Today I had lunch with a lovely historian friend and her family. She is Canadian and her parents were visiting from British Columbia. She had told them about my book and they were curious to know more about what exactly food had to do with World War I.
As I was explaining voluntary rationing and "meatless Mondays" and "wheatless Wednesdays," her father said, "I didn't realize food was in such shortage at that time."
This evening, as my perusal of a Google search for food, WWI, and New York brought me to an undergraduate research paper on WWI, I read the words, "in North America, virtually untouched by the war life went on as usual." I instantly scoffed, for I knew that innocent undergraduate statement, taken for granted by her three reading professors, was inherently false.
Although the United States did not join the war until April of 1917, the repercussions of European agricultural lands being plowed into trenches instead of furrows and sown with bullets and blood instead of seeds were being felt in the United States as early as 1914. The sugar beet fields of northern France and the wheat fields of Poland and the Ukraine being otherwise occupied, an enormous strain was put on global wheat and sugar supplies. 1915 and 1916 both resulted in exceptionally poor wheat harvests in the US and Argentina (then a wheat exporting country) and wheat from Australia and sugar from India were thwarted from import by the dangers of German submarines.
With American grain reserves used up in 1915 and the 1916 harvest projected to only just cover the needs of the U.S. with nothing to spare for export, the mid-spring entrance into the war meant that convincing wheat farmers - who were enjoying the largest profit margins they had perhaps ever seen in their lives - to plant more wheat before it was too late was unlikely. Herbert Hoover, his legal authority tied up in a contentious Congressional battle over the Lever Act bill, could only implore housewives to conserve wheat voluntarily (though voluntarism was his preferred method of coercion anyway).
Astonishingly, they did. Conformist tendencies (sometimes resulting in public beatings of "slackers") were rampant in the 1910s and food conservation was no exception. Housewives signed pledge cards which they displayed publicly. Through conservation, the United States managed to send millions of pounds of shelf-stable wheat and white flour to feed our hungry Allies. Which was just as well, considering the 1917 wheat harvest was also disappointing.
As for sugar? Well, the United States, in attempt to "stabilize" (read: lean on) Cuba, purchased the nation's entire sugar cane harvest (at a discounted rate) for sale to the Allies.
If you would like to read more about the American wheat harvest, check out Tom G. Hall's "Wilson and the Food Crisis: Agricultural Price Control During World War I" Agricultural History 47.1 (Jan 1, 1973): 25.
You can read more (eventually) in my book, but I just had to debunk the myth that the United States was not impacted by WWI prior to its entry into the war. Don't even get me started on the high cost of living. ;)
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Sarah Wassberg Johnson has an MA in Public History from the University at Albany and studies early 20th century food history.
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