Eyewitness 1942: Pittsburgh 'can' do it with scrap drive
April 9, 2017 12:00 AM
Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh as seen from above North Pole Ice Cream and Lawrence Paint along the riverfront in 1942.
By Len Barcousky / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh’s two-day “Salvage for Victory” effort produced almost 6 million pounds of recyclable materials, the Post-Gazette reported on April 13, 1942.
City residents “turned their basements and their garages and their attics inside-out” to donate “an estimated 5,850,000 pounds of rubber, paper, rags and metals to be used in the war effort the way it will do the most damage to the Axis,” the story said.
The weekend scrap drive 75 years ago this week was the biggest local effort since the United States entered World War II following the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. “So wholehearted was the response of the city’s housewives and householders that the 300 donated trucks manned by volunteer drivers and helpers were thrown far off their time-table,” the PG said. Collection work was supposed to be completed Sunday night, April 12, but some neighborhoods would not be reached until the next day. Residents were told to leave their contributions of “old garden hoses, old tire casings, old toys, old water pipes, old refrigerators, old dresses, old toasters, old chandeliers, old newspapers, old magazines, old copper and brass” outside for eventual pick-up.
One reason the April scrap drive may have been so successful was the advice provided by a Shadyside senior citizen a few weeks earlier.
On March 19 the Post-Gazette published a story — with two pictures — illustrating the proper technique for flattening tin cans for recycling. Mrs. Eugenie M. Johnson told the newspaper she was following in the footsteps of her great-grandmother. Her ancestor had lived near Princeton, N.J., in the 18th century, and she “melted her pewter utensils and made bullets for American Revolutionary soldiers,” Mrs. Johnson said. “The least I can do is save old vegetable and fruit cans.”
Her technique, which she illustrated for Mayor Cornelius D. Scully, was a simple one: Wash the can, cut off and save the metal bottom and top. Then “put the cylinder on the floor and step on it and it comes out nice and flat and you don’t have to waste any energy,” she said.
Mrs. Johnson, who gave her age as “20-plus,” lived with her son-in-law and daughter, Mr. and Mrs. George M.P. Baird, on Summerlea Street.
Many folks apparently followed her technique. The newspaper said that 60 percent of the cans collected in the Pittsburgh salvage drive were in condition to allow reclaiming of their metal. “In other cities where housewives were not nearly so careful,” the highest recovery percentage was about 20 percent.
Len Barcousky: email@example.com. Mr. Barcousky’s newest book, “Hidden History of Pittsburgh,” is published by The History Press.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.