On Underwear Procurement Difficulties In The Era Of The Second World War


So I’ve been reading Maury Klein’s A Call To Arms, which is about how the United States managed to produce all the stuff needed to win World War II. It’s a great story, the kind you just don’t get from picking up on flipping through the mysterious boring numbers on the cable box until you find a documentary, where apparently World War II consisted of magician Jasper Maskelyne pulling pranks on Rommel in 1940, and then the landings at Normandy.

But really important were industry’s production numbers. For example, the Philadelphia Toboggan Company — before and after the war a leading maker of roller coaster train cars — astounded the world by converting to war needs and making 12,172, which it turned over to Archibald MacLeish, head of the Office of Facts and Figures, on the 14th of May, 1942. The 12,172 toured the nation to cheering crowds, though it came under increasing fire from Republican leaders as an attempt to force the New Deal down the throats of the public and destroy even the idea of ever having an economy, a job, or any nice things ever after. To bury the controversy, seven weeks before the midterm elections the 12,172 was sent as a fact-finding expedition to Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces in China. I wonder how that expedition is going. You’d think it would have reported back by now.

But all this production couldn’t be done without some missteps and there’s one that apparently really happened that’s caught my imagination. From the chapter “Making Haste Slowly” — page 121 in the copy I have — is this:

Some of the army’s outmoded procurement efforts became a joke. One recent order called for $300,000 worth of 1917-type underwear that could not be made on 1940 machines.

And I have to trust that this happened because it’s got a citation number — 53 — and everything; Klein even figured in the back of the book to follow it up with “53. Time, December 23, 1940 (14-15), Newsweek, December 23, 1940, 31-33, 35”. If that isn’t proof the thing happened exactly as described, what is?

If that isn’t the most imagination-capturing item about the underwear of 1917 you’ve read in the past month I’m afraid you and I live in very different worlds. I mean, just think of it: what were they doing with underwear in 1917 that they could not make it anymore on the machines of 1940? That’s equivalent to saying there was underwear in 1991 that we’ve lost the ability to make today, and I can’t even think what that means. I could understand the other way around, with 1991 machinery unable to make 2014 underwear. Modern underwear includes astounding features of both technology — don’t think I’ve overlooked the USB plugs or the Bing search engine in my latest set of BVD’s — and comfort — such as the layer of plastic microbeads included just so they can leak into the water supply and finally finish choking off the fish population. But that’s the wrong way around, timewise, and besides in 1940 the Bing search engine was a spare New York Bell time-and-weather operator whose station was disconnected. If anyone had suggested linking her to men’s underwear there would have been a scandal and they’d have fired her three times over just for having anyone suggest it of her.

Clearly what we’re seeing is a side effect of the revolution in clothing after 1917, when people wore way too many things. Women’s clothing before World War I could require up to two weeks to put on or take off, and the underwear alone required the help of three friends and a horse or strong mule. Men’s clothing was less challenging, requiring at most ten days and a supportive goat, but it was still an era when people dressed more formally to ride a roller coaster than they do today when presenting their credentials as Ambassador to the Court of Saint James. But then came the 30s, when people couldn’t afford so many clothes, and besides there was the Summer of Nudity when guys who’d been watching Tarzan movies started walking out on the Jersey Shore beaches without even wearing shirts, which sounds hilarious until you realize that was Grandpop, and which you’re now going to look up and find out I didn’t even make up.

Anyway, I have to guess that what happened is underwear-makers forgot how complicated underwear could be, and this in 1940 caused the Army’s procurement division to get made fun of a little bit in Time and/or Newsweek. And for some reason the World War II channel on cable is always going on about Rommel at Tobruk and the landings in Normandy, leaving the Army’s underwear uncovered.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

2 thoughts on “On Underwear Procurement Difficulties In The Era Of The Second World War”

  1. 12,172 roller coaster cars helped the war effort by touring the nation, and then going on a fact finding mission to China?

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    1. Oh, no, not 12,172 roller coaster cars. Just a simple 12,172. The real feat in those days was in production numbers. After years spent with experimental numbers and prototype numbers, getting something like a 12,172 into production was amazing work.

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