|Chrysler advertisement, 1940|
The menu shown below from the Detroit-Leland Hotel features an aerial photograph of the city. Although World War II had already started in Europe, there are no ominous overtones reflected on this menu dated May 23, 1940. Nazi Germany crushed the Netherlands and France in May and June of that year, continuing its march of conquest that began with the invasion of Poland the previous year. In response, the United States began wartime planning, encouraging the car companies to manufacture the military equipment needed by our European allies. It would be another year and a half before America directly entered the war, following Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
The London Chop House was also known for its steaks, chops, and fine wines. It also served alcoholic concoctions like the Zombi, touted on the menu below as the “world’s most potent potion.” A better bet was to order something from their excellent wine list, such as the 1928 Chateau Margaux, a first growth Bordeaux from one of the legendary vintages of the twentieth century. The Margaux is a relative bargain at $4.50, especially compared to the Italian sparkling wine Asti Spumanti costing $6.50. To put those prices into context, the average cost of a new car in 1940 was $850, representing about eight months wages for a factory worker, or seven months of a teacher’s salary.
The menu shown below, featuring modest everyday fare, comes from the wood-paneled executive dining room at Chrysler’s Jefferson plant. Located only a few miles east from the downtown hotels and restaurants, the plant on Jefferson Avenue was situated in an area along the Detroit River where the city’s factories were first established. Illustrated with photographs of the laboratories and two of its new cars, the menu is dated June 17, 1940, a day that German tanks were racing toward Paris, forcing France to capitulate six days later.
It was about this time that Chrysler’s president K. T. Keller received a call from the Office of Production (O.P.A.) in Washington. “K.T., will you make tanks?” asked the O.P.A. chief. “Sure” replied K.T., “Where can I see one?” Described by Fortune magazine as “heavy, hearty, two-fisted, and go-getting,” Keller was a tough production man who would lead Chrysler during its massive retooling effort to produce military equipment. The Jefferson plant manufactured a particularly wide range of materiel for the war, including industrial engines, steel pontoons, marine vehicles called “sea mules,” artificial-smoke machines used to conceal ships and amphibious troops, heavy-duty fire pumps, air raid sirens, submarine nets, and highly-polished searchlight reflectors. The war not only dramatically changed Chrysler’s product line, it also transformed its work force which suddenly included large numbers of African-Americans and women for the first time.
|Chrysler's Jefferson Plant, East Detroit, ca. 1940|
Providing an anecdotal glimpse of life in Detroit during a brief moment before the war, these menus bring to mind some of the changes that have come about over the last seventy years. Generally speaking, today’s menu covers no longer reflect the civic pride and optimism expressed by the aerial view of Detroit, nor have the workers in our industrial heartland been singing many songs at company meetings lately. In addition, the menus suggest that America was a more level society in 1940, as reflected by the simple fare served in the executive dining room. Perhaps most troubling, the Chrysler meeting reminds us of how the military-industrial complex evolved after the war. One of the first warnings about its dangers came from President Eisenhower in his farewell address in 1961. Today, military contractors are permanent industries not capable of retooling to produce consumer products in times of peace, thereby hindering the nation’s ability to beat its “swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks,” as it says in the Book of Isaiah.
Creating verse well-suited for our times, poet Philip Levine says that anger has been the engine in his poetry. To this point, the New York Times recently described his work as radiating “a heat of a sort not often felt in today’s poetry, that transmitted by grease, soil, factory light, cheap and honest food, sweat, low pay, cigarettes and second shifts. It is a plainspoken poetry ready-made, it seems, for a time of S&P downgrades, a double-dip recession and debts left unpaid.”
An Abandoned Factory, Detroit
By Philip Levine
The gates are chained, the barbed-wire fencing stands,
An iron authority against the snow,
And this grey monument to common sense
Resists the weather. Fears of idle hands,
Of protest, men in league, and of the slow
Corrosion of their minds, still charge this fence.
Beyond, through broken windows one can see
Where the great presses paused between their strokes
And thus remain, in air suspended, caught
In the sure margin of eternity.
The cast-iron wheels have stopped; one counts the spokes
Which movement blurred, the struts inertia fought,
And estimates the loss of human power,
Experienced and slow, the loss of years,
The gradual decay of dignity.
Men lived within these foundries, hour by hour;
Nothing they forged outlived the rusted gears
Which might have served to grind their eulogy.