STORY & PHOTOS BY SANDOR NAGYSZALANCZY | FROM THE FALL 2018 ISSUE OF UKULELE
When one thinks of memorabilia connected with a past war, ukuleles don’t usually come to mind. But there’s one very special uke with a direct connection to America’s civilian efforts on the home front during World War II.
After the USA joined the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Department of Agriculture encouraged civilians to plant “Victory Gardens.” Their intention was to boost morale and to provide much-needed supplies of vegetables during a time when many food items were rationed, so that US soldiers abroad could be kept well fed. Throughout America, people plowed up their front and back yards in order to grow their own vegetables. Many public lands were also tilled, including San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, which boasted more than 800 Victory Gardens. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt even planted a Victory Garden on the White House lawn.
To promote the sale of seeds for Victory Gardens, as well as to involve more young people in the civilian war effort, several American seed companies implemented a clever ploy: They distributed special “premium” catalogs filled with prizes that kids could earn in exchange for selling packs of seeds. One such company, The Paradise Seed Company, of Paradise, Pennsylvania, included a “pledge” postcard with their catalog. Any child who filled out and mailed back the postcard then received 24 packets of “Sure Grow” vegetable and flower seeds to sell, at 10 cents each. Once all the packets were sold, the proceeds were sent back to the company, along with the child’s prize selection (a small additional charge, which varied with the value of the chosen prize, was usually required). Kids could choose from fun stuff like roller skates, a “bucking bronco” ring, a catcher’s mitt, colorful “lively chick” precut cardboard animals, or model warplanes; or they could pick a more practical prize, like a home barber outfit, a cuckoo clock, Turkish towels, or even live animals such as rabbits, guinea pigs, or canaries.
The coolest prize in the Paradise catalog, certainly for readers of this magazine, had to be the “Victory Uke” made by the Regal Musical Instrument Company of Chicago. Since the 1920s, Regal had been creating multitudes of inexpensive whitewood ukuleles, bearing all manner of colorful decorations. But never had they created an instrument with a more thoroughly patriotic theme. Sporting a red, white, and blue color scheme, the top of the ukulele’s body was stenciled with military iconography: squadrons of war planes, stars and stripes, an American eagle, and a pair of V’s promoting Allied victory. There are also several “dot dot dot dash” Morse code symbols representing the letter “V.”
But military decorations aren’t the only thing that made Regal’s Victory Uke unique: In addition to its birch body and neck, the entire rest of the instrument was made from wood, including the tuning pegs, bridge, nut, and even the frets, which are thin maple strips inlayed into the neck!
Why would Regal choose to build a uke with wooden frets? The answer hearkens back to the circumstances on the home front during WWII: Certain raw materials were in seriously short supply during the war, especially metals like brass, nickel, and steel, all typically used to make musical instrument frets. Whatever small quantities of metal were available for domestic manufacture were very expensive. Whether Regal decided not to use metal frets for economic or purely patriotic reasons, the Victory Uke’s maple frets were clearly never destined to deliver lasting performance: The frets on the 75-year-old Victory Uke shown here are significantly worn down, even though there are hardly any signs of wear on the rest of the uke.