Politics of the Plate: Food Propaganda from the World Wars
In the summer of 2017, the Center for the Teaching of History at the MHS offered several professional development workshops for educators, including a program on World War I, and a three-day event that explored food in American history. While researching primary sources to share with teachers, intern Adam Berk, a student at Roxbury Latin School, discovered some fascinating items in the Society’s collection.
I was going through the MHS database, looking for potential resources for teacher workshops when I came across something that caught my eye:
This is a propaganda poster from World War I illustrated by Paul Stahr (1883-1953). As was discussed in several teacher workshops this summer, the influx of propaganda posters in America during the Great War played a very significant role in galvanizing the American people to serve their country, either by enlisting in the military or by embracing methods of service at home. Perhaps the most popular and accessible method was the movement to conserve food, especially anything consisting of wheat or meat.
Amongst all the propaganda posters from World War I that I saw, the above Stahr poster immediately piqued my interest, because to me, it is extremely reminiscent of this famous poster:
The “I Want You” poster is an iconic poster in American history. It was painted in 1917 by James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960), one of the most successful artists of the time. The message behind the Flagg poster is a simple one: like so many other propaganda posters, it instructs Americans to join the army in order to serve their country. This poster enjoyed immense success and popularity, not because of the content of its message, but because of the unique and memorable way the message was conveyed. In my opinion, the direct and personal nature of this poster is what made it so popular. The pointed finger and the emboldened “YOU” must have struck a chord with many Americans.
I immediately saw a connection between these two posters because they both employ the same method of communicating their messages: both are directed right at the viewer. Just as Flagg’s Uncle Sam orders his audience to enlist in the army, the woman in Stahr’s poster is imploring her audience to conserve as much food as possible. Such a visible connection between these two posters could represent the incredible importance of food in the time of World War I.
One poster is a call to arms, and the other is a call to conserve. The posters use the same image of outstretched arms to convey two very different messages, and at first glance, the latter may not appear to hold the same gravity as the former.
But the U.S. desperately needed the support and loyalty of its citizens; countless lives of soldiers literally depended on the food conservation effort back home. Indeed, just as the United States entered World War I, the U.S. Food Administration was created, with future president Herbert Hoover in charge. Hoover’s task was to oversee the conservation of important foods, like wheats and meats. Besides frugality with groceries and consumption, Hoover also encouraged alternative diets, consisting mostly of food like fruits, vegetables, and eggs. Hoover never implemented a mandatory rationing system, instead depending on the conscience, morality, and voluntarism of the American people. Despite the strictly voluntary nature of the program, “food shipments to Europe were doubled within a year, while consumption in America was reduced 15 percent.” (Schumm) The positive results of Hoover’s program are a victory of American patriotism, compassion, and teamwork in an extremely difficult time.
The Stahr poster represents the important role that the American civilians played in the war: saving food at home meant saving lives on the front; food was of as much importance as guns. Flagg’s “I Want You” poster was iconic, and it is still famous today. But Stahr’s poster is a quiet reminder that food was crucial to World War I, and that without begging with outstretched arms, the outcome of the war might have been different.
Schumm, Laura. “Food Rationing in Wartime America.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 23 May 2014, www.history.com/news/hungry-history/food-rationing-in-wartime-america.
John Allen, “The Food Administration of Herbert Hoover and American Voluntarism in the First World War,” Germina Veris, 1/1 (2014). Available at http://www.easternct.edu/germinaveris/the-food-administration-of-herbert-hoover-and-american-voluntarism-in-the-first-world-war/
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