BOZEMAN – Women attending Montana State College during World War I signed a pledge that they wouldn’t eat more than six pieces of candy a week. When they did eat, the candy would be no larger than one-inch square and half-inch thick.
In the rest of Montana, coffee drinkers cut back on sugar. Children weeded “war gardens.” Women baked bread with rye and barley, so the United States could sell wheat, their premier grain, to Europe. The building superintendent planted potatoes on the University of Montana campus and filled 200 sacks with his 1917 harvest.
All of those food-related war efforts supported the United States and its allies during the war that began 100 years ago this summer, Montana State University historian Mary Murphy said in a recent lecture on food, gender and the domestic politics of World War I.
Murphy, a professor in the Department of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies, is the current Distinguished Professor in MSU’s College of Letters and Science. Known for her engaging books on Montana history, she has published 10 books and book chapters, including "Hope in Hard Times: New Deal Photographs of Montana, 1936-1942," which won the Montana Book Award in 2003. Her "Mining Cultures: Men, Women, and Leisure in Butte, 1914-41," received the 1998 Barbara Sudler Award from the Colorado Historical Society and was a Choice Outstanding Academic Book in 1997.
Murphy is now researching the historic role of food in the American West as a way of tracing the history of women in the region. She is also collaborating on a Montana cookbook that will combine essays about food and cooking in Montana with recipes drawn from historical cookbooks.
“Dr. Murphy’s research on food, gender and politics in Montana during World War I is important, and likely to be of interest to Montanans, for at least two reasons,” said David Cherry, chairman of the Department of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies.
“For one thing, it shows how a seemingly nonpolitical issue like control over food and food production could serve to engage Montana women’s political consciousness in the period immediately after they obtained suffrage in 1914,” Cherry said. “Also, the state’s role as a major grain and beef producer on the home front during the war led to the development of a new, and in some ways closer, relationship with the federal government.”
In Murphy's inaugural lecture as the Letters and Science Distinguished Professor, she noted that U.S. Rep. Jeannette Rankin of Montana -- the first woman in Congress -- voted against the United States entering World War I, but once the country joined the war in 1917, Rankin threw her support behind the troops. She entertained soldiers in Washington, D.C., for example. She called attention to poor conditions in military camps.
Rankin’s fellow Montanans joined her in patriotic acts, Murphy said. With farmers becoming soldiers, European farmland filled with trenches, and crop failures rife, many of them turned to food-related activities.
“From the war’s beginning, food was a critical issue,” Murphy said.
The U.S. Food Administration printed the motto “Food will win the war” on posters and encouraged Americans to increase food production, preserve food, and reduce their consumption of food. In Montana, MSC and the MSU Extension Service, which was founded the same year the war began, played an integral role in the wartime food effort, Murphy said.
In 1917, the year that the United States entered the war, at least 12 new county Extension agents “spread the gospel of canning throughout Montana,” Murphy said. MSC Dean of Women Una Herrick was behind the candy-eating pledge on campus, and the school encouraged home economics students to use more peanut butter in recipes.
A two-act play written by MSC faculty contrasted women before and during the war. Women in the first act, which took place in 1908, played cards and nibbled on elaborate refreshments. The same women in 1918 worked in a food lab, participated in Red Cross meetings, talked about food conservation and wore “Hoover aprons.” The ubiquitous aprons were named after Herbert Hoover, whose name was synonymous with conservation, Murphy said. Hoover, the 31st president of the United States, was head of the U.S. Food Administration during World War I.
Montanans sacrificed much during the war, but some eventually grew jaded, Murphy said. A Sheridan County merchant wrote state supervisor Alfred Atkinson, who later became MSC’s president, that 300 old women besieged him because they couldn’t find enough sugar for canning. A Rosebud County resident complained that a sugar shortage meant thousands of gallons of plums were going to waste.
Some women said if they could conserve despite sugar shortages and price gouging, shouldn’t the federal government establish prohibition? Alcohol, after all, was a poison that ate up more sugar than they could save by canning or limiting themselves to a teaspoonful a day in their coffee.
A dark side to Montana’s war efforts revealed itself, with some Montanans resorting to spying and tattling, Murphy said. Giving examples from all over the state, Murphy said one Wolf Point resident complained that her German neighbor allowed his cows to destroy the crops of a woman whose son had been drafted.
Charges of food hoarding and failure to use substitute ingredients were common, Murphy said. Meatless Mondays and Wheatless Wednesdays were voluntary, but some Montanans applied peer pressure to force others to comply. Some Montanans turned on their German neighbors and any term that seemed to reference Germans. German measles became “liberty measles,” for example. Sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage.”
Despite the negatives, which included a German book burning that got out of control in Lewistown, retired MSU history professor Pierce Mullen said the food focus was a relatively benign way for Americans to support their troops during World War 1.
When the United States joined the war in 1917, the nation had little military experience beyond frontier battles, he said. Older people remembered the Civil War, but now the United States was joining a global war.
“It was the greatest catastrophe the world had ever seen,” Mullen said. “It was a really big deal.”
Wanting to help, ordinary citizens turned to food.
“I think the food program was not only necessary for the war effort, but it was a way of letting people participate,” said Mullen, a Nebraska native who sold garden seeds for World War II victory gardens.
“Food was positive,” he said. “You are not killing anybody. You are trying to save folks.”
Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or firstname.lastname@example.org