|Anti-Saloon League Wartime Poster|
By Keith Muchowski
Food was one of the central crises of the First World War. So many millions faced food insecurity during and after the conflict that the issue became a central preoccupation for the Wilson Administration. Drys, as those who advocated for the prohibition of alcohol were called, understood the significance of the food crisis— how could they not with the price of bread rising so quickly? — and grasped that it could be a way to advance their agenda. The Great War itself did not bring about Prohibition; the temperance movement had been making incremental progress for decades. Activists created the National Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1874. That same decade First Lady Lucy Hayes became known, with either admiration or derision depending on the individual, as “Lemonade Lucy” due to her strict edict that only non-alcoholic beverages be served at White House receptions. The Anti-Saloon League came into existence in 1893. New York City Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt sparked outrage within Gotham’s Irish and German communities a few years later when he began enforcing the city’s strict Sunday blue laws. By the time America entered the war more than a dozen states had gone dry. The grain problem proved to be a convenient means for the drys to advance their initiative.
The food crisis began when the war did in summer 1914. Mining engineer Herbert Hoover proved invaluable throughout the Great War and his first, most immediate task was getting Americans stuck in Europe safely back to the United States. He did this so efficiently—helping nearly 200,000 stranded Yanks find passage home that summer—that he booked his own ticket to come home in late September. The severity and ensuing privations brought on by the German invasion of Belgium soon ended those plans. Belgium was a nation of nearly ten million urban dwellers who soon found themselves running low on foodstuffs of all varieties. Hoover soon found himself in a new, albeit unpaid, position—chief of the Commission for Relief in Belgium. The CRB, a private, non-governmental organization, held its meeting on 22 October 1914, when the war’s first winter was soon to get under way. The commission’s mission was no easy one; it had to feed the millions of Belgians stuck between the German war machine and the British naval blockade. Hoover and his colleagues performed their work with ruthless efficiency, eventually distributing five million tons of four, sugar, cereals, meat, grains, milk, and other provisions worth over 20 billion in 2015 dollars to Belgians trapped at home and in neighboring France over the next five years. The task was complicated by the Germans’ intermittent use of submarine warfare, which sent several thousand tons of additional supplies to the ocean floor.
The plight of the starving Belgians was tragic and yet the food crisis was just beginning. The American declaration of war on 6 April 1917 naturally marked a new phase in the conflict. The war had been good to many Americans until spring 1917, with farmers and Wall Streeters prospering as food went to Europe and the credit to pay for it came to America. Historian David M. Kennedy notes in his seminal book Over Here: The First World War and American Society that wheat selling for less than a dollar a bushel prior to the war was going for $1.25 in 1915, two dollars in 1916, and capped at $2.20 by the Wilson Administration for 1917. Americans would now have to bear the burden at the dinner table. Not only that, they would have to provision their own American Expeditionary Force and the armies of their new allies as well. That burden became more acute when Russia signed a separate peace with Germany and subsequently descended into civil strife and mass starvation. No Russia in the war meant no grain from the east.
No one grasped the need for urgency better than Woodrow Wilson. He requested that Hoover return to the United States and take a U.S. government position. Hoover arrived in the United States in May 1917 and got to work before he officially had a job. That post came three months later after the passage of the Lever Act, sometimes called the Food and Fuel Control Act, on 10 August 1917. Four days later President Wilson created the Food Administration Grain Corporation, part of the wider United States Food Administration, to add teeth to the new law. He put Herbert Hoover in charge with the official title of United States Food Administrator. Others understood the problem as well. In May, as Hoover was returning to America, Progressive reformer and Yale economist Irving Fisher created a Committee of Sixty, who campaigned against using America’s grain supply in the distillation of alcoholic beverages for the duration of the war. The committee’s motto was “Save 11,000,000 loaves of bread a day.”
Congress got into the act in June when the Senate Agricultural Committee debated whether to ban beer, wine, and spirits. The Anti-Saloon was one of the provision’s strongest supporters. The bill was defeated at this time, but brewers were required to lower the alcohol content and also to use 30 percent less grain in their in their products. That December former president Theodore Roosevelt publicly declared his support for prohibition not just in the army but for civilians working in such war-related tasks as shipping, mining, munitions manufacturing, and military transport.
|U.S. Food Administration Poster, 1918|
The task was urgent and the problems real. Grain prices were quickly set at $2.26 for the next two crop years. The Grain Corporation’s distribution of food stuffs is staggering to imagine, with the organization selling nearly 30 billion 2015 dollars worth of wheat, grains, cereals, and other perishables over the 33 months course of its existence. America’s principal allies—Belgium, France, Great Britain, and Italy—were the chief beneficiaries. After the Armistice, however, the Food Administration and its successors fed friends and enemies as disparate as Finland, Estonia, Germany, Turkey, Hungary, Austria, and Denmark, to name only a few. The initiative had taken its toll, with Americans forced to observe Wheatless Mondays and Wednesdays among other deprivations. Bakers and consumers alike also chafed that bread prices were increasing while the loaf itself was shrinking. Scientific American published what it thought to be a helpful article in its 23 November 1918 edition on the wonders of “substitute bread,” a concoction using alternative ingredients.
|Frances Cleveland Preston|
Temperance advocates inserted themselves into this breach with growing boldness. In February 1918 President Wilson received a petition signed by six million women calling for a ban on beer. The measure had serious backing. This support included the usual advocates, such as Anna A. Gordon, President of the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, but also the leaders of such groups as the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Y.W.C.A., the National Federation of College Women, and many others The petition’s chief signator was Frances Cleveland Preston, the widow of President Grover Cleveland. Hoover and Wilson were against the measure but eventually ceded to the inevitable. Hoover’s Food Administration, with President Wilson’s reluctant imprimatur, mandated in late summer 1918 that American breweries stop manufacturing beer and malt liquors by 1 December of that year. The brewers in a sense were an easy target. German- and Irish-Americans were among the largest producers and consumers of beer and malted beverages in the United States. These hyphenated Americans were suspect in the eyes of some, as many Irish were anti-British and many German-Americans suspected of greater loyalty to Kaiser Wilhelm than Uncle Sam.
|An Anti-Saloon League Cartoon Explicitly Linking the Enemy with the Liquor Industry|
Our contributor, Keith Muchowski, previously contributed and article on musical genius and Harlem Hellfighter officer James Reese Europe (view). Visit Keith's Blog, The Strawfoot, for more interesting insights on the history of the First World War.