"Sugar means Ships. Consumption of Sugar Sweetened Drinks Must be Reduced. For your beverages 400 million lbs. of sugar were imported in Ships last year. Every Ship is needed to carry soldiers and supplies now."
This unobtrusive but nonetheless striking propaganda poster from the First World War was produced by artist Ernest Fuhr in 1917 for the United States Food Administration.
In it, a soldier stands on the shores of Europe, rifle in hand, beckoning and shouting "Hurry!" to steamships carrying supplies from the United States as he heads toward the dark clouds of War. At left, in the foreground, a fashionable young woman drinks from a giant soda fountain cup. By sucking on the straw, she diverts more than half of the steamships, these labeled "sugar," back to the United States and into her cup.
Although sugar was not rationed for civilians until the fall of 1918, a number of factors are at play here. First, is that unlike during World War II, the United States had poor mobilization of industry. In the short year and a half that the United States was in the war, not a single merchant ship was completed in time for war service, though 122 were started and completed after the war. In addition, even when the United States was a neutral country, German U Boats were always a risk (see: the sinking of the Lusitania). When it came time to ship millions of troops and supplies overseas, every ship possible was pressed into service.
At this time, although the United States did produce its own sugar, largely through sugar cane plantations in Louisiana, it also purchased a great deal of sugar from the Caribbean, particularly Cuba. With railroads also tied up as goods and people moved east, ships were among the most efficient ways to ship shelf-stable staples like sugar.
Leading up the U.S. entrance into the First World War, the United States had the highest per-capita sugar consumption in the world, consuming 85 pounds of sugar per person annually, compared to just 40 pounds in England. This extremely high sugar consumption was tied in part to the Temperance movement. Under the conventional wisdom of white, middle- and upper-class Protestants, alcohol was a social evil, and the basement saloons and bars that dotted urban neighborhoods throughout the country, with their free lunches to entice customers inside to drink more beer and other liquor, were dens of iniquity, tempting working class men to drink up their wages, to the detriment of their families. Nevermind that for many immigrant communities, social drinking was a convivial community event that often involved women and children (the Yankee reformers would be horrified).
Soda fountains and tea rooms were a growing alternative. Soda fountains in particular were attractive to young people. And the reputation of fizzy "mineral" waters and "tonics" like Coca-Cola (which contained cola leaves - the main ingredient in cocaine) gave a veneer of health to what was otherwise sugar water. Ice cream was another extremely popular dessert turned snack in the Progressive Era and commercial production skyrocketed in the years leading up to the war. Tea rooms served fancy iced tea cakes and cookies, sweetened tea, and "dainties" like creamy fruit salads made with Jell-O - and plenty of sugar. The conventional nutrition wisdom of the time was that sugar was a carbohydrate, and carbohydrates gave you energy, therefore, sugar was good for you.
Although sugar was not rationed for civilians during the war, it was for commercial enterprises. The production of ice cream and soda were both restricted during the war starting in the fall of 1917, and restaurants, hotels, and railroad dining cars were banned from leaving sugar bowls on the tables, as had previously been the norm. Civilians were encouraged to give up their sugar addictions, or at least transfer them to other sweeteners like honey, corn syrup, molasses, and maple syrup. Recipes for cakes, cookies, and preserving with these sugar alternatives were released to the public as part of the war effort. Although it's not clear if these efforts did have an effect on American sugar consumption during the war, the popularity of soda fountains, ice cream, gelatin fruit salads, and candies continued to be an American obsession.
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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.