How Women Manufacturers Helped Supply The Front Lines Of World War I

Oct 12, 2017

The Springfield Armory played a key role in making the rifles and other weapons used by the three and a half million American soldiers who fought in World War I. 

In order to supply all those weapons to the front lines a hundred years ago, thousands of Springfield-area factory workers were needed. And to keep the production up, the Armory called on its workers to "Push The Green Hand Ahead." 

That's also the name of an exhibit now at the Springfield Armory National Historic Site.

For an explanation of what that means, I turned to curator Alex MacKenzie.

Alex MacKenzie: “Push the Green Hand Ahead” is a neat idea that was unique to the Armory, where they basically put what looked like a giant clock outside the workshops. One up here on the hill, and one down at the water shops, as well, and the clock had two hands. One was red, and one was green. 

The clock measured output. So: finished rifles. The red hand was the quota, and then the green hand was actual production. So the phrase was, push the green hand ahead. We need to beat quota, or make quota, or exceed quota, as necessary. 

Carrie Healy, NEPR: Who was doing the work?

It was actually a decent mix of society. I mean, there were certainly skilled laborers, and those tended to be the foremen, and the people overseeing the work. And they brought in a lot of unskilled labor, and kind of trained them on the fly. So as an example, this was actually the first time that women were employed on the manufacturing line — was in the, you know, in bringing in so much labor to scale up production at the Armory.

Alex MacKenzie, curator, Springfield National Armory Historic Site, with artifacts and posters.
Credit Carrie Healy / NEPR
The "Push The Green Hand Ahead" exhibit features WWI production from the Springfield Armory and Bridgeport Ordinance along with weapons covered in the six-week Machine Gun School that was run at the Armory.
Credit Carrie Healy / NEPR

Tell me a little more about the women laborers. Were these converted housewives? Were their husbands working in here? How do you pull in so many people on one focused mission?

The Armory was pretty good at doing that. You know, there would kind of be this ebb and flow of employees. When Congress declares war, Springfield Armory would get an appropriation, [and] all of a sudden, pull in all these workers. And then when the war was over, they’d let all of them go — which is actually one of the reasons why this area did so well. Because when the Armory would let people go at the end of a war, there's all these highly skilled workers that are all of a sudden hanging out looking for jobs.

So World War I was the first time that that input of mass volume of workers included women. And there's some neat things — I’ve got a little document here. This is an information that came out just after World War I, and it was a report the Springfield Armory did on women working at the Armory. And so there's some neat data in here.

An excerpt from the the Information (a report) concerning Employment of Women at the Springfield Armory, dated December 19, 1918.
Credit Courtesy Alex MacKenzie / Springfield National Armory Historic Site

There was about 748 women in total that worked. The women were employed as filers, as inspectors, drill press operators, millers — they ran milling machines, lathes, rifling machines, and they were clerks, nurses, matrons. And they talk about pay, and how it compared to male workers, which is interesting. This is right from the Armory, where they say the Armory recognizes the fact that piece work on any component is just as valuable when performed by a woman as by a man, and piece work prices have therefore been the same for all employees without regard to sex.

So tell me about that helmet that is full of holes. 

So that one was brought back by a nurse from Springfield. And she was serving with the Red Cross over in Europe, and she brought that helmet back home. And at some point after the war, she asked if the Armory wanted it, and they said, sure. The explanation she gave is actually written on the thing over here. It's kind of grisly.

A steel German helmet brought back from WWI by a nurse from Springfield, Massachusetts.
Credit Carrie Healy / NEPR

Yeah, pretty grim, I’m sure.

So her name was Minnie Campbell. She was at Army Base 57 in 1918, and then she came home to Springfield, where she said the helmet’s condition compared well with everything in the immediate vicinity where found. And this is an interesting link to, really, the first industrialized war.

That's a German helmet.

That is a German helmet.

Made out of...

Steel.

Steel. Yikes.

And so, you know, while it's entirely possible that, you know, someone put this on a post, and they were just using it for target practice, it’s also possible that some other scenario happened, a lot more grim than that, and reflected a reality of a very violent battlefield. 

And the effectiveness of what was being made at the Armory. 

Oh you got it, you got it! Well, then necessarily, that have come from anything, but you know, these are all the tools of war, and this is the effect of them.