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Celebrating Thanksgiving in Wartime

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Nov 29, 2017

Holidays in peacetime can sometimes be taken for granted as we become wrapped up in ourselves, but in wartime things are different. The celebrations of 1917 would be the first time since the Civil War that the term “home front” would have real meaning.

By October, the United States had been involved in the Great War for seven months. During that time an army had been drafted and cantonments, such as Camp Dix in Burlington County, had been erected for its training. While only a few troops had actually been sent to France and the slaughterhouse known as the Western Front, most knew that day was coming. Soon the period of flag-waving and patriotic speeches was coming to an end.

Toms River’s New Jersey Courier reported on Oct. 5 “that the National Government has arranged to pay $50 for each deserter from military service who is delivered to the nearest camp or army post. All persons are urged to take part in the work of rounding up the deserters. … (T)he willful deserters, after delivery to the military authorities, will be tried by court martial and the proper military penalty will be imposed. … Washington declares that it is highly desirable from every standpoint that an effort be made now to round up all persons who are delinquent in their military duty. The reward of $50 is in full satisfaction for the delivery of a deserter. … This government urges that the greatest possible publicity be given to the fact that a reward of $50 has been offered for the delivery of each deserter.”

The Courier went on to explain that catching deserters wasn’t going to be the only way the public was to be involved in the war effort. Herbert Hoover was in charge of the Food Administration. “He announced tonight, ‘that the week of Oct. 21-28 has been set aside for a “Nation-wide campaign to complete the enrollment of our forces in conservation of our food supply.”

“He makes a strong personal plea to the people to conserve food and ‘thus make victory sure.’ The harvest is now in hand, he says, ‘and we cannot measure the world’s food resources.’ The available supplies this harvest year are less than last year: the demand upon us is greater than last year; the demand upon us is greater than last year, and from the last harvest we exported more than we could really afford. We can only meet the call upon us next year by savings, and by substitution of commodities which cannot be transported.”

We weren’t fighting this war alone. Hoover continued, “The Allies are our first line of defense. They must be fed, and food will win the war. All Europe is on rations or restricted supplies. … For us there is no threat of privation. We wish only that our people should eat plenty but wisely and without waste. … I therefore, appeal to the churches and to the schools for their assistance in this crusade: to all the organizations for defense, local and national: to all the agencies, commercial, social and civic, that they join the Administration in this work for the fundamental safety of the Nation.”

The government’s effort would go even farther.

“During the week of October 21-28 a house to house canvass will be made of the 22,000,000, families in the United States and every man and woman enrolled in a mighty food conservation army that will win the war.”

By Oct. 18, the Tuckerton Beacon was telling its readers, “Our problem is to feed our Allies this winter by sending as much food as we can of the most concentrated nutritive value in the least shipping space. These foods are wheat, beef, pork, dairy products and sugar. … Our solution is to eat less of these and more of other foods of which we have abundance and to waste less of all foods.”

Just what did that mean?

“Bread and cereals – Have at least one wheatless meal a day. Use corn, rye, barley or mixed cereal rolls, muffins, and breads in place of white bread. … As to the white bread, cut the loaf on the table and only as required. Use stale bread for toast and cooking.

“Meat … Use more poultry, rabbits, and especially fish and sea food in place of beef, mutton and pork. … Milk – use all of the milk, waste no part of it. … There is a great waste of food by not using skim or sour milk. Sour milk can be used in cooking and to make cottage cheese. … Reduce the use of fried foods to reduce the consumption of lard and other fats. … Sugar. – Use less candy and sweet drinks. Use less sugar in tea and … do not frost or ice cakes. … Fuel. – Coal comes from a distance and our railroad facilities are needed for war purposes. Burn fewer fires … if you can get wood, use it.”

Just how far would the government program go? The Courier editorialized on Oct. 26, “I’m afraid Mr. Hoover may get himself disliked, if the report is true that he is going to ask the Great American nation to go without its Thanksgiving dinner. We are willing to save on ordinary days, but don’t monkey with the Thanksgiving day, please, Mr. H.”

The editor was also quick to point out, “Another enigma for the poor man, who is asked to pinch his belt a little tighter in patriotic endeavor to win the war, is the big banquets that government officials and even the food administrator himself still take delight in. One can’t read of a squab dinner of six or seven courses, served to Mr. Hoover at the Bellevue-Stratford, in Philadelphia.”

Many breathed a sigh of relief the next day as papers across the country published a statement from Hoover: “The Thanksgiving dinner this year should be festive, but not ornate. The day should be one of real Thanksgiving even for the mother who prepares and serves the meal herself. Thanksgiving would not be Thanksgiving without a chicken or turkey or without cranberries in some form. Potatoes and other vegetables there should be. Corn-meal bread is suggested as a reminder of our country’s need to save wheat. Mince pie is omitted because that means unnecessary use of meat. Pumpkin pie is typically American, reminiscent of the first Thanksgiving day, and it has but one crust, thus economizing in wheat-flour.”

Still some people were unease, especially when a government official appeared on their doorstep asking them to sign “I pledge myself to use the practical means within my power to aid the Food Administration its efforts to conserve the food supplies of the country, and, as evidence of my support, I wish to be enrolled with yourselves as a volunteer member of the Food Administration.”

“There are no fees or dues. We want your help, in the form both of your personal efforts to economize food and your influence with others toward food economy and wise control of our national supply. If you will give this help it will be a direct service to your country.”

The nation relaxed when President Wilson signed the official proclamation on Nov. 8, 1917, setting Nov. 29 as a national day of “thanksgiving and prayer, saying, “It has long been the honored custom of our people to turn in the fruitful autumn of the year in praise and thanksgiving to Almighty God for His many blessings and mercies to us as a nation. That custom we can follow now even in the midst of the tragedy of a world shaken by war and immeasurable disaster, in the midst of sorrow and great peril, because even amidst the darkness that has gathered about us we can see the great blessings God has bestowed upon us, blessings that are better than mere peace of mind and prosperity of enterprise.”

A hundred years later, Thanksgiving means football, protests and Black Friday. I wonder how that pledge would be received today.

Next Week: “The big day.”


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