Yankee Ingenuity

Monday, August 11, 2014

One definition of “Yankee” includes anyone who is a native or inhabitant of the United States. That includes Japanese Americans living in this country during World War II.

The Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were forced to leave their homes with only what they could carry. When they arrived at Topaz, Utah, their living quarters consisted of a small room with four walls, a floor, and a roof. The only furniture the government provided was one army cot for each person. Although the residents did get to place catalogue orders, the extremely small salaries the United States paid them for full-time work limited their purchasing ability. So they had to be resourceful.

Just how resourceful were they? As you can tell from the picture, they managed to build tables and chairs from scrap lumber and to find pictures to decorate their walls.

This is another instance where a community newspaper can help us understand how people lived and, in particular, how they responded to adverse circumstances.

Here is the “To the Women” column from the February 20, 1943 issue of the Topaz Times.


            When the resident of Topaz resettles, he will be a master of ingenuity. His knowledge of floor-saving devices in itself should make him a man of no small importance in times where housing is at a premium.

            For instance, he no longer will scoff at double decker beds, even if he has to take the upper. He will use every corner space for useful shelves from ceiling to floor.

            And as for being able to make something out of nothing, one of these days former residents will practically furnish their homes with orange boxes and two-by-fours.

            Beautiful pictures in magazines will come into their own. Snow scenes and other landscapes will grace city walls where once they merely decorated sheet rock partitions.

            Give the relocated resident a piece of sheet rock in the future and he will become a seven-day wonder. He will make partitions with built-in bookshelves which will become the marvel of urbanites.


            All of the carry-overs of center life may not be as useful, however. For instance, we must remember that the main function of the soup bowl is a dish with which we serve soup—to be drunk with a spoon. We must remember not to serve everything from coffee to tea in the bowls and drink said beverages directly from the bowl. We must remember not to rush from the table, carrying every dish we have used. We must remember that there are separate dishes for desserts, that it is not necessary to clean a place on our dinner plate for the jello or what-have-you.

            We must remember not to pass our cups to the end of the table as soon as we are seated. We must remember not to treat china dishes with the same abandon as we did our enamelware. Whether we do or not will be amusing to note.

Most people don’t think of Japanese Americans as Yankees, but they are. And the ones who were incarcerated during World War II were masters at exercising Yankee ingenuity.


The photograph at the top of this post shows a family sitting around a homemade table in a barracks apartment at Topaz, Utah. The picture was taken by Charles E. Mace on January 3, 1945 as part of his official duties as an employee of the United States government. Because it is a government document, the photo is in the public domain.

All editions of the Topaz Times are also in the public domain.

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