Ah, the times really have changed.
Back in the day, lots of us carried pocket knives to school and played spirited games of cowboys and rustlers, Flying Tigers, and Gene Autry vs. the Phantom Empire, not to mention fighting off the ChiComs, laying about us with pretend revolvers and machine guns. Nowadays, doing that can get kids suspended from school.
Today’s modern anti-violence sensibilities aren’t completely off-base, of course. It seems a week doesn’t go by without some sort of mass violence involving a nut with a gun. And the horrific school massacres, such as the one last year in Newtown, Connecticut, seem to be, if anything, increasing.
But there was a time when there was a more matter-of-fact attitude towards objects and ideas that would be ringing all sorts of loud alarm bells these days. For instance, back in 1919, the federal government decided it would be a wonderfully patriotic thing to give at least 30,000 school children hand grenades as a way to teach them thrift in the wake of World War I.
Here, from the June 25, 1919 Kendall County Record is how the whole thing was explained in the local press:
THRIFT WEEK IN ILLINOIS
This week, beginning last Monday, is being celebrated as “Thrift Week” throughout the United States as designated by the War Savings Organization of Illinois. The idea is to promote thrift in the country and to start the children on the right track as to saving.
In order to bring about the cooperation, the children are promised a real treat by the government. The treat resolves itself into the gift of a hand grenade, manufactured by the government for use abroad and made over to a saving bank for the school children. The proposition is explained in the following letter from the Chicago headquarters:
Real Hand Grenades and Savings Banks
Thirty thousand Illinois school children, probably more, will receive at the reconvening of school in the fall, a souvenir of the war that in later years will be highly prized. The souvenir is a real hand grenade converted into a savings bank. These banks are being manufactured from grenades designed for use by the American troops in France.
The mechanical contrivances for exploding the grenade and safeguarding the thrower are left intact. Only the TNT is removed. This had to be done to make room for the pennies and dimes the school children will save therein for the purchase of War Savings Stamps.
When the armistice was signed, the War Department had 15 million grenades on hand and these are being transformed into banks. Illinois has been allotted 30,000 and has asked for an option on an additional 30,000.
Under a plan approved by the Treasury Department for the distribution of the souvenir banks, each child under 10 years old who during the vacation season earns enough money to buy one War Savings Stamp and submits to his teacher an account of how the money was earned would be entitled to receive a bank. Children of more than 10 years would be required to purchase two War Savings Stamps.
The banks will be distributed in the fall by the teachers upon the pupils’ essay. it will be for the teachers to determine whether the Stamps bought represent bonifide vacation earnings.
Well, at least we can be relieved that the TNT was removed from the grenades before they were passed out to the kids. After all, had to have room for pennies, nickels, and dimes. I haven’t been able to find out whether this (at least to me) harebrained scheme came to fruition or not, but I’m going to keep looking with a sort of horrified fascination to see if there were any follow-up stories.
It’s interesting to ponder whether, if it did come to pass, whether these grenade banks might not be the source of some of the scary stories in the news that erupt when an inert grenade of some kind is found in places from private homes to show and tell sessions in elementary schools.
Further, and recalling my own youthful experiments making gunpowder, building rockets, and blowing stuff up in general, I can’t help but wonder how many of those hollow grenades were filled with black powder from emptied shotgun shells and then blown up with a satisfying, if terrifically dangerous, explosion, blasting shrapnel in all directions.
Handing out 30,000 hollow hand grenades to kids, many of whom liked nothing more than to see a satisfying explosion. What could possibly have gone wrong?