Arming the “Boys:” The Women’s Munition Reserve Seven Pines Bag Loading Plant, Penniman, Virginia

Mobilization for World War I allowed women previously unheard-of opportunities to take on non-traditional roles. Some served abroad as nurses and yeomen; others took up the ploughshares the men had traded for swords by working on family farms and with the Women’s Land Army. Traditional activities like sewing and knitting also took on new importance as the items were shipped overseas. Women also took over the factory jobs left open by the citizens turned soldiers, helping keep the American war machine rolling.

Beginning in 1915, DuPont chemical company directed all its manufacturing and production towards the war effort. Social crisis tends to trump political scruples, so the company’s recent antitrust troubles did not hinder its consolidation of a monopoly over American munitions production. DuPont’s thirty-seventh munitions plant, the Women’s Munition Reserve Seven Pines Bag Loading Plant, was located on the York River near Williamsburg, Virginia.

The Seven Pines plant paid high wages for hazardous work. Workers were responsible for loading TNT into ammunition shells and bagging gunpowder for shipment. Despite the potential danger, hundreds of men and women flocked to the plant in search of employment. A village quickly grew up around the plant as DuPont constructed houses for its workforce: Penniman, Virginia. At its height, Seven Plains plant employees numbered 10,000. The population of Penniman numbered 10,000–20,000.[1]

Female workers made up most of the workforce at Seven Pines. Women of all walks of life were represented, and it was not unusual for middle- and lower-class women to sew and fill powder bags side-by-side with Virginia’s First Lady, Marguerite Davis.[2] Fashion norms also relaxed a bit as a concession to the war effort. Long skirts were impractical in factories, particularly in factories filled with flammable and potentially explosive materials. DuPont issued trousers to the woman munitions workers of Seven Pines. To maintain propriety and keep the clothing suitably feminine, they were referred to as “womanalls” and “trouserettes.”[3]

The inscription on the metal badge housed at the VAARNG Mullins Armory in Richmond, Virginia, reads “WOMEN’S MUNITION RESERVE SEVEN PINES BAG LOADING PLANT.” Badges issued for other DuPont munitions plants took similar forms. Plant badges served several purposes: some were practical, some rather grisly. As metal withstands an explosion better than flesh, numbered badges could help identify a worker killed during a plant accident. It is probable the “68” on the middle of the badge was the identification number for a female worker.

badge

Figure 1. Women’s Munition Reserve Seven Pines Bag Loading Plant badge. Photo by author.

Plant badges provided a different kind of protection for male workers. Being branded a “slacker,” or man who did not serve or did not work towards the war effort, was almost as bad as being a German. Wearing a factory badge demonstrated to the community you were doing your part.

The United States Navy assumed control of the Seven Pines plant in August 1918. On October 12, it hosted a celebration for the opening of the United States Government Bag Loading Plant at Seven Pines, removing “women’s” from the name. Removing the “women” was in step with the post-war political and social effort to “return to normalcy.” Part of the American normal was returning veterans to their pre-war occupations and sending women back to hearth and home.

munition poster

Figure 2. Frederic H. Spiegel, 1918. Library of Virginia Special Collections Archive.

The Liberty Day celebration was short-lived, as Penniman did not escape the Spanish flu epidemic raging across the nation. The local hospital could not keep up with the number of sick men, women, and children who entered its doors. Local coroners and casket makers also struggled to keep up with the dead. War mobilization ended with Armistice Day, and the Seven Pines plant was no longer needed. The families of Penniman left in search of employment, in some cases taking their DuPont-constructed houses with them by floating them down the river.

By the mid-1920s, Penniman had disappeared. The Women’s Munition Plant badge is tangible evidence of a place that can no longer be found on a Virginia map. While most of the women’s individual stories also disappeared, the badge gives us tangible evidence of another way Virginia women broke through gender boundaries to support their country and their Commonwealth.

Notes

[1] Martha W. McCartney, James City County: Keystone of the Commonwealth, (James City County, Virginia: Donning Company Publishing, 1997).

[2] Virginia Women and the First World War: Records and Resources at the Library of Virginia,” Library of Virginia Archival and Information Services, accessed August 27, 2018, https://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/guides/WomenofWWI.pdf, 2

[3] Ibid.