We've all had those days. Days where we forgot to bring lunch to work and can't get away to buy it, or when we bring a sad, cobbled-together lunch, or when we pick up fast food or something with empty calories. For many of us, a slow-moving afternoon or the distraction of a rumbling stomach isn't the end of the world. But during the Second World War, people didn't have the luxury of distraction of fatigue.
This bold propaganda poster from c. 1943 features a yawning male worker leaning on the surface of what appears to be a stamping or hammering machine. He says, "Ho hum," feet crossed, leaning on his elbows, as a heavy block of metal descends toward his head. The poster reads, "Avoid fatigue! Eat a lunch that packs a punch!"
During WWII, the United States engaged in total war. That meant that nearly every aspect of American society shifted toward the war effort. Nowhere was this more clear than in the everyday work of people in manufacturing. Men who weren't drafted for the war or working on farms often worked in factory settings. Factories that previously made machinery for consumer use - automobiles, refrigerators, washing machines, etc. - now found themselves manufacturing warplanes and Army jeeps and munitions. Factories worked on round-the-clock schedules, with three shifts a day. Some people worked much longer than 8 hours at a time. Although great strides had been made in ergonomics in factory work during the 1940s, the pressure of keeping up with military contracts and quotas was great. People often got too little sleep, and rationing made food supplies tight.
During the war the U.S. federal government issued the Basic 7 - the first national nutrition guidelines ever issued. Based around the idea of balancing vitamin intake with protein, carbohydrates, and fats, the Basic 7 helped ordinary Americans better understand nutrition. Which is exactly what this poster is alluding to.
"Eat a lunch that packs a punch" was a slogan also showed up in other posters, and alluded to calcium to keep bones strong, protein to build muscles, and Vitamin A to improve eyesight, among others. But this poster focuses on fatigue, which was a very real threat to the war machine. Tired workers made mistakes, hurt themselves, and could hurt or kill others. Operating flat out didn't leave room for mistakes, and a labor shortage thanks to the draft made skilled workers difficult to replace. Unbalanced meals, or not enough to eat, did not give war workers the energy they needed to perform at the highest levels at all times.
The pressure of wartime work must have seemed unbearable at times. And with women increasingly joining the workforce and/or managing victory gardens and food preservation at home, not to mention coping with rationing, the idea of packing a large and nutritionally balanced lunch must have seemed like a lot of extra work for people. But while cafeterias were sometimes available, most people in factory work still packed their lunches. And while working at high speeds with dangerous equipment, it was worth it to make sure you weren't going to be too tired to do your job.
There was no room for slacking off at work during the war, and getting proper nutrition to keep in peak physical health was so important the federal government spent a great deal of money advertising basic nutrition concepts (along with lots of posters about workplace safety) to ordinary Americans. Total war meant total commitment, total effort, and total focus. Staying healthy and well-fed was all part of total war.
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It's finally cold enough to bake in my neck of the woods. I made New York Gingerbread for a Halloween party this past weekend and it was delicious. You may be thinking of finally tackling the yeast bread you never made during the COVID shutdown. But like the early days of the pandemic when the shelves were empty of flour, during the First World War, wheat was in short supply. Poor wheat harvests in the fall of 1915 and 1916 meant that when the United States joined the war in April of 1917, there was not enough wheat to feed both the citizens of the United States and the military and their Allies.
So the United States Food Administration embarked on a campaign to get Americans to voluntarily give up some of their favorite foods - including white bread made from wheat flour. By the 1910s white bread was ingrained (no pun intended) in the American diet and culture. It held onto its associations with wealth and refinement long after white flour became affordable and abundant. In addition, the conventional wisdom of nutrition science at the time elevated carbohydrates as a valuable source of energy. Which meant that both white bread and refined white sugar were considered healthful and important sources of the newly-discovered calories. Getting people to give up their favorite breakfast, side dish, and anytime (including midnight) snack was not going to be easy.
This pair of propaganda posters produced by the USFA illustrate the same primary point - that if everyone gave up a little, the compound effect would be enormous. You'll note they don't focus on getting Americans to stop eating white bread - just to consume less. The implication of both posters is that be reducing consumption by as little as one slice a day would really add up.
Other campaigns, including Wheatless Wednesday (partner to Meatless Monday), told Americans to replace the slice of bread customary with each meal with a baked potato, especially after the potato surplus in 1918. Alternative grains, especially corn, were also touted as substitutes for white bread. Restaurants were banned from bringing rolls or bread to the table before customers ordered their meal (sugar bowls were out, too). By 1918, one way the Food Administration tried to control the consumption of white bread without instituting mandatory rationing was to require Americans to purchase two pounds of alternative grains or flour for every one pound of wheat flour. However, although other campaigns emphasized corn as a valuable substitute, there's evidence that people may have just discarded the additional flours they were forced to purchase.
Despite these challenges, the fact that the United States was able to feed their military, and the Allies, on the same 1916 wheat harvest suggests that Americans did reduce their wheat consumption in 1917.
Today we know that refined white flour is a little too efficient a carbohydrate, and that the vitamins and minerals in whole grain flour, and the added fiber, are generally much better for human health. For wheatless recipes from the First World War, check out this article from North Carolina State University Libraries.
The Food Historian blog is supported by patrons on Patreon! Patrons help keep blog posts like this one free and available to the public. Join us for awesome members-only content like free digitized cookbooks from my personal collection, e-newsletter, and even snail mail from time to time! Don't like Patreon? Join with an annual membership below, or just leave a tip!
Sarah Wassberg Johnson has an MA in Public History from the University at Albany and studies early 20th century food history.