On a winter's morning in 1916, Nellie stood for the first time before a cartridge heading machine. A floppy cap covered and confined her upswept hair. A pair of coarse, bloomer-style overalls--womanalls they called them--gave an unaccustomed freedom to her legs. Nineteen years old, fresh from the rugged life on a New Hampshire farm, Nellie knew hard work, and she knew long hours. But she had never before confronted a machine larger than herself, a machine that shook her whole body with its vibrations. She had never before handled caustic chemicals or fed percussion caps--already loaded with explosive powder--into a quick-running machine. And she had never before seen an unexpected explosion hurl a woman across the room. During the next two years, she would see and do all of these.
At the Union Metallic Cartridge factory, the farm girl became a munitions worker, her feet firmly planted on the shop floor, her hands and eyes intent on turning out as many cartridges as possible in a ten hour shift. She had taken on this new job not for her country, since the United States had not yet entered the war, but for herself and her family. At first it was simply a question of a few more dollars in the weekly pay envelope. By the end of 1918, munitions work for Nellie--and for a million women like her--would become a patriotic duty. The feverish pace of production and the frequent industrial accidents would be among the sacrifices made by people on the home front, while American soldiers fought and died on the other side of the Atlantic.