Once Upon a Time

World War I changed how Quincy residents ate

John G. Geers stands inside his meat market at 18th and Vine (later rennamed College) in this 1924 photograph. Shifts in food production enacted during World War I changed how Quincy residents ate. | Photo courtesy of Quincy Public Library
By JOSEPH NEWKIRK
Posted: Aug. 4, 2019 12:01 am Updated: Aug. 4, 2019 12:22 am

Wars profoundly change a nation's relationships with other governments and often its own domestic way of life. Far from the battlefields, the First World War incidentally affected what Americans ate and how they thought about food.

After the United States entered the war in April 1917, a massive national conservation effort began on the home front to save the most substantial and nutritious food for troops fighting in Europe. President Woodrow Wilson and food department "czar" Herbert Hoover created a voluntary program with pledge cards distributed to families. This measure initiated "Meatless Mondays," "Wheatless Wednesdays" and other stringent measures.

Mrs. C.W. Leffingwell, chairman of Quincy's branch of the Women's Committee of the Council of National Defense, circulated these cards in July 1917 to the city's club and society presidents for disbursement to their members. Soon, Quincy Public Schools passed out pledge cards to children in every school.

The war instilled the need for community gardens and locally grown foods. The Quincy Daily Journal furnished seeds for anyone willing to cultivate a vacant lot, and The Quincy Daily Whig ran a regular column titled "For War Gardeners." Officials encouraged children to form pig and sheep clubs for raising these animals for the war effort. Quincy youngsters enthusiastically answered the call. The Quincy Daily Herald of July, 11, 1918, reported: "The girls have quit cuddly dolls and gone to raising pigs for the government. The boys have thrown their baseball mitts into the corner of the barn and are doing the same thing."

Scientists working for the military during the war made discoveries that greatly affected views about food: the "calorie" and the "vital amine" or "vitamin" became household words. Most people at this time, though, saw calories as largely interchangeable units of energy. A Quincy Daily Herald article of Oct. 23, 1917, titled "Paste This Up in Your Kitchen," classified food as price-per-100 calories without regard to nutritional value. Fruits and grapes at $1.49 per 100 calories were the cheapest, and celery at $21.40 the most expensive.

People also widely considered red meat the only source of quality protein and wheat the purest form of flour. The war changed these notions. Smith Peanut Butter Factory at 416 S. Eighth in Quincy, which previously sold mostly to people needing protein in their diets but who could not chew meat, saw its business spike.

Local homemakers began, albeit reluctantly, to bake breads with alternative flours -- oat, cornmeal, turnip -- so wheat could be saved for troops.

Providing soldiers with a source of quick energy and a way to quell the terror of combat and the tedium between battles made large portions of chocolate a vital part of daily rations.

During the war, companies like Nestle and Hershey began packaging and marketing chocolate to the public as "candy bars." They proved immensely popular and often created a craving with customers, who by the 1920s could choose from about 30,000 varieties.

The Quincy Daily Journal of Dec. 12, 1914, reported the robbery of Herman Drug Store at 730 N. Sixth, where the thief stole all of the cocaine, heroin and morphine. "Some coconut candy bars were also taken, and the crumbs scattered over the floor led the police to believe that he (the robber) filled his pockets with the candy."

Soldiers fighting in trenches and fields needed convenient, nonperishable food transportable over long distances. United States distributors began to process and can food in massive quantities to meet this need; the American public, in turn, started purchasing it out of necessity and patriotism. People also widely believed that Germany had unleashed the worldwide influenza epidemic raging at the time, and that foods with longer shelf lives were "safer."

Grocers such as John Affre at 603 Hampshire and John H. Geers at 18th and Vine (later renamed College), who previously stocked mostly fresh produce, dairy and meats, also started selling canned and processed foods. They placed laboratory-created "oleomargarine" next to butter and alongside fresh cuts and tins of meat. In December 1925, after grinding coffee beans for 20 years, Malambri's Market offered another World War I innovation: "instant coffee."

Coupling this time-saving trend with new discoveries about food, Dr. J.H. Kellogg of Battle Creek, Mich., revolutionized the food industry with his brand of cereals. Kellogg espoused a fledgling science arising out of the research done in World War I, "euthenics" -- creating a better human species through diet and nutrition.

The Quincy Daily Journal of Jan. 10, 1914, ran a front-page article about this work headlined "Develop Race of Human Thoroughbreds." To this end, Kellogg manufactured Sanitone Wafers, advertised to "make you strong, courageous, and undismayed no matter what you have to fear." Local drugstores began selling these wafers and other "miracle" foods.

The 1916 Quincy City Directory listed 19 butchers, 17 dairies, 42 meat markets, 16 fruit and nut stands and 149 grocers--mostly local citizens raising produce and animals and selling out of their homes.

The public's increasing demand for speed and efficiency brought about by the exigencies of World War I displaced many of these specialized markets and made way for modern "grocery stores."

S.S. Hill, who had come to Quincy from Greensboro, N.C., opened a Piggly Wiggly store at 702 Maine on July 16, 1922. For the first time, customers could choose a variety of foods from one central location.

Opening day drew 700 people, and "self-service" quickly caught on and would eventually replace individual clerks weighing, packaging and tallying prices for customers.

The war fostered calls to sift through and disseminate new information about food and thrust the study of home economics onto the American scene. The Quincy Daily Whig began a home economics school conducted by Mrs. Mary Brown-Lewers. The Masonic Temple held regular cooking and nutrition classes for "contemporary" households. Civic-minded citizens founded the Adams County Home Bureau in late 1917, and a few months later Quincy Public Schools began offering a high school course in home economics. The first syllabus outlined lessons garnered from World War I about planning and preparing meals.

 

Joseph Newkirk is a local writer and photographer whose work has been widely published as a contributor to literary magazines, as a correspondent for Catholic Times, and for the past 23 years as a writer for the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project. He is a member of the reorganized Quincy Bicycle Club and has logged more than 10,000 miles on bicycles in his life.

 

Sources:

City Directory of Quincy, Ill., 1916. W.H. Hoffman and R.E. Hackman, Quincy, Ill.: Home Office, 1916, pp. 915-70.

 

"Develop Race of Thoroughbreds." Quincy Daily Journal, Jan. 10, 1914, p. 1.

 

"Here's a Real Treat for Quincy Women." Quincy Daily Whig, Oct. 14, 1914, p. 6.

 

"Hoover Pledge Cards Arrive." Quincy Daily Whig, July 22, 1917, p. 3.

 

McCowen, David. "How WWI Food Propaganda Forever Changed the Way Americans Eat." In "The Takeout" @ thetakeout.com, March 15, 2017.

 

"Paste This Up in Your Kitchen." Quincy Daily Herald, Oct. 23, 1917, p. 12.

 

"Piggly-Wiggly to Open Store in Quincy." Quincy Daily Herald, June 17, 1922, p. 14.

 

"Thief Steals Much "Drug;" Leaves Money." Quincy Daily Journal, Dec. 12, 1914, p. 12

 

Veit, Helen Zoe. "Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century." Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press Books, 2013.

 

"War Pigs." Quincy Daily Herald, July 11, 1918, p. 4.