|By Tom Peeling
As World War II heated up in Europe and the Pacific, a cold war of sorts was being waged in the United States for the hearts and minds of those on the Home Front.
The wives, parents, brothers, sisters and friends of those overseas did their part to keep the war machine running by rationing and working in factories on supplies needed overseas, whether it was vehicles and ammunition, or food to feed soldiers. To keep the spirits up on the Home Front, factories, cities, vendors and many others created all types of knickknacks, trinkets and propaganda tools to remind the folks at home to work harder for the boys, and even the gals, who were overseas fighting the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan.
Collector Hal Ottaway of Eastborough, Kan., was born in 1943, smack-dab in the middle of that Great War – the second war to end all wars. Although he was much too young to remember the war or the few years after, he lives it through his collection of Home Front memorabilia. Ottaway likes to describe himself as “an old stamp collector,” but if you dig into his past a little you’ll find that through the years he has been known to collect pencils, matchbooks, coins, Kansas territorial covers, cast-iron banks, advertising, metal buildings, autographs and Kansas merchant tokens. And it started at a young age.
“I couldn’t wait to come home from school to see my mail. I was a letter writer and I wrote for autographs,” he says.
He’ll even tell you that he once collected early McDonald’s Items.
“I would never let our kids play with their Happy Meal toys,” he freely admits. “I would even fold the boxes down.”
But these days, his love lies mainly with postcards and Home Front items.
For Ottaway, Home Front items not only include postcards showing poking fun at Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini items, but other items such as greeting cards soldiers would send home to loved ones in the United States.
“I started out collecting the pinbacks,” he says, adding that “there were just so many pinbacks put out.”
Many of those pinbacks had “V” for Victory symbols on them. Some showed the three Axis leaders as rats. Still others showed Uncle Sam holding a rope and when you pushed a lever it would hang Hitler from a tree. Those mechanical-style pins are quite popular with collectors today.
Home Front collectibles for World War II didn’t just begin with Pearl Harbor items, Ottaway said. Europe and the Pacific were embroiled in the war long before the U.S. was, so there are Home Front collectibles that precede Dec. 7, 1941 and the Japanese attack on U.S. forces in Hawaii. Ottaway also collects the World War II items regarding France and Belgium, etc., that pre-date any U.S. involvement. The same holds true for after the war. There are posters, buttons, banners and other items welcoming soldiers home from the battlefield.
In western Pennsylvania – the town of Altoona, to be exact – there is a high school teacher who also takes his Home Front collecting seriously. Jim Lowe, who teaches American history at Altoona High School, has a lot of lucky students. He uses his Home Front collectibles in his classroom to bring the era to life for students.
“It really works well,” Lowe says. “I think it motivates the students.”
He receives emails and social media posts often from students thanking him for making history interesting for them. Lowe, who has about 3,000 items in his collection, started collecting in the early 1990s, but his interest in World War II started much earlier, when he was in elementary school reading books about the war.
“My dad took me to the library on Saturdays to get World War II books,” he says.
Much of his 3,000-item collection involves paper items, or what he likes to call “patriotic encouragement” items. He has about 400 posters, but is particularly proud of the dozen General Motors posters he has urging hard work and support for the war effort. The cartoon images on them are amazing, he says.
Lowe also has a deep affection for the many three dimensional or 3-D items, created to keep the spirits up back home, and demonize the enemies abroad. He mentions one in particular that he likes, a 3-D figure of Hitler bent over forward. His rear end is a pincushion, so women would have a place to put their sewing pins and get a little thrill of patriotic pride by sticking Hitler in the butt.
“FDR (President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) had one on his desk, so they became very popular,” he says, adding that most were just a few inches high, but he owns a salesman’s sample of the item that measures 12 inches from feet to the middle of Hitler’s bent-over back.
Some of the more unusual items in Lowe’s collection include arcade games and stand-up carnival figures. Imagine a ball-throw game at a fair or carnival where the object is to toss balls and knock down stuffed figures at a distance. Some of these included knock-downs with the faces of the Axis leaders on them. But these weren’t the only games to get in on the Home Front action.
“I have a set of bowling pins,” Lowe says, “from an alley in the state of Indiana that have the faces of Mussolini, Hitler and Tojo on them. Hitler is on the head pin and Tojo and Mussolini on the two and three pins.
Lowe says there are only four known sets of these bowling pins, and two are in museums.
“If you could put the enemy faces on anything, they did it,” he adds.
Some items would certainly not pass the politically correct time we live in today. But they seemed perfectly normal in the World War II time period. Many, Lowe says, exaggerated the Asian eyes and appearance of our Japanese foes.
“The war in the Pacific really became a race war,” he adds.
Ottaway, who likes “things that other people don’t collect,” is like Lowe. They like the hunt. That, of course, is true of many collectors in many fields.
“I like to look for stuff,” he says. “I like the challenge. I like to talk to people.”
That’s part of the reason you’ll find each of these men scouring flea markets, hitting antique malls, scrolling eBay listings and internet auctions, going to shows across the country and spending hours on a Facebook page created for Home Front collectors. They love the thrill of finding the next item. They interact with other collectors to learn about reproductions that are prevalent, and to enjoy the company of other like-minded history buffs.
For Lowe, there’s even more to it. And he tries to get that across to his students. It’s a message more poignant at this time of year as we head into May and Memorial Day then head toward July 4.
“It’s a real measure of American patriotic spirit,” Lowe says of his collection.