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Updated: Rosie the Riveter Visitors' Center Shows How Kids Played During World War II

By Stevanne Auerbach, PhD
Monday November 18, 2013 - 07:11:00 PM
Stevanne Auerbach
Stevanne Auerbach
Stevanne Auerbach
Stevanne Auerbach

During 1941-1945, Richmond, and the surrounding East Bay, was the hub for a mighty war effort that included construction of tanks, ships, jeeps, and housing, distribution of supplies, plus many innovations in medical care and child care. Many thousands of men and women worked in the area during those years while the entire country was engaged in the fight. 

What remains today is the Rosie The Riveter/ World War II Home Front National Historical Park, which includes a Visitor Education Center and museum, a memorial honoring the patriotic efforts made by women, and more exhibits to come starting in April 2014, and all at an easily accessible location with an unsurpassed view of the Bay. A temporary exhibit (open until the end of March) titled “Kids in WWII: Imagination & Reality” has been installed at the Visitor Education Center. The exhibit opening was delayed from October 12th due to the government shutdown. 

The exhibit features objects from both the Park’s collection and private collectors. Visitors can see vintage children’s toys, uniforms, games, model airplanes, clothes, magazines, and books from the 1940s and focuses on what children played with. 

The exhibit was a joint collaboration among Veronica Rodriguez, Museum Curator, Lucien Sonder, Outreach Specialist, National Park Service, and two private collectors, Ed Von der Porten and Brad Bunnin, who were children during the WWII years. While visiting you may be fortunate to attend a lecture or tour provided by Betty Reid Soskin, 92, who shares her rich history as the oldest Park Ranger in the US Government, and who experienced those years as a young woman living in Richmond. 

The idea for the new exhibit came from the realization that children were largely missing from the displays. Given that WWII was an “all-out” war, even small children were greatly affected by the upheaval on the home front caused by the war. 

The exhibit is meant to “give a specific view of what the war years were like for children–how it affected what they played with, how it touched their imaginations, and how children were personally able to contribute to the war effort.” 

Children were deeply affected by and involved in the war effort throughout WWII. This included saying goodbye to a father in the military to collecting scrap after school as all children felt the impact of the war in their daily lives. 

On Saturday, November 16, as the new children’s toy exhibit opened, the collectors spoke at the Museum theatre and presented their own methods and motivations for collecting. 

The first speaker, Mr. Ed Von der Porten, retired history teacher, former Director, Treasure Island Museum, and avid private collector, covered his memorabilia of objects and posters previously displayed at the Fresno Museum (now closed) and at other locations. 

Mr. Brad Bunnin, retired lawyer, collector, and a volunteer docent with the Park, shared his collection and said, "We were all kids, once upon a time. But childhood, and the toys we played with and learned from, are very different today. Mostly, we depended on muscle power and imagination, not batteries and electronic displays! “Our Kids” exhibit, which shows a broad sample of the toys, games, and clothes, illustrates that point." 

The exhibit consists of cases, photographs, and text that allow the toys on display to speak for themselves. 

Each case focuses on a particular theme including changes in materials used to make toys (due to the war effort) such as cardboard, composition, metal, paper, plastic, and wood; how war related toys were marketed differently to young girls and boys; ways in which children directly contributed to the war effort (collecting foil, fats and metals); how the war impacted the popular hobby of model building (children created their own planes from cereal boxes, paper and wood); and war related toys that mimic real life such as child-sized replicas of uniforms and guns. 

The exhibit also features candid photographs from several volunteers that capture the children and toys of that era. 

Books, games, and toys of the time reflected the reality kids had to face, and at the same time, provided an escape into a more secure fantasy world. 

The exhibit will remind some visitors of their own childhood playtime. Many visitors recalled their toys, favorite radio programs, planting “Victory Gardens,” food rationing, and collecting needed supplies like metal, fat, and tin foil. 

There is an area for visitors to write down the “toys played with as children” and to post their remembrances. Others too young to remember the war years will be able to see what their parents and grandparents played with. 

The Park’s gift shop is stocked with a nice selection of reproduced toys, books, and games for visitors to purchase as holiday gifts for themselves and others. You can find T-shirts of Rosie exclaiming “We can do it!” and “We did it!” 

The Rosie the Riveter Visitor Education Center, next to Craneway Pavilion and adjoining a new restaurant, Assemble, is open seven days a week between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., and is located at 1414 Harbour Way South, Suite 3000, Richmond, CA 94804. 

For more information and directions to the Center, please call 510-232-5050 or visit 

There is no charge for admission, which also offers many exhibits, information panels, and a short film. 

If you would like to receive information about upcoming Park events, visit and sign up for the newsletter. The Rosie the Riveter Trust is the nonprofit association building a community of support for the Park. 

Some additional resources 

Toys Go to War, by Jack Matthews (Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1994); World War II for Kids, by Richard Panchyk (Chicago Review Books, 2002); and Welcome to Molly's World - 1944, the American Girls Collection (Pleasant Company Publications, 1999). 

Stevanne Auerbach recalls her own childhood during those years playing with clothespin dolls, making handmade doll houses, playing games, pretending to be Wonder Woman, listening to the radio, especially “Captain Marvel,” and using the highly prized decoder badge to decipher messages revealed at the end of each episode like “Drink more Ovaltine.” She also recalls FDR’s “Fireside Chats”. She is the author of Smart Play/Smart Toys, Toys for a Lifetime, and The Toy Chest. See Dr.Toy’s Guide,