Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
In this short doc, the Women’s Voluntary Service stitches a map of the British countryside.
When World War II broke out in September 1939, some 165,000 British women joined the Women’s Voluntary Service. For no pay (save for a few administrative staffers), they lent their time and skills to the war effort, mainly aiding with air-raid precautions on the homefront. They led massive evacuations for urban residents, fed, clothed, nursed and sheltered bomb victims and war refugees, and set up canteens for firemen and rescue workers.
They also contributed to wartime cartography. In this chummy 1943 British Pathé film, jumpsuit-clad WVS volunteers work cheerfully on a large jute mat that they’ve painted, stitched, and accessorized with model homes, trees, and train tracks to represent the British countryside. (“Dear Mrs. Wood would work on a wooly wood for us, wouldn’t you, Mrs. Wood?” puns the perfectly mid-century British narrator.) The film doesn’t mention what this mat-map was used for, but the WVS organized evacuations from cities to rural parts. Their home-spun cartography may have aided in strategizing. Regardless, it’s an example of the many, unseen ways women have participated in historic mapmaking efforts, with or without professional training.