“How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?” World War I military service and rural Americans’ postwar mobility

Authors: Angela R Cunningham*, University of Colorado
Topics: Population Geography, Historical Geography, Geographic Information Science and Systems
Keywords: historical GIS, military geography, place, population geography, rural geography, veterans, World War I
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


A few months after the Armistice halted the First World War, a novelty song speculating about the future of returning US soldiers became wildly popular. The lyrics of this song, which lends its title to the present paper, echoed the concerns of many Americans that doughboys, having experienced the world outside of their hometowns, would resist returning to farms and to the occupations they held before their induction. Did military service really encourage a socioeconomic shift in the population? If so, were rural individuals particularly susceptible? Were ‘Paree’ and other foreign locales really the culprit as contemporary discourse would have us believe, or did stateside service have similar effects? I first set the postwar scene with crosstabulations of veteran status and occupation as enumerated in the 1930 US Census. Next, focusing on North Dakota, a state with unusually detailed and accessible military service records, I use a linked census-military dataset and statistical analysis to examine how the particularities of an individual’s place-based military experience may have inflected socioeconomic mobility. I find that while univariate models support the popular perception that farm boys with overseas service were less likely to ‘stick to the hay,’ increasingly complex models suggest more nuanced interpretations, with significant interactions between place and individual, and between military and civilian characteristics. This research advances not only our understanding of the first global industrialized war and its effects on America, but also a more critically informed military geography that extends beyond the battlefield.

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