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.