World War I is often referred to as the first “modern war.” Weapons such as airplanes, tanks, machine guns, and chemicals were used for the first time with deadly consequences. However, one of the oldest weapons in human history was also employed during the War – food. Starving a city or fortress to surrender is a tactic that dates back to ancient times. History has shown that in matters of war the victor is not always the one with the largest army or most advanced weapons. Often, it is the one who can continue to feed its army and citizens. World War I was no different. As Europe sent its most able-bodied young men into the trenches, food production began to decrease. The United States, being a neutral country at this point and possessing a surplus of food, became critical in supplying food to its (unofficial at the time) allies in Europe.
By the time America entered the war in April 1917, however, European demand had depleted food reserves and driven up prices. Since farmers could not increase production until the following year’s harvest, it became clear that America would have to conserve food if it was to continue to feed itself, its growing and mobilizing army, and its allies. Federal legislation was introduced to control food supplies, but a frustrated President Woodrow Wilson felt that something needed to be done faster. Wilson urged the passing of the Lever Food and Fuel Control Act in 1917 as an emergency wartime measure. With its passing, the Lever Act created the United States Food Administration to control the growing supply problem. President Wilson appointed as head of the administration a man who would later become president himself – Herbert Hoover. Hoover had previously been in London organizing, sometimes surreptitiously, relief efforts for the people of Europe, especially in Belgium.
Hoover believed that “food will win the war” but did not want to embark upon a rigid and mandatory rationing program. He believed that in “the spirit of self-denial and self-sacrifice” Americans would voluntarily modify their eating habits. A national campaign, mostly aimed at women, was introduced to encourage conservation of food and the elimination of waste. Special recipes and cookbooks were disseminated. Victory Bread, bread made with a flour substitute called (appropriately) Victory Flour, became a staple in many homes. Nation-wide weekly events such as “Meatless Mondays” and “Wheatless Wednesdays” were promoted. Children were told to east less sweets in order to “save sugar for a soldier.” Supply-truck motorcades were organized to bring food directly from rural areas into major cities and ports, with Philadelphia being a major hub of this kind of activity. In public spaces throughout the country, cities prominently displayed signs and posters bearing Hoover’s famous statement “Food Will Win the War.” Americans began to informally refer to their modified eating habits as “Hooverizing.”
During the first year of the U.S. Food Administration’s existence, Americans reduced their food consumption by 15 percent. That number may not sound like much, but it doubtless fed many a starving ally or American doughboys across the Atlantic. After the war, Hoover continued the humanitarian efforts of the U.S. Food Administration, which had been reorganized and renamed the American Relief Organization. Hoover expanded relief to include not just America’s allies but also it’s recently defeated former enemies, declaring “Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!”
“Hooverizing” recipes are widely available. For the recipes and to see the finished products, please visit http://foodwillwinthewar.blogspot.com/.
“Wilson Orders Hoover to Start.” The New York Times, June 16, 1917. Accessed June 16, 2011. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archivefree/pdf?res=FA0711FD385E11738DDDAE0994DE405B878DF1D3.
Goudiss, Alberta Moorhouse and Charles Houston Goudiss. Foreward to Foods That Will Win the War: And How To Cook Them. New York: The Forecast Publishing Company, 1918. Accessed June 16, 2011. http://books.google.com/books?id=k9sqAAAAYAAJ
Hammond, R.J. “Review of The History of the United States Food Administration, 1917-1919 by William C. Mullendore.” The English Historical Review, vol. 58, no. 230 (April 1943). Accessed June 16, 2011.
“Food Will Win the War” is part of “Snapshots of History,” a new series of blog entries that will provide background info on select images from the PhillyHistory.org database.