work in the war effort which Dixie still considers an honor.

Specializing in Senior Living Services