Currently Reading: Slacks and Calluses

Slacks and Calluses was the result of two high school teachers who decided to spend their summer vacation in 1943 helping out the war effort by working in an aircraft factory.   Constance Bowman Reid was an English teacher, and her friend Clara Maris Allen taught art, and in their spare time that summer they worked together to produce this delightful little book.

When I found this book, I assumed it was a  memoir, written by the pair many years later, but instead they  put the finishing touches on their work after they returned to school that fall, and they were lucky enough to get the book published the next year.  As a result, the book has a freshness and humor that goes with the very recent retelling of a story.

Along with the amazing descriptions of how a giant airplane assembly line actually worked, Slacks and Calluses has a lot of insights as to the fashions of the day.  Most interesting are the attitudes toward women wearing what was still considered in most situations, men’s clothing.

It was bad enough being tired all the time and dirty most of the time, but worst of all the first week was having to go to work in slacks – down Fourth Street where people who knew us acted as if they didn’t, or down Third Street where people who didn’t know us whistled as if they did.

The two friends found that clerks in stores ignored them, other women on the street scorned them  and men on buses would not surrender their seats to them like they did to women wearing skirts.

It was a great shock to C.M. and me to find that being a lady depended more on our clothes than upon ourselves… This summer we found out that it was not out innate dignity that protected us from unwelcome attentions, but our trim suits, big hats, white gloves, and spectator shoes.  Clothes, we reflected sadly, make the woman – and some clothes make the man think he can make the woman.

Some women in the factories, the “women’s counselors” and nurses, were allowed to wear skirts. Constance and C.M. “hated” those women.

On the positive side, the two did not have to worry about their figures that year, as all the walking just getting to their spot on the assembly line was sufficient exercise, and then the job itself was quite physical.

Slacks and Calluses is a light, fun read that gives a view of WWII that is rather hard to come by.  In the updated version, Reid wrote an epilogue, in which she says she was a bit embarrassed by the book.  That is because she went on to write books about math and number theory and became quite renowned for this work.  She died in 2010 at the age of 92.

13 Comments

Filed under Currently Reading, World War II

13 responses to “Currently Reading: Slacks and Calluses

  1. Wow what a great find. Thanks for sharing. I’m going to keep an eye out for a copy of my own. This kind of stuff isn’t taught in history class.

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  2. This is completely fascinating, I love the quote and illustrations you’ve picked out. It seems unbelievable that, despite the fact they were clearly helping the war effort, it’s the clothes that people reacted too. I’ll also have to keep an eye out for a copy of my own.

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  3. You can get a used copy through Amazon for less than $5 including shipping.

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  4. Ooo! A new book to buy! Thanks for sharing! I’m eager to get my hands on a copy!

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  5. Sounds like a fabulous and fun read! I’ll have to track down a copy. Thanks for sharing Lizzie. 🙂

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  6. What a wonderful and fascinating perspective on that time period! Thank you for finding such interesting books and sharing them with us!

    Sounds like the ladies learned all about costuming that summer – it’s always how you are dressed that creates the interactions you have with others because of the their biases associated with color/style/personal past. If you dress a character in white people will automatically think “good guy”. Dress that same character in black and he’s the “bad guy”. It’s hard to break those paradigms.

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  7. Thanks for this review, Lizzie! I’m going to try to get my hands on this book. It’s not often that you hear what it was like for women who wore pants before they were accepted. I’m on the road now, without your email address, or I would have thanked you for your help with getting me into the Vintage Fashion Guild.

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  8. I just ordered an original hardback from eBay, about $13 including shipping. I won’t get the rueful later reply, but I will get the cute (though damaged) dust jacket.

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  9. I love first-hand, personal accounts like this. Thanks for sharing!

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  10. This book went with me on an Amtrak trip. Two long layovers in train stations were sufficient to complete the reading. I’ll long remember this story. Just now I printed out this blog to tuck into the dust jacket.

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