I was interviewed recently about breakfast cereals, especially corn flakes and the Kellogg brothers, so I thought for this week's World War Wednesday we'd take a look at this sweet propaganda poster from the First World War.
"Little Americans - Do Your Bit! Eat Oatmeal - Corn meal mush - Hominy - other corn cereals - and Rice with milk. Save the wheat for our soldiers. Leave nothing on your plate" was designed by commercial artist Cushman Parker, who also designed covers featuring cherubic children for the Saturday Evening Post.
This poster is interesting because the message is targeted specifically at children. Aside from the school garden movement, there weren't many food-related wartime posters directed to kids - this is one of the only ones. In this poster, a rosy-cheeked blond young man - who looks to be about five or six years old, salutes a floating bowl of hot cereal, a large white napkin tied around his neck as a bib.
Although cold breakfast cereals were around at the time of the First World War, they were still considered less nourishing than hot cereals, especially for children. Oatmeal, Cream of Wheat (a.k.a. farina or semolina), and cornmeal or hominy mush were still popular at the breakfast table.
Wheat was in short supply during the First World War, so ordinary Americans were encouraged to voluntarily restrict use to free up supplies for American soldiers and the Allies. That meant no more farina!
As was true of much of the wartime propaganda, this poster calls for Americans to support the soldiers, doing without so "the boys over there" could have enough. Although Americans only entered the war in the spring of 1917, and it was over by the fall of 1918, wheat supplies continued to tighten throughout the war. By shifting eating habits to focus on other hot cereals, especially oatmeal and corn products like grits, Americans could help "do their bit" for the war effort.
Rationing was voluntary for Americans, but Meatless Mondays and Wheatless Wednesdays still came to dominate American daily life. And children were no exception! Although advertising usually targeted the person who did the food shopping (usually the mother), this poster stands out as one targeting children directly, likely to help educate them about the needs of American troops and cut down on potential complaining, which might encourage parents to give into whining and purchase wheat products.
The return of wheat, sugar, meat, and fats like butter and lard were a welcome herald to the end of the war.
In this 1919 magazine advertisement, Rastus, the racist depiction of an African American cook used by Cream of Wheat packaging and advertisements for over 100 years before finally being removed in the fall of 2020, welcomes home American troops with an enormous bowl of Cream of Wheat - a sign of the end of rationing and likely an attempt to return Cream of Wheat to the tables of Americans who might have gotten used to eating other alternatives.
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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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