1917: Food Glorious Food…or Food For Glory

Here’s more on the background research I did into life on the “home front” during World War I for What Lies Beneath.

On the United States’ entry into the war in April 1917, the military wasn’t the only thing to mobilize.

Under the direction of future president Herbert Hoover, the U.S. Food Administration jumped into action to convince America’s housewives that they could have a positive impact on the course of the war by conserving food, so that not only American troops would be well-fed, but also the millions in Europe for whom getting enough to eat was a daily struggle. This wasn’t pure altruism; as Hoover wrote, “Of course, the prime objective of the United States in undertaking the fight against famine in Europe is to save the lives of starving people. The secondary object, however, and of hardly less importance, [is] to defeat Anarchy, which is the handmaiden of Hunger.” By “anarchy”, Hoover meant communism, to which Russia had fallen in 1917.

The U.S. Food Administration had six main principles:
First–To save the wheat. If we eat as usual from our harvest this year we will have little more than enough for our own supply, but we can divide with our allies if each individual makes some sacrifices by eating at least one wheatless meal a day, substituting corn bread or other cereals.
Second–We want to save the meat, for our cattle and hogs are decreasing, and we must send to our allies, so we wish every householder to buy less, to serve smaller portions and to allow no waste.
Third–We wish to save the fats. We consume three times the fats that are necessary for nutrition, and we need them now for war. We wish no butter used in cooking; we want less butter served on the table; we want less lard, bacon, and other pork products used.
Fourth–Any deficiencies in food supply, by economy along the above line, can be amply covered by increasing the use of fish, potatoes, beans, peas, turnips, cabbage, and vegetables generally, corn, buckwheat, rye, and rice, which we have in abundance this harvest.
Fifth–We want to save transportation. Our railways are unable to meet the war pressure for munitions, men and coal, so that we wish every one to consume products of local origin as far as possible, to buy from the local miller, the local packer, buy and eat vegetables grown near home. Aside from eating an increased proportion of these commodities in order to save on the staples, it is extremely important that any surplus of these commodities shall be preserved or well stored for winter use.
Sixth–We preach and want everyone to preach ‘the gospel of the clean plate;’ to buy less foodstuffs, to serve smaller portions, and to see that nothing of value goes into the garbage can.”
This movement to conserve food was driven by a huge advertising blitz. Women’s magazines in particular ran numerous articles on eating locally produced food, eating more fruits and vegetables and poultry and dairy products, which could not easily be transported overseas at this time, cutting down on waste in general and abstaining from certain foods on certain days, hence “Wheatless Wednesdays” and “Meatless Mondays” (foods like cottage cheese and egg dishes were suggested to replace meat).
To make it even more official, housewives could sign a food conservation pledge and receive a special placard to display in their front windows proclaiming that they were doing their bit for the war effort—a clever bit of psychosocial pressure. (That’s the pledge at left, from the August 1917 issue of Today’s Housewife).
Even advertisers jumped on the conservation bandwagon: companies like Domino Sugar ran ads stating that it was every American woman’s patriotic duty to preserve and can fruit to keep it from waste …using Domino sugar, of course (from McCall’s, August 1917).
And of course, the magazines were full of recipes and suggestions on how to conserve food. Next time we’ll learn how to make an Eggless, Milkless, Butterless Cake (yes, really!), and more.

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1917: Food Glorious Food…or Food For Glory — 4 Comments

  1. That “clean your plate no food waste” mantra has two sides. Those who survived the 1944-1945 Hungerwinter in Holland generally could not stand to see food wasted, after that. Any kids raised during and for decades after that were raised with the idea that you always had to clean your plate, and that leftovers were re-used and not thrown away.
    The children of that generation of children were often still raised with that idea (mum was 6-7 during the Hungerwinter, and clearly remembered the deprivation). After we were all grown up and my sister was raising her kids without that “clean your plate” mantra, my sister pointed out that this meant we were trained to eat more than we needed to feel full, as we were not allowed to say we were full and leave stuff on our plates, and that this probably contributed to my struggles with my weight.
    I wonder if this is also a contributing factor in the US obesity epidemic?

    On that side-tangent:
    Study of the (usually well-fed) Dutch Hungerwinter cohort also brought to light the epigenetic changes caused by malnutrition (that get handed on for two generations at least, IIRC) that ensure an extra-efficient uptake of energy from food and/or extra efficiënt use of energy by one’s cells, making not only those who have survived a famine more likely to develop overweight, but also their children and grandchildren.
    Did some, or a lot, of the US population go through a similar famine? Children of refugees and slaves might have similar epigenetic changes giving them the increased risk of obesit that show up in statistics for different population groups, but I can’t remember seeing a similar raised risk for kids and grandkids of Irish famine emigrants.

    Generally over-large portion sizes and the addition of high-fructose corn syrup to foods and drinks that don’t need it are probably more important factors, as is the decrease of naturally active lifestyles (walking to school and playing outside, biking to work and shop, and more physically active jobs) since the rise of the automobile.

  2. Thanks, Marissa, for the interesting details about the food campaigns. My grandparents came of age during World War I, and may have rolled the food-rationing mindset into the Depression years. Grandma Sara always remained a bit on the frugal side with her family dinners, but any extra guests were always welcome, as they were during the Depression. When all the plates were cleaned (and almost licked clean), she would lean back and say, “How nice! We had just enough!”
    I want to add that I enjoyed all the research that was folded into the seamless background of your novel “What Lies Beneath,” and even though I don’t recall the food issues while reading, all author research contributes to the spell of believability.

  3. Thanks, Marissa, for those details. My father was stationed in Germany during the Occupation. We had a mother’s helper, a teenage girl in a large family. She, in turn, had a younger sister who’d been two in 1944-45, when northern Germany was subsisting on turnips. Because this hit when she was in what would normally have been her two-year-old growth spurt, she was the same size I was in 1953, when she was ten and I was (a normal) five.

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