Monday, August 22, 2011

"Milkweed Pods for War", 1944

Despite its poor reputation as a weed, the common milkweed played a vital role locally and throughout the nation during World War II when it became a strategic resource gathered by schoolchildren.

Milkweed is a distinctive plant. Growing some 3 to 6 feet tall with a single stout stalk in abandoned fields and along the margins of roads, milkweed takes its name from its latex or milk-like sap. In autumn, it is easily recognized by the large greenish-gray pods which eventually dry and split open to reveal seeds secured to fine white silky filaments or floss. Tethered to this floss, the seeds drift with the wind, and so are dispersed. It was this distinctive floss which in 1944 became vital to the Allied war effort as stuffing for life vests and insulation for flight suits.

Previously, life jackets and flight suits had been filled and insulated with seed floss from kapok, a tropical tree grown on the island of Java in what was then the Dutch East Indies. Following occupation of these islands by Japan, the Allied source of kapok fiber (also known as Java cotton) was cut off and an alternative fiber was needed. Milkweed floss was found to be the perfect substitute. The silky white hairs or filaments are hollow and coated with wax, giving them properties of lightness, buoyancy and water resilience very similar to kapok. It was found that a pound and three-quarters of milkweed floss could keep a man afloat for hours.

Since commercial production of milkweed would not have met the immediate needs of the American armed forces, schoolchildren were enlisted to gather pods of wild milkweed to satisfy military demand. Pods were collected during the fall of 1944 before they could split open and disseminate their seeds.

A national campaign to collect wild milkweed pods was inaugurated under the direction of the Milkweed Floss Division of the War Hemp Industries, agent for the Commodity Credit Corporation of the U. S. D. A. In Massachusetts, the effort was promoted and coordinated by the state department of education. Children throughout the nation were encouraged to gather milkweed pods with such slogans as “Two Bags Save One Life”, (since two bags of pods were required to fill one life vest).

At the start of the school year in September, 1944, Middleborough’s secondary-level school children joined the search for milkweed pods, with the collection drive spearheaded by Norman W. Lindsay, principal of the Bates Junior High School. Superintendent of Schools J. Stearns Cushing emphasized the importance of the collection in presentations to Middleborough eight graders on September 13, and the town’s seventh graders the following day. Within two weeks, students at the School Street School had collected 40 bags towards the town’s goal of 250, enough to produce 20 life vests. Ernest Salley was the first student to return a full sack, and others contributing were Richard Flood (3 sacks), Donald Wheeler (3 sacks), Louise Stets (2 sacks) and Loris Jackson, Jacqueline Jones, Clarence Tarr, William Warner, Robert Richardson, Charles McCrillis, James Provenche, Evelyn Roberts and Mae Guilford (1 sack each). Elementary level students at the Union Street School, though not officially part of the program, also contributed to the School Street School collection.

The pods were packed in open mesh onion bags which were provided by the government and which were favored as their loose weave allowed the pods to dry after packing. To further facilitate the drying of collected pods, filled bags (each holding a bushel) were suspended from the fire escapes of the Bates Junior High School and on the fence at the rear of the Union Street School. Filled sacks of fresh pods weighed about fifteen pounds, while those containing dried pods weighed just five pounds.

Ultimately, Middleborough schoolchildren gathered 109 sacks or an estimated 87,200 pods, enough for 54 life vests. 

The collected pods were shipped to the milkweed processing and seed extraction plant of the Milkweed Floss Corporation of America, built in 1943 at Petoskey, Michigan. The Middleboro Gazette on November 17, 1944, described the process which the pods would undergo at Petoskey for its readers. “…They will be run over a hot air dryer for a few minutes, then removed from the bags and put through a machine that first takes off the pods, then picks the seeds from the floss. The floss is pressed into bales and shipped to the manufacturers of life saving garments into which it is quilted.”

It is estimated that 11 million pounds of milkweed floss were gathered during the war.

Milkweed Pods, Union Street School, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Horace K. Atkins, November, 1944.
Flanking the 109 sacks of milkweed pods gathered by Middleborough schoolchildren in the autumn of 1944 are Superintendent of Schools J. Stearns Cushing and Bates Junior High School principal Norman W. Lindsay who let the collection efforts.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pod, Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Mike Maddigan, August 24, 2004.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) floss, Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Mike Maddigan, October 28, 2004.

Troops Homebound by Ship, photograph courtesy of the Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library.
Tenth Mountain Division Troops return by ship to the U. S.  Several wear life vests

Middleboro Gazette, September 15, 1944:1, “Pupils on Hunt for Milkweed Pods for War”; September 29, 1944:5, “Collect 40 Sacks of Milkweed Pods”; November 17, 1944:1, “Milkweed Pods are Shipped to Michigan”


Anonymous said...

As a children's book author, I do lots of school visits and would love to use this as I speak about milkweed and monarchs with the children! c:

Anonymous said...

Fascinating! I had no idea. As the floss of a single milkweed is so ephemeral and fairy-like, this scheme on the part of the government seems a bit quixotic. Great post.

Anonymous said...

How did they make bales out of the fluffy filaments? I keep trying to put them in a bag (so I may be able to make them into crafts) but keep ending up just fuzzy mess.

Anonymous said...

My mother just passed in July at age 96; she remembered picking milkweed for the war effort. They were pd 10 or 15 cents per bag.

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