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

Updated 7/16/21

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 Plant #37, located on the York River near Williamsburg, Virginia, was a shell-filling plant. The company’s Women’s Munition Reserve Seven Pines Bag Loading Plant was located near what is now Sandston, Virginia.

The Seven Pines and Penniman plants paid relatively 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 Plant #37 as DuPont constructed 230 houses to entice its workers to live nearby. It became known as Penniman. 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, the women wore “womanalls” and “trouserettes.” as they “stuffed one shell for the Kaiser.”[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 German. Wearing a factory badge showed the community you were doing your part.

The Seven Pines plant officially opened in October 1918 with a “Liberty Day” celebration. Less than a month later, Armistice rendered the plant’s work unnecessary. The Richmond-Fairfield Railway Company bought the properties originally constructed for the workers, building the foundation for a suburb for the city of Richmond- Sandston. Affordable housing and access to jobs in the city allowed workers to find employment as the nation shifted to a post-war economy.

While the Sandston community survived, community around Dupont Plant #37 did not. The Spanish flu epidemic that raged across the nation also took its toll in Penniman. The local hospital could not keep up with the number of sick men, women, and children who entered its doors. Local coroners and casket  also struggled to keep up with the dead. When Plant #37 closed its doors, the surviving families 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, this material evidence preserves the story of another way Virginia women broke through gender boundaries to support their country and their Commonwealth.

munition poster

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

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.

Special thank you to the readers who sent me revisions for information that was unclear in my original post. I appreciate your dedication to keeping historians accountable as we endeavor to tell the truth about the past as much as possible.

Midwife of the Revolution: Jenny von Westphalen Marx

February 21 was the 170th anniversary of Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’ magnum opus, Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei, commonly known as The Communist Manifesto. This controversial work was built on a controversial philosophy: end distinctions between social classes; abandon capitalism and the free market system; and divorce society from religion and religious practices. Religion, class, and economics were critical drivers of thousands of years of European history. Borrowing a phrase from the Disney movie Pocahontas, if an endeavor did not increase one’s glory, God, or gold (and preferably some combination of the three), it was quickly abandoned.

Amid the censure of his community and frequent run-ins with local law officials, Marx never stopped working for revolution. This is the story we know. What history rarely mentions is the woman who made it possible: his wife, Jenny von Westphalen.

Joanna Bertha Julie Jenny von Westphalen was born into Prussian aristocracy and all of the privileges that entailed. Her father, Ludwig von Westphalen, seemed to enjoy Karl Marx as a conversationalist, but the idea of him becoming part of the family was out of the question. Jenny loved him, however, and turned her back on her family to marry Marx.

It was not an easy life for the former aristocrat—she went from bourgeoisie to proletariat in one fell swoop, trading salons and dinner parties one day for pawn shops and bread lines the next. She firmly believed in her husband’s ideas and teachings, possibly even more so because she had to live them. Her liberal views extended to her stance on women’s place in society, which skewed towards proto-feminism:

“In all these struggles we women have the harder part to bear because it is the lesser one. A man draws strength from his struggle with the world outside, and is invigorated by the sight of the enemy, be their number legion. We remain sitting at home, darning socks.”[1]

Jenny did more than sit at home and darn socks. In addition to giving birth to seven children and enduring the pain of losing several, she kept the household together as the family fled from country to country. In an interesting twist of irony, the economic historian and philosopher could not keep his own accounts straight. If the family owed money, and it always seemed to owe something to someone, Jenny went to the local pawn shop and sold whatever she could to make ends meet. Her ability to keep the family fed and clothed allowed Karl the time to write, think, and occasionally philander (one by-blow resulted in a son that Friedrich Engels adopted as his own to protect Karl’s reputation).

Jenny is also directly responsible for the publication of Marx’s writings. Karl Marx’s handwriting was so messy that his first drafts were illegible. Jenny recopied the pages in her own hand, producing manuscripts that could be sent to publishers for printing. She also acted as Karl’s personal correspondence secretary, answering letters for him when he was too ill to take on the task.[2]

Jenny von Westphalen Marx fought for her husband, for her family, and for the class revolution she believed to be inevitable. The only fight she could not win was against cancer. She died on December 2, 1881 after battling the illness for years. Karl was not well enough to attend the funeral, but family friend Friedrich Engels spoke at the graveside on his behalf. Buried “at the cemetery of Highgate in the section of the damned,” historians also buried Jenny in the historical record.[3] Without Jenny’s work as copywriter and editor, the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital may never have seen the light of day. Marx and Engels may have given birth to Communist revolution, but Jenny was the revolution’s midwife.

kms

Author’s Note: For more information on Jenny von Westphalen and her relationship with her husband, please see the following sources:

  • Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution by Mary Gabriel
  • Red Jenny: A Life with Karl Marx by H.F. Peters

[1] Jenny von Westphalen Marx quoted in “The Life of Jenny Marx,” Harrison Fluss and Sam Miller, Jacobin Magazine, February 14, 2016, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/02/jenny-karl-marx-mary-gabriel-love-and-capital.

[2] Peters, H.F. Red Jenny: A Life with Karl Marx. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), 150.

[3] Ibid., 164.