The United States participated in World War I from April 1917 to November 1918. During this time people, rallied to save food for the war effort. One Bellingham woman, Mrs. G. A. Bumstead, was inspired to turn her thoughts into music. The lyrics, to the tune “Marching Through Georgia,” were published by the Bellingham Herald on October 30, 1917:
“We women of America will prove that/we are true./While standing by our colors, the Red,/the White, the Blue./We’ll show our boys in France that we/can fight the battle, too!/While we are standing by Hoover.//Chorus: Hurrah! Hurrah! We’ll help the thing/along./Hurrah! Hurrah! We’ll do it with a song./We’ll bake the bread we ought to bake,/corn bread and muffins, too./While we are standing by Hoover//Corn meal in mush we’ll boil and fry/and spread molasses on./We’ll eat it with good conscience for/’twill help the boys along./Eat it as we used to eat it in the days/now gone./For we are standing by Hoover//Chorus//One day we’ll cook no meat./One day we’ll cook no wheat./We’ll cook the things we ought to cook,/corn cakes and hominy, too./For we are standing by Hoover.”
As Mrs. Bumstead wrote, saving food was a central part of the American homefront during World War I. The need for food was dire for America’s soldiers and allies. The conflict had devastated agriculture in Europe as men marched off to war and fields disappeared under shelling. Submarine warfare disrupted international trade.
To meet the emergency, President Woodrow Wilson formed the United States Food Administration, headed by former mining engineer (and future president) Herbert Hoover. Hoover had impressed many with his capable handling of relief for civilians in German-occupied Belgium. He was the logical choice for the post and, as seen in Bumstead’s song, was the public face of the organization.
The Food Administration labelled their food-saving measures “food conservation.” Few laws were passed regulating consumption and businesses practices, making it a largely voluntary rationing program.
People were encouraged to save limited commodities, especially wheat, meat, sugar, and fats. Through promotion of “wheatless,” “meatless,” and “porkless” days and meals, people were encouraged to use substitutes such as corn and other grains to reduce consumption of limited commodities. They were also encouraged to plant “war gardens” as a way to increase food supplies and reduce strains on food transportation.
Pledge card campaigns promoted food conservation. In July 1917, the National League for Women’s Service led these efforts, making cards available at their headquarters and local businesses. Another drive was held in late October 1917. Students brought home pledge cards (Bellingham’s Washington School collected 400 alone). Other groups, such as churches and fraternal organizations, distributed cards to their members. Volunteers canvassed houses with help from experienced door-to-door agents from Metropolitan Life. Near the end of the campaign, organizers estimated that about 75% of Bellingham families had signed the pledges.
People could find information about how to save food everywhere. The Bellingham Public Library had a collection of official United States Food Administration bulletins and publications, full of recipes and food-saving tips. The local Chamber of Commerce distributed their own pamphlets. Puget Sound Traction, Light and Power Company provided recipes and distributed posters, while at the same time they promoted their gas and electric ranges as saving coal needed for the war effort. The National League for Women’s Service even had a canning booth at the Bellingham Public Market where the public could watch demonstrations—but they had to bring their own food and cans.
The Bellingham Normal School (now Western Washington University) trained people to be teachers. During the war, the school played an important part in the food conservation effort. They invited a number of speakers to their assemblies from across the region and country. These speakers included Sarah Louise Arnold, a noted suffragist and dean of Boston’s Simmons University on a national tour for the U.S. Food Adminstration.
In January 1918, in response to a call by the Food Adminstration, the Normal School opened a twice-weekly emergency course in food conservation. All students (including men) were required to attend 18 demonstrations over the seemster. Some school assembles had to be cancelled to make room for the new class. The public was also invited to attend for free.
The importance of food conservation led to some paranoia. In September 1917, a local woman found bits of tin in new rubber bands she was using to seal her fruit jar; the flaw was blamed for several other women’s freshly canned food spoiling. Instead of assuming it was accidental, the paper accused “alien enemies” of trying to sabotage food conservation efforts.
Overall, food was a cornerstone of the war effort and promoted as something everyone could—and should—do to contribute to winning the war. In an official declaration in support of war gardens, published in the February 6, 1918, issue of the Bellingham Herald, city mayor John A. Sells wrote: “[While] you may not be able to buy liberty bonds or [make] donuts [for] the Red Cross; you may not be able to contribute to the various funds and philantropies now loudly calling; but every able-bodied man and woman in Bellingham can dig. And the diggers in America are going to win this war.”