With Labor Day upon us thoughts go back a long way to a different era when World War II created a labor shortage on the home front. Most able-bodied men were in the military or working in Defense plants. It was an all-out war effort in the early 1940s.
The labor shortage was solved by young boys and girls and women who entered the labor market in large numbers. The young boys and girls worked before and after school. Boys who worked at the International Shoe Co. factory went to work before 7 a.m. and worked after school until 6 or 7 p.m. High school basketball practice for boys started at 7 or 8 p.m. Girls volleyball practice was after school most days. Basketball and volleyball were the main high school sports in those days.
Boys of grade school age worked in retail stores, shined shoes in barbershops, pumped gasoline in filling stations, nailed boxes together in a box factory, set pins at a bowling alley (sometimes working until midnight), washed dishes, did odd jobs at the movie houses, delivered newspapers and circulars, and cleaned tables in restaurants, to name a few jobs. On the farms, boys and girls did work usually assigned to men and worked long hours. They drove machines at a very young age.
The older boys, sophomores, juniors and seniors in high school, could find jobs working on the railroad and cutting brush for the state highway department. That was big stuff, doing a tough guy’s job.
We remember well working at a retail grocery store while in grade school as a bagger for 12 1/2 cents an hour. We worked on Friday nights and Saturday when school was in session. We were so young, the store had us work two-hour shifts and we were supposed to rest between shifts (we rarely did). We remember one of the boys spent all of his earnings on defense stamps. They sold for 25 cents and a book of $18.75 in a period of time could be redeemed for $25, as we recall. Big bucks in those years.
We didn’t get many tips in those days even though we often carried bags of food to their vehicles. The older men, too old for the military, worked mostly at one of the shoe factories and they couldn’t afford to tip. Some of the seniors were able to get jobs in defense work although that required driving and gasoline was rationed. Defense work paid better than most jobs in that era.
There still was time for paper and scrap iron drives. We remember the large piles of collected scrap iron that was located on vacant lots, ready to be picked up later by trucks. Boy Scouts handled much of the collection of paper and scrap iron. The paper was bailed in a vacant building on Second Street downtown.
The Missourian had a problem getting help also and boys and women operated presses. The Missourian was published once a week at that time. We were supposed to go to press on Wednesday afternoons. Often we worked until after midnight, We were late because of a lack of help. We went to school the next day at the regular time. There was no OSHA and few safety rules.
As far as work was concerned, we grew up fast in those years. Work ethics were formed at a young age. There weren’t many government regulations in those days and the ones that were on the books weren’t enforced.
We don’t remember a holiday such as Labor Day. We never thought much of the work was labor — a boy doing a man’s job looked upon it as being manly and it was a big deal. Everybody was working so it was the thing to do. We wanted to be in the military and many enlisted while the war was going on at age 17. Serving in the military had an appeal in many ways and even after the war ended in 1945, some older teens enlisted after their junior year in high school to get the GI Bill. We wanted to be like the men in the military, who we admired when we would see them when they were home on leaves.
You grew up fast in many ways during that era. We had much less than the young people of today have. But we never knew anything else and we didn’t miss that which was better. One lesson we did learn — how to work.