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Child care for Swan Island shipyard workers



At the entrance to the Oregon Shipyard Corporation’s (OSC) facilities on Portland’s Swan Island in the Willamette River, the company built a large, onsite daycare center for its workforce. Between November 1943 and September 1945, the Child Service Centers cared for over 4000 young children while their parents labored in the yards.

The centers were the idea of Edgar F. Kaiser, vice-president and general manager of Kaiser Shipyards—the parent company of OSC. Kaiser saw the centers as a solution to the childcare problem faced by his workers, especially by the thousands of women who were recruited to the shipyards during World War II. As a result, the onsite daycare centers reduced absenteeism and improved employee satisfaction.

The shipbuilding industry, the federal government, educators, and parents collaborated on the planning and building of what would become an innovative endeavor in modern childcare. The construction of the centers was financed by the U.S. Maritime Commission, and much of the operating costs were supplemented by the Kaiser Shipyards.

The centers became well known for their innovative approach to early childhood care and education. Parents' Magazine awarded the Centers its medal for Outstanding Service to Children in 1944. The Office of War Information, through a broadcast, newsreels, and a traveling photo exhibit, shared the story of the centers internationally.

The war ended and the shipyards closed. After only twenty-two months of operation, the groundbreaking onsite childcare system that catered to the specific needs of working parents through innovative design and affordable access was shuttered. The building was demolished soon after to make room for industrial buildings.

The images and documents on this page are part of the Mary Willett collection, Coll 366, held by the Oregon Historical Society Research Library. 

      child care center



Slideshow of photographs from the Mary Willett collection (click)

willett slideshow

       The buildings were designed by Wolf & Phillips Architects of Portland in the shape of a wheel. The “hub” was a protected space in the center with a play area, partitioned by age levels. The “spokes” held fifteen playrooms with long banks of windows on either side. The facilities—toilets, sinks, lockers, and shelves—were all child-sized. (Click to see the historical record.)       
      willett telegram       James L. Hymes, Jr., the resident director, managed the centers. Teachers with specializations in early childhood education were recruited from all around the United States. Mary "Billie" Willett, a graduate of Mount Holyoke College, was one of those recruits. She left her teaching position in New Haven in January 1944 and traveled to Portland to teach the five-year-old group at the Swan Island Center. She kept this copy of a pay rate slip, which raised her pay from $55/week to $60/week. She also saved the telegram offering her the job.
nurse     menu     

The centers were open 24 hours a day to children who ranged in age from 18 months to age six. Older children could be enrolled for overnight care to accommodate parents who worked nightshifts. The facilities included a staffed kitchen and an infirmary, which cared for sick children and provided basic medical services. The centers also provided Home Food Service: any worker in the yard could buy prepared meals to take home at the end of a shift.


child care      The child care centers were integrated and open to the children of the growing African American workforce at the shipyards; but the racial prejudice by the white families was so severe, that most black parents arranged for their own child care. Very few African American children attended the schools.     



kids drawing     Willett kept drawings made by her students, including this one of women shipyard workers checking their children in to the child services center.