Ken Burns Classroom

On the Home Front: America’s Boomtowns

Ken Burns Film: The War

Collections: The Great Depression and WWII (1929-1945)

Subject: Language Arts US History

Grade Level: 7-12

Run Time: 1-3 class periods


Before World War II, the United States took an isolationist posture in world affairs. The population was far more concerned about its own economic wellbeing than it was with the political upheaval in Europe and Japan’s imperialistic activities in Asia. Stories of Japanese and German military activity had been in the news since the mid-1930s, but for most Americans these seemed to be very distant events.

America’s military preparedness was not that of a nation expecting to go to war. Powerful isolationist factions, combined with a strong pacifist movement and a rejection of the League of Nations, kept the United States from having any resemblance to its militaristic counterparts in Europe and Asia. In 1939, the United States Army ranked 39th in the world, with a cavalry force of 50,000.

The U.S. government began to understand the threat level imposed by the Axis powers, and in November 1939 altered previous neutrality legislation to permit the shipment of war supplies to China and Europe on a cash-and-carry basis. In 1941, Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act, which actually placed the United States in a quasi-war between its merchant fleet and Hitler’s submarines. But the American public was only semiconscious of these events, and in no way were the country’s cities, small towns and agricultural regions ready for war. The “sleeping giant” wouldn’t awaken until Sunday morning, December 7, 1941.

Once “awakened,” America began turning out war production at every level of its industry and agriculture. In the next four years, entire factories and the towns that they supported began turning out war materiel at rates that would eventually outperform all the Axis powers combined.

By 1945, the United States had produced nearly 300,000 warplanes, more than 100,000 tanks, 87,000 warships and nearly 6 million tons of aircraft bombs. The government rationed everything from gasoline to silk. The civilian population chipped in as well, growing victory gardens and saving rubber from tires and grease from cooking stoves.

Towns like those featured in the film—Luverne, Minnesota; Sacramento, California; Waterbury, Connecticut; and Mobile, Alabama—would transform in ways never imaginable. These changes would have long-lasting repercussions on these towns and thousands like them all across the country long after the war ended.

Lesson Objectives

Students will:

  • Examine and get a sense of life in America prior to its entry into World War II.
  • Identify the changes brought on by wartime industry to industrial boomtowns.
  • Discuss socioeconomic changes in the character of four World War II- era boomtows and the reasons for those changes.

Lesson Procedure

  1. Begin this lesson by having students take out a sheet of paper and complete a free writing exercise based on the following questions:
    • How would you describe the character of your own neighborhood, city or town?
    • What do people primarily do there for a living?
    • What is the strongest memory you have of living there?
    • Describe how a major event (natural disaster, major crime, or social or economic event) affected the town or neighborhood.
    • How might it have changed the “character” of the town or neighborhood? How were people you knew affected by the event?
  2. The Four TownsDivide students into small groups of three to five and have them create a graphic organizer that outlines the names of the four towns in the film, with columns for each town’s main economic activity, remembrances from featured interviewees and the town’s experience with social tensions. (Students will fill out their graphic organizer as they view the clip.)
    Have students view “The Four Towns” clip, which explains the status of the four towns prior to America’s entry into the war. After students have completed the graphic organizer, review and discuss their findings.

Activity 2: Wartown

  1. Continue to work in groups and watch the next segment, “Wartown.” Upon completing their viewing, have the student groups review the opening statement from the segment:
    NEWSREEL: An army of 150,000 men, women and children invaded an American city. Whites, Negroes, Indians, Creoles, Cajuns—they came from every corner of the land, their roots in every curve of the globe: Moscow, Indiana; Warsaw, North Dakota; Hamburg, California; Milan, Missouri; Baghdad, Kentucky. Some came out of patriotism, some out of grim necessity, some for a richer life; all came to do a war job. This could be any one of a hundred great American war centers. It happens to be Mobile, Alabama, but the story is the same in every wartown in America.
  2. Now discuss the following questions:
    • This clip was shown in movie houses throughout the United States during the early days of World War II. It is obviously structured to be a morale booster. Look closely at how the script is written. What do you think is the overall theme of the clip? Why do you think the towns featured in the quote were selected for this newsreel clip? How do you think Americans in the early 1940s reacted to seeing scenes of hundreds of people heading off to work?
    • The clip describes how American factories geared up for war production and the challenge they faced converting car manufacturing with 15,000 parts to B-24 bomber manufacturing with 1,550,000 parts, producing one every 63 minutes. What types of logistics were necessary for this mobilization? How was the government involved?
    • Describe some of the changes that factories of civilian products would have to go through to convert to military production. What is mass production? What is an assembly line? How are jobs divided up? What other observations can you make from the newsreel footage about the factories, the laborers and the materials being produced? What was the impact of all this war production on American industry overall? Referring to the newsreel footage presented in the segment, describe some of the changes that factories of civilian products would have to go through to convert to military production. What other observations can you make from the newsreel footage about the factories, the laborers and the materials being produced? What was the impact of all this war production on American industry overall?
    • Mobile, Alabama’s employment doubled in shipbuilding and dry dock facilities as 150,000 people came in from other areas to work in defense plants. Many of those people were from poor rural communities, including many African Americans. Describe some of the personal reasons why these people sought employment in Mobile and some of the challenges they faced once they got there. What were some reasons for the negative reactions residents of Mobile had toward the newcomers?
    • By 1943, six million women had entered the workforce, nearly half working in defense plants in positions previously reserved for men. Life magazine paid tribute to these “Rosie the Riveters” as neither drudges nor slaves, but the heroines of a new order. What is meant by this statement? How did their contributions mark a shift in attitudes about women in the workplace? What was the effect on society more generally?
    • The original residents of Mobile had to make adjustments to the influx of workers coming to work in the defense plants. Describe some of the strains the sudden increase in population had on the town’s infrastructure and services. Many of the people arriving from the rural areas did not have the same lifestyle as the permanent residents of Mobile. Describe some of the characteristics of their lifestyle and the reactions by the residents of Mobile. What was the ever-present binding force that was on all their minds, and how did it help to bring them all together?

Activity 3: Rationing and Recycling

  1. Continue to work in groups and watch “Rationing and Recycling.” Upon completing their viewing, have the student groups review and discuss the following questions:
    • Develop a list of some of the major items that civilians in the United States rationed, recycled or just went without during World War II.
    • How were these items used in the war effort?
    • How did the Depression help prepare many Americans for doing without the “luxury” items? After the war, recycling was discontinued. It began again, slowly, after the 1960s on a volunteer basis. Why do you think Americans stopped recyclingafter the war?
    • How do you explain the circumstances of one subset of Americans whose rationing and recycling made them feel they were part of the war effort, and another which turner the black market to buy and sell these rationed good during the war?
    • How did rationing and recycling contribute to a sense of community? Do you think Americans today would ration to contribute to a war effort? Explain your answer.

Extension Activities:

  • Have students do some research at your local historical society or college to find out what your town did to contibute during the war. Which industries moved there or were bolstered by the war effort? How did the wartime influx of workers change the demographic characteristics of your community? What were some of the positive and negative effects on the community itself, its infrastructure and its people?
  • Have students develop a public service poster or Web site that encourages citizens to ration and recycle commonly used products.


McREL (Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning) at

United States History

Standard 25: Understands the causes and course of World War II, the
character of the war at home and abroad in reshaping of the U.S. role in world

Level III (Grades 7-8)
Benchmark 7: Understands how World War II influenced American society
Benchmark 8: Understands how minority groups were affected by World War II

Level IV (Grades 9-12)
Benchmark 4: Understands how World War II influenced the homefront

Language Arts

Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process

  • Uses strategies to address different audiences
  • Writes expository compositions; synthesizes information from different sources
  • Writes fictional, biographical, autobiographical and observational
    narrative compositions
  • Writes descriptive compositions; reflects on personal experience
  • Writes in response to literature; analyzes and interprets

Standard 2: Uses stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing

  • Uses precise and descriptive language
  • Develops effective paragraphs in logical sequence; uses supporting details
  • Varies sentence structures
  • Uses a variety of transitional devises
  • Develops personal styles and voice.

About The Authors

Greg Timmons

Greg Timmons has been a social studies teacher for over 30 years. He has written lessons for several PBS productions including The NewsHour, FRONTLINE, and various Ken Burns’s productions including The War, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea Baseball, Prohibition and The Dust Bowl.” He resides in Montana and Washington state.

Joan Brodsky Schur

Joan Brodsky Schur is Social Studies Curriculum Consultant for the Village Community School in New York City where she has taught Social Studies and English for over 20 years.