Saving, Sharing, and Propaganda: Advice for Children from the U. S. Food Administration

Just this week, I finished working my way through a new collection of materials we received relating to military and wartime food and cookery. The majority of the collection is published items that will be cataloged, but it also included a selection of ephemera in the form of menus, corporate sponsored pamphlets, two handwritten recipes, two ration books, and a rather interesting photograph album of the Yokota Air Base Commissary from the 1960s. On the whole, materials in the collection date from the 1880s (Civil War reunion event menus) to the 1960s. The published items date from the 1890s to the 1990s. The manuscript materials are primarily World War II-era, but I’ve been thinking about World War I lately. There have been a number of projects and efforts on campus to document VPI involvement in WWI (and some more to come), which led me to WWI food and cookery. Either later this fall or sometime next year, I’m already concocting ideas for a small WWI-food themed exhibit in our display cases.

In the meantime: Food Saving and Sharing: Telling How the Older Children of America May Help Save from Famine Their Comrades in Allied Lands Across the Sea,  prepared under the direction of the United States Food Administration in coöperation with the United States Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Education, published in 1918.

This book was basically the result of a call for the United States Food Administration (USFA, so I don’t have to type that every time!) to create book for public school use “which will promote the program of food conservation.” Food Saving and Sharing is sometimes referred to as a text book and it certainly has the education element to it. In addition, it includes, photographs, illustrations, and a fair number of little rhymes and sayings to reinforce its ideas.

Shortly after the title page, there’s a brief introduction from Herbert Hoover:

To the Girls and Boys of America:

Now that the terrible war is over, you must be glad that you helped to win it by saving food for our soldiers and our unhappy friends across the sea. But our work of feeding hungry people is not to be greater than it has ever been…To save the world from famine will be a greater task than any of us can imagine, but we can do it if each of us does all he can. I am counting on you…

Later, in World War II, we will see the theme and motto of “Victory!” It was used as a motivation for home gardens, increased self-sufficiency, rationing, and a variety of other food and domestic practices. While World War I didn’t have so clean or simple a motto, this book is a great example of the kind of propaganda (a word that shouldn’t necessarily have a negative context here) that was common during this time, especially from government agencies like the USFA. About two-thirds of the book is spent educating readers on food and nutrition. The last third is about efforts during the war, why they need to continue, and what else young people can do to help. There are a couple of pages on the Garden City movement and the School Garden Army (both of which I’ve come across recently and need to read up on!), organizations designed to promote involvement by school-age children in war efforts and to give them a way to affect change.

Cornell’s Albert R. Mann Library has a nice short overview of the Food Administration that includes the following:

“Food Will Win the War” became the slogan and the Food Administration’s widely disseminated posters, articles, workshops and educational material resulted in a 15% reduction in domestic food consumption without rationing. This meant that in a 12-month period of 1918-1919, this country furnished 18,500,000 tons of food to the Allies.

I can certainly see the appeal of such a book at the end of 1918 and we know that the U.S. did continue its efforts well into 1919 to great success. Efforts like those of the USFA would also be extremely influential in another twenty years when World War II began.

The full version of this book is available online.

I know I didn’t actually talk about or feature the new Military & Wartime Cookery Collection (Ms2017-029), but we will come back to it. For now, you can see the finding aid online (the guide includes a list of the related publications).

Urban Farming for the 1900s Child

In 1902, Mrs. Henry Parsons (or Fannie Grissom Parsons, if you prefer) launched an experiment. Her idea was to find a way to city children to have the rural experience. Basically, she brought the farm to New York City.


Our feature this week is The First Children’s Farm in New York City, from 1904. This publication is the follow-up for three years worth of work on a project. It taught city children the basics of planting, caring for, and harvesting a garden plot by creating opportunities to work in De Witt Clinton Park. The report details how the project started (by inviting children to participate), covers what children learned, and, to some extent, documents the effect it had on participants and the neighborhood.

Based on Mrs. Parsons’ report, we can surmise that she had some success in the endeavor. She was even awarded a medal at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. In addition to recounting the how of things, her report includes a section titled, “Farm School Work in Aid to Schools, Hospitals and Asylums.” What follows is an account of where such programs are needed, the disconnect between city and rural settings in the start of a new century, and the benefits of teaching children about the environment, essentially. The report also contains a number of photographs (I’m partial to the before and after shots above).

While I don’t know how, more than 100 years, we can necessarily judge the effectiveness of Mrs. Parsons’ program, I think it does convey a message that still has bearing: finding a connection to what we eat. We might argue Mrs. Parsons’ work is a precursor to urban gardening and local food movements today. Our campus was host to a 4-H camp last week, and that has me thinking about what we are still teaching children today, whether in school, camp, or at home. The good news is that we haven’t lost sight of work that began over a century ago.

Seeding Spring: Catalogs Galore

Diggs & Beadles seeds, 1930
Diggs & Beadles seeds, 1930

Spring has (at least for now) arrived in Blacksburg. (Although this week we seem to have crashed headlong into summer…) A new box of materials arrived with some new seed catalogs, which got me thinking about the seed catalogs we already have. That, and the wonderful post on our Special Collection blog by my colleague about the first edition of another seed catalog I didn’t feature here. They represent both the History of Food & Drink Collection and the materials we have relating agricultural history. Whether you’re talking heirloom varieties in the past or common varieties today, seed catalogs can tell us a good deal about what people were growing both commercially and privately in the 19th and 20th century. And, you can still find print seed catalogs today from companies that have been in business for more than 100 years, in some cases! (Burpee, I’m looking at you!) Certainly, there are online ones, too, but the fact that print seed catalogs are still made says something about the link between form and physical design.

Seed catalogs as a items themselves, if we ignore the content for a moment, are fun to consider. They feature brilliantly colored covers that make it hard not to stop and look! (What can I say, I’m fond of cover art, whether it’s seed catalogs, cookbooks, or science fiction!)

Most seed catalogs do contain illustrations inside, too. (It’s important to know what your plants will look like!). However, most are in black and white. The occasional catalog will surprise you, though, as with Vaughan’s Gardening Illustrated from 1927. It features full color flowers (although the vegetable pages are still black and white).

Even catalogs without too color are fun. And you never know what might be inside! The 1870 Vick’s Illustrated Catalogue and Floral Guide features a Victorian-decorated cover and large illustrations. The 1899 J. A. Everitt catalog still includes the original order form and envelope. (The cover almost makes it look like tomatoes grow on trees, as suggestion of the quality of the seeds you can get.)

Of course you can use seed catalogs to see what be being bought and sold, what the prices were, and how companies were marketing their seeds. But today’s post is meant to remind you that we can think about them (and many other items in the History of Food & Drink Collection) as objects (and maybe even objets d’art) and not just as a mechanism to convey information.

We have LOTS more where these came from (not even counting the new ones I mentioned that just arrived this week), so if you like seeds, cover art, or agricultural history, feel free to stop by. We can find something fun for everyone. And happy gardening!

Family, Kitchens, Gardens, and Language

Despite the cold temperatures in Blacksburg (or perhaps to spite the cold), my brain is on warmer seasons. As a result, our feature this week is an 1850 tome by Robert Buist about gardening: The Family Kitchen Gardener; Containing Plain and Accurate Descriptions of All the Different Species and Varieties of Culinary Vegetables with Their Botanical, English, French, and German Names, Alphabetically Arranged, and the Best Mode of Cultivating Them, in the Garden or Under Glass; with a Description of Implements and Medicinal Herbs in General Use. Also, Descriptions and Characters of the Most Select Fruits, Their Management, Propogation, Etc. So, if that’s not a mouthful about fruits and veggies, I don’t know what is!

There are some interesting illustrations of garden tools and of some gardening techniques, and a great deal of information for the gardener starting out. And a surprising amount may be of interest to modern gardeners, too! I like the focus on the practical and the home–the herbs included are “medicinal,” since home remedies would still be very common in 1850. The other element that caught my attention was the “Contents.” With a title that long, I didn’t take everything in before glancing ahead. So the tri-lingual list of veggies, fruits, and herbs intrigued me. You’ll notice all of the plants do have names in all three languages throughout, as well as the Latin.

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If you’d like to read further, but can’t visit us (or can’t wait till Monday), the Making of America project has the full text of the 1861 edition online.

So, remember to eat your veggies this weekend (or at least read about them), and maybe we’ll treat you to dessert next week!