Looking for Mabel Normand

Madcap Mabel Normand

Over the weekend, Elaine F. Weiss gave a talk on Fruits of Victory - The Woman's Land Army in the Great War.” her 2008 Potomac Book, which she researched partly at the Schlesinger Library (“the mother ship” for women’s history),

Mabel made a film called “Joan of Plattsburg,” (Goldwyn 1918) Mabel was from Staten Island and Mabel was active in the “Peace Gardens” but what was the Land Army?  There is a Letter from a farmerette in Staten Island, N.Y Land Army Plattsburg Camp, 1918 near the bottom of this page.

Yes, we as a nation have a very short memory, yes, men write the history, yes, there is a gender bias. These are givens but…

Marilyn Slater

Looking for Mabel

August 16, 2010






Who were the “farmerettes”?


The Woman’s Land Army, was the official title of the farmerettes’ organization. It was a good thing for the girls, the farmers and the country; it was a successful back-to-the-land campaign with automobiles; labor-saving machinery and girls, which might make life in the country attractive to the young man who had been away; after all to quote a popular song of the era, “how you going to keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?”   

The Woman’s Land Army held a convention January 28 and 29, 1919 in New York.  The farmerettes had formed in 1917 and after couple of years of experience and with the convention they invited more members to join in living a useful life outdoors. 

In every war women have moved into roles which are usually filled by men.  Both in industry and agriculture, women are pressed into serve, filling the needs of the nation.  During World War II there was Rosie the Riveter. In World War I, American women were homeland warriors. There had been a rapid out flow from the rural population to industrial centers during the period between the Civil War and the beginning of WW1.  This did not reflect a decrease in the production of the American farmers on the contrary; the mechanization of the farms had produced an unprecedented increase in food production.

The bugle call came in WWI and the farmhands answered. As the men of America set sail for Europe the women of America moved from their small kitchen gardens to the woman’s own “Land Army.” The Farmerette put on a military cut costume - jodhpurs and long, belted coat and became a cultural icon; she was added to the Ziegfield Follies, she was a regular on the motion picture screen and central character of the Liberty Loan- rallies, parades, society balls, and barn dances.  There were songs sung about her, posters drawn of her, editorials written glorifying her accomplishments and politicians supporting her.    

Today most of us know nothing of these Amazon warriors, so affectionately covered by Elaine F. Weiss in her book.  She has received praise from powerful feminists and professors of history and women’s studies for adding to this overlooked contribution to women’s history.  The material is drawn from primary sources, including the oral history of Alice Holway, who as a girl of 17 participated in this grand adventure. The book is presented in anecdotes full of details.  The “famerettes” were patriotic “soldiers of the soil” coming from all levels of society.   The women were organized in very much a military manner; recruited, trained, mobilized and sent where they were needed to feed the nation. . “Not only did the women of the Land Army organize” …“these women had stupendous organizational abilities” - at the local level, at the state level, at the national level.

Frank Gilbreth, the efficiency guru of ‘Cheaper by the Dozen’ trained the recruits in the most efficient way to manage swine; grow potatoes, drive tractors, pick cotton and even eat their meals.  The Women’s Land Army built their own training camps, and was a completely self-supported social movement. Each of the women was required to learn the skill of driving; it was thought a road to ‘freedom.’ The leaders were from the progressive social movements and were active in the suffrage movement but members were from all social strata – wealthy women; working women; immigrant women; uneducated women; educated women and all living and working in the camps.  Weiss points out that this was the same democratizing that was accruing in the military camps of their sons, fathers, husbands.

Weiss was able to find photos of the National Service School from Chevy Chase, Maryland at the Schlesinger Library; documents in California; fragments of the institutional records of the Woman’s National Farm and Garden Association…“This was like archaeology: It was so scattered and so buried that what I had to do was first locate it, then dig it up, then piece it together.”

* * * * *








and again the call came with WWII






Letter from a farmerette in a Staten Island, N.Y Land Army unit, 1918:

This isn’t like any other camp for man, woman, or child. It is at times the jolliest, but always the most strenuous, ever. Rise 5:30; tumble downstairs in the dark for a hose pipe shower; overalls on. breakfast with a cafeteria rush; bed-making; grab a lunch; jump into the Ford with ten to twenty others whom a natty little chaufferette delivers at several farms within a radius of six miles by 7:30; hoe, weed, plant or gather and carry bushels of luscious tomatoes, until the noon whistle blows; lunch under the trees with perhaps a few minutes nap in the long grass; then farm work with the farmer till the long Ford comes with our driver in Fifth Avenue togs to take us home again. Can you beat it, the Woman’s Land Army Plattsburg Camp?

At home there is a rush for the porcelain tubs and hot baths, a rush for the laundry tubs to put underclothes and overalls to soak. Dinner at 6, dishes washed, lunches for the next day packed, and assignments made of next day’s work. A spin down to the beach for a salt-water swim, a coolish ride home with the girls hanging on anywhere the Ford offers a foothold and singing lustily.


From a Bedford Camp farmerette, summer 1917:

(Battling boredom while working)

Discussing this matter with my fellow workers at lunch one day I found that they were troubled in the same way. I found relief in an unwonted occupation---learning poetry. I copied a poem and carried it in my overalls pocket and while working said a line over and over until it was fixed in my mind, and then I began on another line and eventually on another poem. In this way I learned Shelley’s ‘Ode to Night,’ Kipling’s “If,” two of Browning’s one of Alfred Noyes and others. Even now when I say:

“Wrap they form in a mantle gray  - Star in wrought”

I see before me a bed of onions and my hoe hacked at them with energetic strokes. I loaned out my copy of poems to my fellow workers. It became a favorite sport. Singing, also, we found a great boon, and as long as we had the energy to sing our work went with more swing and the time more quickly. “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag” always brings before me a vision of a potato field or the Ford delivery car, filled with girls, rattling homeward.

But I have realized since that my mind was not in a state of coma all those weeks, but was really taking in many new things, digesting old ones and changing its viewpoint. Nor was I always oblivious to the beauties of nature; far from it. I found now that as I worked it was usually with a pleasant consciousness of sunlight and good, free air, and there were moments when I paused in my work to take a deep breath and look around the orchard or the field with a sense of wonder.

It was rare that we reached home long enough before dinner to do more than wash and occasionally change from overalls to skirts. There were days, once in a while, blessed days when one or two of us managed to squeeze in between work and dinner a swim in the swimming hole.

In the evening there were always groups around the lamp in the sitting room reading, and writing letters. Frequently a few energetic ones danced to the music of the Victoria, and on the veranda and about the tents were little groups of congenial souls loafing and talking.


Memoir of Margurite Wilkinson: My Experince as a Farmerette


Chop,chop,chop went our hoes. Down the long field in the hot sun we trudged slowly, hilling up those sprawling plants. Sally could very nearly do two rows while I was doing one, but she cheered me along kindly and tactfully, telling me that I was doing very well indeed for a new girl and that it would be a lot easier when I had grown accustomed to it. Bertha did not work much faster than I, but she was steadier and did not have to stop for breath so often.

Chop,chop,chop. Birds were singing in the trees that bordered the field, Bumble bees buzzed along on their way to neighboring patches of wild flowers. But after a while I was only conscious of the fact that my back, my right wrist, and my left elbow ached like mad.

We went to the house for a pail of water. We took long draughts of it, left the pail under a big tree to keep cool and went back to work. We were painfully conscious of profuse perspiration. They have another word for perspiration on the farms which is more vulgar, vigorous and appropriate. Big drops of moisture were running down our foreheads into our eyes, down our necks into our clothing, down our legs into our mute, protective boots. But for the rest of the morning we kept an honest pace, stopping occasionally for a drink when our progress down the rows took us near the big tree and the tin pail. And at last came noon and the chance to rest.”

In those hours of the afternoon the heat was at its worst. The air seemed to be vivid with it and quivered about our faces. We felt it rising from the soil against the stiff, leather soles of our boots. We were aching, and dripping wet. Little shivers ran up and down our spines occasionally. But we did not stop. We just thought of the boys in the trenches who have much more to bear. Sometimes we spoke of them.

“You see, it is a course in many things besides agriculture, and the camp is a democracy, and cosmopolitan at that. Across the furrows at her weeding, a little Russian tells of her recent voyage to America. Further in among the celery beds a French girl and an Irish girl exchange consolation for the lover and the husband who recently started ‘over there’. College girls, important in their senior years, and women weary of degrees and world travel, wisdom or teaching, come here and take the kink out of tired nerves by straining their flabby muscles a bit. There are violinists in the camp, and singers, too, that the world will yet hear from. ..The war is not talked about thought it lies deep in the hearts of the sweethearts and sisters who are trying to do their bit to increase the country’s food supply.”

Eileen Foster, New York Tribune, September 15, 1918



Marybeth P commented 

" Having worked on family history, I've discovered ancestors who had a farm near Pittsburgh. The women of that day worked the fields to send the product to manufacturing and were an important part of the American culture."