Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Very Brief History of Cambridge, 1900-2000, Part II: The Second World War and the 1950's

   Even though much of the recruiting for the war in this area happened in downtown Boston,1 Cambridge was very much involved in World War II. The U.S. Army Chaplain School, which had previously been located in Kentucky, Illinois, and Indiana, was housed at Harvard from 1942 until 1944, when it moved to Fort Devens, near Fitchburg.2 Life on the “home front” in WWII-era Cambridge was much like in any other American town – many civilians volunteered for the Red Cross, food was rationed and everyone had a book of ration stamps, women painted the seams of their stockings onto their legs instead of wearing silk, and the streets were periodically pierced with the sirens of air raid drills.3 Cantabrigians with backyards were able to plant large Victory Gardens to supply their families with fresh food during rationing. Many people, particularly immigrants, lived in crowded apartment buildings and did not have their own yards, so they divided the land by the river along Memorial Drive into small plots.4

    Jobs were plentiful for the first time since the Depression, as war-related industries boomed. Not all Cambridge workers stayed in Cambridge, as there were also war-industry jobs in Boston and in surrounding cities, such as Hood Rubber in East Watertown.5 Cambridge did have a a concentration of war-related jobs. Several local industries gained large federal defense contracts,6 and older East Cambridge factories converted themselves to produce materials for the war. A dozen Cambridge companies earned the Army -Navy “E” award for excellence in production. They included Polaroid, Raytheon, Boston Woven Hose, and more.7 Many middle and lower-middle class women who had never worked outside of the home took factory jobs, some of them taking a “housewives' shift” from 9 am to 2 pm.8 

      One of the reasons that Cambridge had a high concentration of war jobs was that both Harvard and MIT played very important roles in technological innovation during World War II. One of the greatest examples is that half of the radar used in the war was designed at the MIT Radiation Lab. The Rad Lab, as it was called, employed almost four thousand people at its height.9 It closed in 1945, but the work done there strongly influenced postwar engineering. New high-tech industries continued to boom after the war, in close collaboration with the universities.10

After the war, the city's population swelled with returning veterans. This put additional pressure on the aging tenement buildings that housed low-income families. Central Square and much of Cambridgeport saw a period of decay, and had a real shortage of affordable housing with decent living conditions.11 The G.I. Bill and federal housing subsidies helped many families move to single-family homes in the suburbs. In the 1950's, as the industrial and technological success of wartime started to flag, Cambridge's population declined again. saw another decline in population. Meanwhile, Harvard and MIT both expanded quite a bit in the 1950's, Harvard acquiring land in surrounding towns and MIT buying run-down industrial buildings.12

     The culture of Cambridge in the 1950's was diverse. Many residents, especially those involved in the high-tech industries who were doing well for themselves, were whole-hearted participants in that decade's brand of idealism. They believed in the “American Dream,” voted for Eisenhower, and did not have a great emotional investment in the Korean War.13 But, not everyone had the luxury of idealism, and the working class areas of Cambridge were dealing with the day-to-day issues of housing and jobs. Harvard, on the other hand, remained a place for active political discussion, so much so that Senator Joseph McCarthy took note, calling the school a “smelly mess” and accused it of “indoctrination by communist professors.”14 At the same time, the folk music revival, which encompassed not just music but the phenomenon of young men and women trying to make sense of their place in the world during the Cold War and society that valued homogeneity, was growing strong roots in Cambridge.15 Many of these diverse cultures collided and grew together somewhat beginning in the 1960's, united by student radicalism and the Vietnam War.

1Boyer, Sarah. Common Cause, Uncommon Courage: World War II and the Home Front in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Cambridge: Cambridge Historical Commission, 2009) 9.
2Both [Boyer 11] and the following website [] stated that Harvard University used Fort Devens for student housing after the war, because there was an increase in the number of college students as a result of the GI Bill. I find this puzzling, since it is about 30 miles away.
3Boyer 11-14.
4Boyer 15.
5Boyer 33.
6Boyer 21
7Boyer 28.
8Boyer 30.
9Boyer 145.
10Seaburg, Alan. Cambridge on the Charles. (Cambridge: Anne Miniver Press, 2001). 52.
11Sullivan, Charles. An Overview: Cambridge in the Twentieth Century.” A City's Life and Times: Cambridge in the Twentieth Century. Ed. Daphne Abeel. (Cambridge: Cambridge Historical Society, 2007) 7.
12Sullivan 7.
13Sutton, S. B. Cambridge Reconsidered: Three and A Half Centuries on the Charles. (Camgridge: The MIT Press, 1976)
14Sutton 110.
15Rahn, Millie. “Looking Backward: Club 47 and the 1960s Folk Revival in Cambridge.” A City's Life and Times: Cambridge in the Twentieth Century. Ed. Daphne Abeel. (Cambridge: Cambridge Historical Society, 2007) 258.

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