Food, Comfort, and Care: Women Workers at Kaiser’s WWII Child Service Centers

March 22, 2022

By Sarah Stroman

Jean Amonson’s oral history interview, conducted by Karen Beck Skold in February 1976, is one of a number of recently digitized labor- and maritime-related interviews. In it she describes her experiences working in Kaiser’s Child Service Centers at Swan Island shipyard in Portland, Oregon. OHS Research Library, SR 1667.

For the past several years, the Oregon Historical Society’s (OHS) research library oral history staff have collaborated with professors David Doellinger and Kim Jensen for the HST 408 oral history course offered every other spring at Western Oregon University (WOU). As part of this collaboration, OHS has provided short oral history interviews for the students in the class to transcribe. Their completed transcript then becomes a part of OHS’s oral history collection. OHS’s research library collections contain somewhere over 7,000 oral history interviews, the vast majority of which are not yet transcribed. Through this coursework, students learn the methods and philosophies of working with oral interviews, and their transcriptions are a valuable contribution to ongoing work that makes these archival resources more accessible.

In summer 2021, just as I was returning from maternity leave, Daniel Avendano, one of the students from WOU’s spring class, reached out to me about the possibility of an internship. He wanted to work further with OHS’s collections and expressed a desire to pursue a career that involves oral histories. This was my first experience designing an internship, and I was excited about the opportunity to mentor a student interested in this work.

At the time Avendano contacted me, research library staff had just completed a digitization project of the majority of our labor- and maritime-related interviews. Having digitized interviews was key for creating an internship that could be done remotely — a necessity during much of the COVID-19 pandemic and a convenience for a student who didn’t live near Portland. From this group of digitized interviews, I chose a series conducted by Karen Beck Skold as research for her 1981 Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Oregon, titled “Women Workers and Child Care During World War II: A Case Study of the Portland, Oregon Shipyards.”

Women shipyard workers drop off children at Kaiser Child Service Center on Swan Island, December 1, 1944. OHS Research Library, Photo Arts Studios, OrHi 78701.
Women shipyard workers drop off their children at the Kaiser Child Service Center on Swan Island on December 1, 1944. OHS Research Library, Photo Arts Studios, OrHi 78701.

Skold’s dissertation is a fascinating read about the influx of women workers into Portland’s and Vancouver’s shipyards during World War II and the subsequent creation of the onsite child care centers at those that the Henry J. Kaiser Company operated. When developing the internship, the topic felt especially relevant: at that time, the U.S. Congress was discussing legislation to establish affordable child care and universal preschool, and I was also grappling with the challenging balance of child care and my career, having just had a baby.

Avendano’s internship involved creating catalog records and transcripts for about half of the interviews in the Karen Beck Skold dissertation papers and interviews series (Mss 1803). It also involved contributing content for Dear Oregon. He was free to choose his topic; the only requirement was that it should be based on something that was discussed in the oral history interviews. He chose to write about Jean E. Amonson’s interview (SR 1677). Amonson was the lead teacher at the Kaiser Child Service Center at the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation shipyard on Swan Island in Portland, Oregon. She worked there from 1943 until 1944, when she had to quit after contracting polio. Amonson and other teachers were trained by Dr. James L. Hymes, a specialist in child development and early education, and Dr. Lois Meek Stoltz, also an early childhood development specialist.

Hymes and Stoltz designed the Child Service Centers’ programs with early childhood development in mind, a philosophy that departed from care provided at pre–World War II facilities. According to Skold, most group day care centers prior to World War II were run by charities or through government-funded welfare programs, and they were only available for families living in poverty. Skold described them as “baby-sitting factories,” which generally lacked what many today would consider adequate facilities for play and learning. In addition, prevailing social pressure of the pre-war era (and post-war era, in fact) encouraged mothers to keep their children home or with relatives whenever possible. The Kaiser Company employed “Women Counsellors,” held open houses, and used their newsletter, the Bos’n’s Whistle, to encourage workers to enroll their children in the centers.

Page 3 of the July 1, 1943, “Bos’n’s Whistle,” describing Kaiser’s Child Service Centers. OHS Research Library, “The Bo's'n's Whistle,” volume 3, number 13.
The July 1, 1943, edition of the “Bos’n’s Whistle,” featured an article and sketch of Kaiser’s Child Service Centers. Each of the three planned centers, located adjacent to shipyards, were estimated to cost $250,000 to build and could accommodate 400 children. The newspaper described the centers as “the answer to the biggest problem of working mothers.” OHS Research Library, “The Bo's'n's Whistle,” volume 3, number 13.
Kaiser Child Service Center employee packs meals for parents to take home, December 1, 1944. OHS Research Library, Photo Art Studios, OrHi 80373.
In December 1944, a Kaiser Child Service Center employee packs meals for parents to take home. OHS Research Library, Photo Art Studios, OrHi 80373.

The Child Service Centers also offered what was referred to as Home Service Food, where parents could order take-home meals. While expensive, the meals saved “time spent in shopping, meal planning, and food preparation,” which was difficult, if not impossible, for working women due to rationing, transportation issues, and short grocery store hours. In the excerpts from Avendano’s internship project below, he highlights in Jean Amonson’s own words her experiences and those of the families who chose Kaiser’s Child Service Centers for childcare. 

Avendano: Jean Amonson was one of the first teachers employed at the Kaiser Shipyards’ child care centers. In her oral history interview she describes her time there, the different tasks she performed, and the observations she made while taking care of children. One of the most prominent issues she encountered was that many children who came to the centers did not have previous exposure to large groups of children, which proved difficult for the children and teachers. Amonson described that if it were not for the training by one of the best child development specialists at that time, it would have been a difficult job: “Then Dr. Hymes had these training sessions, and we had training sessions we had to go to before the center opened, too. When we went in there, we knew what the policies were and how to treat the children — what was the aim of the program. I think we went for probably ten days, two five-day periods.” 

Despite these challenges, Amonson goes on to describe some of the positive experiences from her work in the child care centers, including providing food and comfort for the children who had to stay there for long periods of time. The centers ensured the children were fed and offered meal preparation for their families. This was rather relieving, as the parents often couldn’t cook due to their exhausting work in the shipyards. Amonson described how she made meals for parents and taught the children to prepare foods such as Jell-O. There was also a dietitian who made sure the children were receiving nutritious food. Amonson found it amusing that some of the children preferred the food from the care centers, noting that “when one of our friends asked a little boy who went there, ‘How's the food down there?’ he said ‘Better than at home.’” 

Overall, the lasting effects the Kaiser Child Service Centers had on children were positive. Parents working in the shipyards had a place for child care, meeting the new demand created by women joining the workforce. Amonson’s interview was intriguing to listen to, and it shows the great effort of the Kaiser Company — and the women they employed in the Child Service Centers — to provide child care for working parents.

Sources

Karen Beck Skold, “The Politics of Child Care During WWII: The Case of the Kaiser Child Service Centers,” presentation, SR 1698, OHS Research Library, SR 1698.

Karen Beck Skold, “Women Workers and Child Care in World War II,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Oregon, 1981), OHS Research Library, 331.44 S628w.

Jean Amonson oral history interview with Cornella Novak, OHS Research Library, SR 1688.

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