Wartime Wednesday: The Lowly Milkweed Pod
“Necessity is the mother of invention” proved itself to be true over and over during World War II as the Allies fought to defeat the Axis powers. Each time the enemy conquered an area that provided goods, an alternate solution had to be found. After Japanese occupation of the island of Java, an exporter of kapok, the fluffy plant fiber found in pods of the ceiba tree that was used in life vests, the Allies found themselves in a bind. Cattail down, feathers, and “Bubblfil,” a plastic substance developed by DuPont, were considered by the military, but none of the options proved worthy.
Enter the lowly milkweed, a plant with pods that contain hollow fibers (or floss) coated in a waxy substance, making them waterproof and buoyant. Considered an annoying weed by most people, especially farmers, milkweed goes to seed creating the pods in September.
Physician and inventor, Dr. Boris Berkman was a long-time champion of the milkweed. During the 1930s, he proposed the plant as a new crop rivaling the soybean in usefulness. He suggested over twenty uses for the plant’s stems, leaves, and pods including insulation, pressed board, oil, animal food, rayon, cellophane, dynamite, surgical dressing, and textile fibers. In his 1939 patent application for a milkweed gin to process the plant, he touted that “milkweed is an American crop capable of producing untold benefits to the American farmer, and is not subject to the uncertainties attending the importation of foreign raw materials.”
Berkman presented his case to a congressional agricultural committee in March 1942 followed by extensive testing by the U.S. Navy that proved a 150-pound man could be kept floating in the water for more than forty hours using just over a pound of milkweed floss. Calling the weed “wartime strategic material,” the government rushed to appropriate $225,000 to build a processing plant in the milkweed-rich hills along Lake Michigan.
Word went out across the nation about the need for more than two million pounds of ripe milkweed pods. Citizens of twenty-five states and two Canadian provinces leapt into action. By the end of September 1942 more than 1.5 billion pods were collected to make 1.2 million life vests. Kids were paid fifteen cents to fill an onion bag, the open mesh sack holding about a bushel of 600-800 pods. Two bags provided enough floss for one vest.
Frances Joey Wilson, Jr. remembers his father tipping him off about a poster promoting the pod harvest near their home. “All my friends jumped on our bikes and took off for the post office to read the notice for ourselves.” Later his bags were collected behind the post office and hauled away by a big truck.
From problem to purposeful, the lowly milkweed saved the day.
Does milkweed grow where you live?
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