Friday, August 31, 2018

Food Will Win the War: Recruiting an Army of Food Savers

The state and federal agencies formed to tackle the food problem during World War I approached the issue from the perspectives of both the producer and the consumer. As we saw in our last post, the New York State Food Commission developed a variety of resources to assist farmers in increasing their crop and livestock yields, including supplying improved seed, providing assistance in pest and disease management, and helping to address the farm labor shortage. These programs were largely successful, but they were only part of the solution. Americans would also have to fundamentally change the way they cooked and ate their daily meals.

U.S. Food Administration poster
urging Americans to save wheat for soldiers
Since women were responsible for purchasing and preparing almost all food consumed in the home, all food conservation programs targeted housewives. The U.S. Food Administration and the state food commissions aimed to persuade women that it was their patriotic duty to adopt wartime food-saving measures, such as wheatless and porkless days. As authorities continually emphasized, there was no shortage of food in the United States; it was a matter of substituting those foods that were not needed or suitable to send overseas with those that were. But Americans were accustomed to a diet that relied heavily upon meat and bread. Meat was easy to cook and it almost always tasted good; bread was cheap and accessible. Could people be persuaded that fish, eggs, and cheese were acceptable substitutes for pork and beef, and that bread made with corn, rye, oats, and barley just as good as that made from wheat?

A small army of women stepped forward to help the government with this difficult task. Since the late 19th century, (white, middle-class) women had been working to establish domestic science as a profession; they had been successful in starting domestic science and home economics departments at colleges and universities (including the New York State College of Agriculture in Ithaca) and sending their graduates forth into the world to work in high schools, settlement houses, and extension services. For many of them, World War I must have seemed like a godsend: finally they would have the opportunity to demonstrate to the wider world just how important their discipline was. The work that women did in the home affected their families, communities, and indeed, the nation—and it was essential that they do it right.

Cornell Home Economics Faculty, 1914.
Bertha Titsworth is standing at far right.
Home economists and experts in “scientific cookery” went to work preparing menus and recipes for wartime foods. Experimental kitchens were set up across the country to test bread recipes, hoping to find the perfect formula that would use less wheat but still be palatable and easy for the home baker to make. They figured out how to make desserts without sugar, introduced housewives to unfamiliar new ingredients like soybeans, and came up with creative ways to use leftovers. They also introduced Americans to the science of nutrition, explaining what kind of foods were necessary to good health and why. They provided assurance that the changes in diet encouraged by the Food Administration would do no harm, and in fact, eating more vegetables and less sugar would probably do everyone a lot of good. 

All of this information was distributed in cookbooks, pamphlets, magazines, and newspapers, and at schools, women’s clubs, and county fairs. The Plattsburgh newspapers regularly published lists of new material on food conservation received by local public libraries, and ran columns of “Victory Menus.” Women in Clinton County also had many opportunities to learn directly from food experts. In July 1917, the Plattsburgh Sentinel reported that “women representing different sections of the county as well as the Grange and various women’s clubs” met at the Farm Bureau office in Plattsburgh “for the purpose of organizing a woman’s branch in farm bureau work as the result of the national campaign for thrift and economy.” Bertha E. Titsworth, extension specialist and faculty member from the department of home economics at Cornell, helped the women to develop the plan. Clinton County would be divided into 15 communities, with four demonstrations held each week. Meetings would be held in “Grange halls, churches or other public buildings,” and the demonstrations of cooking and preserving were to be done by a “trained lady specialist” provided by the state.

Advertisement from the Plattsburgh
Daily Republican for a bread mixer and
food grinder
Later that summer, the Plattsburgh Daily Republican printed an article (almost certainly based closely on a press release provided by the New York State Food Commission), reporting on the success of the “campaign for the enlistment of women in food conservation.” Thirty food conservation experts had been assigned to various parts of the state, “and they are not only advising housewives, but they are demonstrating conservation methods and enrolling women in the movement, with the result that a chain has been established in which the housewife in the remotest corner of the state is as active as those in the larger centers.” The offices of the home economics experts “have become bureaus of information for all questions pertaining to food and food conservation.” 

Not surprisingly, during the summer of 1917, most of the work being done related to methods of preserving fruits and vegetables for the winter. In our next post, we’ll look more at the canning craze of 1917-18 and the related war garden movement.


“Food Conservation: Circular Letter Issued by the Conservation Department of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs,” Plattsburgh Sentinel, May 19, 1917.

“Food Saving in N.Y. State,” Plattsburgh Daily Republican, June 22, 1917.

“Women in Farm Bureau Work: County Organization Perfected at Meeting in This City,” Plattsburgh Sentinel, July 3, 1917.

“Women’s Aid in Food Campaign Now Being Sought in Every County of the State of New York,” Plattsburgh Daily Republican, August 14, 1917.

“Class in Cookery at Young Women’s League,” Plattsburgh Sentinel, October 9, 1917.

“Public Library Notes: New Books on Household Organization and Food Conservation,” Plattsburgh Sentinel, February 12, 1918.

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