We all know that during the war bond sales were huge. Reminders to buy war bonds were literally everywhere from magazines to ads to the ending credits of movies to billboards. My hometown paper used the words, “Buy War Bonds” so often that it was practically a design element. Anything that could carry text was a potential war bond pitch.
What were war bonds? Simply put, they were a way for people to make personal contributions to the war effort and came in increments between twenty-five and a thousand dollars. Money from war bond sales would go towards building more planes, tanks, guns, and other machines used on the battlefront, and this is how war bonds were sold to the public.
The idea of war bonds started way back, possibly during the American Civil War, when bonds were sold in both the Union and the Confederacy. During the First World War, bonds were sold in both the United States and Great Britain and were hugely successful–Britain alone raised two billion pounds, a debt which the British government is still paying off to this day. Then in 1935 Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed legislation to create what eventually became War Bonds, originally to encourage people to save their money. By the time the war started, this form of bond was on its fifth series, called “E.”
Bond sales totaled around one-hundred eighty-five billion in the United States by the end of the war, but not many people were buying bonds until after Pearl Harbor. Legend has it one older gentleman in the Midwest would invest all but eight cents of each paycheck into bonds.
Each bond was priced at seventy-five percent of its face value, which meant a twenty-five dollar bond would cost eighteen dollars and seventy-five cents. In ten years a buyer could cash in that twenty-five dollar bond and receive twenty-five dollars for it. There were also war stamps, which were very popular with children and would sell for ten cents apiece. War bonds and stamps not only allowed people to feel as if they were making a difference, but they helped keep inflation down.
War bonds weren’t the only concepts that carried over from one war to the next, as movie stars were conscripted by the government to sell bonds. During the First World War it was such luminaries as Charlie Chaplin, Theda Bara, Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Al Jolson, and during the Second World War it was pretty much every star who wasn’t in uniform. A Hollywood Victory Committee was formed right after Pearl Harbor to plan bond tours and other ways to help.
Carole Lombard was one of the first big bond salespeople, raising two million dollars in a single day while in her hometown of Indianapolis, but sadly her plane crashed into Mount Potosi when her flight home hit heavy fog. No one survived, and pieces of the wreckage can still be seen eighty years later.
Other stars jumped into the fray. As we’ve talked about before, Bette Davis went on a highly successful bond tour, bringing in over two million dollars over the course of two days, plus another quarter of a million for a picture of herself as Jezebel. Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Lucille Ball, Hedy Lamarr, Edward Arnold, and James Cagney were among the others who went on bond tours, such as this one, which launched in 1942 with a rather ambitious goal:
Bond rally shows lasted three hours, with songs and dances, speeches, and certainly autographs signed. These tours were so action-packed that the performers rehearsed on the train using specially-fitted cars and there was very little time to rest. Oftentimes the group would go straight to their hotel from the train. In a parade, of course. It was exhausting, but the stars were glad to do it. Judy Garland told The Hollywood Reporter, “The immense thrill and gratification of doing what little I could to entertain came first … the friendships made with the boys and the knowledge that we can never do enough for the soldiers who have left their homes and families to fight our battles.”
However, bond tours weren’t the only way Hollywood spread the word. Irving Berlin and the Looney Tunes crew also got into the act with an earworm of a tune:
One of the most effective bond salespeople was, by far, Kate Smith, who sold a whopping six hundred million dollars in bonds over the course of the war. It only took the United States government about forty years to honor her remarkable work, when they presented her with a Medal of Freedom, a silver plate, a certificate of achievement, and a commemorative poster of one of her 1944 bond rallies in 1982.
As the war wound down and finally ended, War Bonds were renamed Victory Bonds and movie stars still worked to promote them, such as in this rather implausible but fun short from 1945:
Unfortunately, as the war began to move into the rear view mirror it became very difficult to generate enthusiasm, even though there was still work to be done and veterans needed support. People wanted to forget and go back to everyday life, and as Shirley Temple pointed out, they forgot too quickly. Bonds have continued to be sold in various forms; however, the United States Treasury quit selling paper bonds as of 2012, although existing paper bonds can still be cashed in.
It goes without saying that the Second World War remains a very personal war for many, and the way the American public stepped up to help by buying bonds showed just how much of a people’s war it really was.
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Black, Shirley Temple. Child Star: An Autobiography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.