Thursday, March 24, 2016
Can of plums sealed by H. M. Queen Elizabeth at the Women's Institute canning facility in Reading University, England. December 1942. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryCan of plums sealed by H. M. Queen Elizabeth at the Women's Institute canning facility in Reading University, England. December 1942. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

More than 70 years after the end of World War II, stories of generosity and community spirit continue to inspire modern audiences. Among Grace E. Frysinger’s papers are letters, photographs, press releases, and newspaper clippings documenting one such moment featuring networks of women on two continents, a queen, a first lady, and a can of plums.

When Great Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, the Women’s Institutes (WI) assumed responsibility for government-sponsored preservation centers where volunteers canned or made jam of excess produce, which were then added to the nation’s ration supplies. While eager to take on their new duties, WI leaders realized they would need more equipment to undertake the task at hand and due to war restrictions on machinery, the equipment they needed was not available.

Seeking a solution to the problem, they turned to their contacts at the Associated Country Women of the World (ACWW), who had held their triennial conference in London just months before Britain entered the war. Mrs. Carlton Smith, American representative to ACWW, suggested contacting Grace Frysinger, Senior Home Economist with the Extension Service of the United States Department of Agriculture and ACWW member. While Frysinger was unable to help in an official government capacity, she quickly mobilized a network of state home demonstration leaders, community leaders, and women's groups, who raised over $3,500 to purchase canning equipment for the WI. A December 1942 press release described the fundraising efforts as follows:

The sums varied from fifty cents upwards. Most of the money came from individual women, or from local home demonstration clubs. The majority of contributions were in sums of one dollar per person. Over $200 was received from each of the following states: Connecticut, Idaho, Maine, Ohio, and Texas. One hundred and twenty dollars was contributed by the women and girls of Puerto Rico. One local group raised money by setting up a collection box at a farm woman’s short course. Another group planned a ‘March of Dimes’ to raise money for this purpose. A few Indian groups and Negro groups of women sent money. Several nonrural groups and individuals added to the fund. The Rhode Island State Federation of Women’s Clubs contributed $100 as a most efficient means of aiding Britain. A group of urban women in Cleveland, Ohio, held a bazaar and raised $145 for the equipment. A local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Illinois, and a professional sorority group in Louisiana made contributions.

H. M. Queen Elizabeth touring Women's Institute canning facility in Reading, England. December 1942. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryH. M. Queen Elizabeth touring Women's Institute canning facility in Reading, England. December 1942. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

Frysinger turned the collected funds over to the British War Relief Society of New York City, who purchased five hundred Dixie hand sealing machines that were distributed to fruit preservation centers throughout Britain. The funds also allowed for the establishment of a complete canning unit (a small plant with a kitchen and full canning equipment) in Reading, England.

On August 7, 1942, Queen Elizabeth inspected the Reading unit. The October 1942 edition of the ACWW newsletter, The Countrywoman, included this account of the visit:

Her Majesty arrived on the stroke of 11.30 and stepped out of her car just as a gust of wind and rain darkened the sky—as she came into the store, however, a blaze of spotlights and camera flares were focused on her. In her greenish-blue costume and adorable little hat perched on one side, and seemingly held in place by a bunch of white flowers, she looked like a breath of spring. She has a lovely clear skin and beautiful eyes and her smile is so kind and sincere one feels at once that there is a real woman who has managed to combine great affairs of State with a full and happy home life. She brings to the doing of many tasks, Royal and “homey,” good sense, cheerfulness and intelligent sympathy. We all knew that she really wanted to see the pressure cooker and that she felt the cooperative effort of town and country women which the installation of this cooking unit has brought about in Reading, was something of real value. Her Majesty’s practical interest was shown by her desire to try her hand at canning. She packed a tin of plums, sealed and initialed it, and it was passed perfect by the inspector.

Eleanor Roosevelt holding can of plums sealed by H. M. Queen Elizabeth at the Women's Institute canning facility in Reading. December 7, 1942.  Left to right: Mrs. Hidmore Walton, President Virginia Federation of Home Demonstration Clubs; Grace E Frysinger, Senior Home Economist US Department of Agriculture; Mrs. Guy C. Roop, Chairman USA Liaison Committee Associated Country Women of the World; Mrs. Roosevelt; Miss Sara Bulette, Director Country Gentlewomen's League, Curtis Publishing Company; Miss Craig McGeachy, First Secretary British Embassy; Mrs. Raymond Pearson, Woman's National Farm and Garden Association; Mrs. Charlotte Barrell Ware, New England Division, Woman's National Farm and Garden Association. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryEleanor Roosevelt holding can of plums sealed by H. M. Queen Elizabeth at the Women's Institute canning facility in Reading. December 7, 1942. Left to right: Mrs. Hidmore Walton, President Virginia Federation of Home Demonstration Clubs; Grace E Frysinger, Senior Home Economist US Department of Agriculture; Mrs. Guy C. Roop, Chairman USA Liaison Committee Associated Country Women of the World; Mrs. Roosevelt; Miss Sara Bulette, Director Country Gentlewomen's League, Curtis Publishing Company; Miss Craig McGeachy, First Secretary British Embassy; Mrs. Raymond Pearson, Woman's National Farm and Garden Association; Mrs. Charlotte Barrell Ware, New England Division, Woman's National Farm and Garden Association. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryWishing to express their gratitude to the women of America, the WI leaders secured permission from the Queen to present her can of plums to Eleanor Roosevelt, and on December 7, 1942, representatives of the ACWW and several state demonstration groups, including Grace Frysinger, presented the can to Mrs. Roosevelt at the White House. Perhaps fearful that such a presentation might be perceived as frivolous on the first anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attacks or that Americans might wonder that funds were being directed toward British instead of American war efforts, the presentation received only a passing mention in Roosevelt’s “My Day” column. Likewise, the sole clipping in Frysinger’s papers devoted to the presentation, headlined, “White House Gets Plums Canned by Queen,” sums up the event rather dismissively stating,

Latest addition to the White House collection of oddities is a jar of plums canned by the Queen of England which is to be presented to Mrs. Roosevelt by a group of farm women this afternoon. Tin cans, of which this is a sample product, were sent to the British to preserve their vegetables before materials became critical here. The Queen, Mrs. Roosevelt said, probably just turned the crank to fit the top in place.

Despite a seemingly less than gracious reception from the American public, British women continued to send Frysinger their thanks. The final document in Frysinger’s papers concerning the event is a letter from Marjorie Jones, the County Secretary of the Shropshire Federation of Women’s Institutes, dated December 10, 1945. The letter recounts the Shropshire WI’s wartime use of hand sealing machines purchased with funds from American women as well as their plans to continue using the machines their lives slowly returned to normal. Her closing sentiments drive home just how much the machines meant to the women of Britain and expresses the sentiments of friendship and goodwill between the United States and Britain that still resounds today:

We have the machines serviced every year and they are still in perfect condition. My sister has now made very nice wooden boxes to fit them, and we are thinking of giving them names with an American flavor to remind us of your boys who were with us during the war, and who used to paint amusing names on their jeeps and trucks! No doubt you feel as we do a great thankfulness that the war is over at last; during our most difficult times the kindness and sympathy of the American people moved us very deeply, and we trust that the friendship and goodwill which so endeavours in the days of war will be maintained and strengthened in the happier days of peace.