Posts tagged ‘world war I’

Corn People: How It Started

Close-up of a teenage girl (15-17) holding a corncob in front of her face

If you’ve been following the food news, you probably know by now: we are corn. Just about every item in the meat and dairy cases, just about every ingredient in processed food, somehow begins as corn in the corn field. This is not obvious from the mind-boggling array of goods on display at your local grocery.

Man spilling cornflakes

The corn-ification of our food supply is perhaps the most significant change in the U.S. food scene in the last hundred years. We mostly think of this as a consequence of “industrial food”: bigger and bigger food processors squeezing more and more profit out of less and less input.That’s definitely the story of the twentieth century, not just for food but for just about every commodity. Here’s an interesting twist, though: what set it all in motion wasn’t just greedy agri-business.

Corn used to be just for animals to eat. The reason humans started eating more and more corn, and more and more processed corn products, was because of the U.S. Government. Or you could even say it was because of Germany. Or imperialism. Or the ambition and folly that drives humans to war.

Don’t worry, I’ll get to the candy part. But to understand what happened to candy, you have to understand what happened to food more generally. And to understand that, you have to go back to the first World War, back to 1916.

Ironically, the stage was set for the corn take over by some very charitable motivations. It was the start of World War I. We hadn’t committed to fight yet, but our allies in England and France and Italy were under attack, and hurting. Europe was experiencing terrible food shortages, and the U.S. was at the ready to help with the bounty of amazing agricultural resources.

But by 1918, the American agricultural surplus was gone, and the U.S. had joined the war. Wheat in particular was in short supply, due to poor crops in 1917. Lower food harvests combined with desperate appeals from overseas inspired the U.S. Food Administration to launch a campaign for voluntary reductions in wheat consumption. Instead of wheat, Americans could eat corn.

There was plenty of corn to be had. The crop in 1917 was more than 3 billion bushels, and only six percent of that crop was normally used for human consumption, the rest going to feed cattle and livestock. But Americans weren’t accustomed to eating corn.

In the spring of 1917 and then in an expanded version in 1918 the American Museum of Natural History put on a Food Conservation Exhibition which aimed both to educate the public about proper nutrition and to support the war through encouraging food conservation. The exhibit was extremely successful in New York, where it traveled to various schools and civic centers through late 1917 and early 1918. It was praised by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “the best food exhibit yet prepared,” and was widely emulated by other museums around the nation.

Corn wasn’t part of the original plan for the exhibit cooked up in 1915. But by 1918, Americans needed to  know that corn was the food of choice for patriotic citizens supporting the war effort:

The value to the country of the corn crop is being emphasized in the food exhibit in the foyer of the Museum by presenting scores of ways in which this chief of American cereals may be used in the home. The Corn Products Refining Company has presented to the Museum twenty-two products made from corn. Among these are various starches used for jellies, puddings, pie filling, and sauces; the syrups and sugars for confectionery, preserves, jams, and jellies; and the oils used for general cooking, pastry, and salads. Great quantities of gluten and oil cake, besides corn meal, are used for feeding cattle, thus indirectly contributing to our food supply. Aside from their food value, corn products have a large place in the arts and industries. From corn oil are made leather, rubber, paints, and varnishes; the starches are used for laundry purposes, for ‘sizes’ in textile and paper industries, and for soaps an adhesives; the syrups and sugars are used in tanning, in shoe polishes, hair tonics, chewing tobacco, and in the manufacture of lactic acid and vinegar. (Am Mus Journal Oct 1917 p. 420)

Perhaps the multiple forms of corn would have eventually insinuated their way into American life anyway. The War gave corn an air of necessity and of patriotism. Corn was a good choice, corn was helping America and its Allies in the war effort.

Corn meal could take the place of wheat in the nation’s bakeries and bread baskets. In the words of Professor Graham Lusk, a food expert at Cornell University who advised on the U.S. food program as well as the AMNH Food Exhibit, “corn bread became the bread of every patriotic citizen.”

And what about candy? Sugar was in short supply and everybody, including the candy industry, was conserving.  Corn had a solution there as well, a way to keep the candy coming, just as sweet: corn syrup.

In my next post, I’ll tell you more about how the WWI food shortages and rationing programs created modern candy.

Sources: The quote about corn at the exhibit is from Am Mus Journal Oct 1917 p. 420; the quote from Graham Lusk is from Lusk, “The Food Supply of our Allies,”  Am Mus Journal 18.8 Dec 1918: 629-635; quote on p. 630; the quote regarding the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture is from Am Mus Journal Nov. 1918 p. 623. Accounts of the Food Exhibit can be found in the Annual Reports for the American Museum of Natural History for 1917 through 1925. I consulted correspondence and clippings relating to the Food Exhibit at the AMNH Archives; my thanks to librarian Mai Qamaran for her assistance in locating relevant materials. As general background, Michael Pollan describes the ubiquity of corn in our diet in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, an excellent place to start one’s food re-education.

Images: Corn: PicApp, AMNH image: Fusionpanda on Flikr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fusionpanda/ / CC BY-NC 2.0

April 14, 2010 at 8:28 am 5 comments

Taking Candy from a Soldier

U.S. soldiers in the nineteen-teens were distinguished by many virtues: their bravery, their manliness, and above all, for their craving for sweets.

Rations in the Army around 1916 included bread, potatoes, bacon and beans or fresh meat, cheese, coffee, tea, butter, milk, sugar, an orange or an apple, pepper, salt, and 1/4 pound sugar per day. Given such blandly nutritious fare, it wasn’t a surprise that the boys serving in the military would be glad of some candy.

In a report on military morale in 1917, Dr. Naismith, a profesor of physical education at University of Kansas, encouraged gifts of candy to accompany letters from home, in preference of “sob letters and night gowns,” typical items that Naismith called “the most worrying and useless things the boys on the border last summer received from home.” As Dr. Naismith noted, “his appetite for sweets, too, is very keen. The army ration, wholesome and nourishing, hasn’t many trimmings, so candy always is warmly welcomed by the boys.” .

The call for candy did not go unanswered. In August 1917, Wallace and Co. of Brooklyn began advertising the “Service Package” to retail dealers. This box of confection was “designed and packed for the boys” and meant to be purchased on subscription: the customer would pay, and the retailer would send out the package on a regular basis. This would be an easy sale: “We know there is nothing a soldier or sailor on active duty appreciates more than candy. His chances of buying candy for himself are very small, therefore such a gift, delivered by Uncle Sam’s Postal Department, is a most welcome addition to the service rations and a cheerful remembrance from home.” And what would the happy soldier receive in his Service Package? One package each of lemon drops, wild cherry drops, and broken candy, two rations of eating chocolate, and two packages of chewing gum, all wrapped in a box covered with inspirational images of soldiers at salute, cannons, explosions, and the American eagle.

Even before the U.S. joined the European war, the soldiers’ love of candy was a common theme. By 1915 there were reports that “one of the finest old American slang terms is about to succumb to the stern demands of war.” Where Americans used to say “taking candy from a baby,” now it would be more accurate to describe that tearful tug of war as “taking candy from a soldier.” One pundit went so far as to suggest a novel military strategy based on candy: “Put a chocolate statue of the Kaiser in the square at Berlin and our men will take it in a week” (attributed to Sir John French, British Army Inspector-General).

By 1916, confectioners were viewing the impending war with a certain optimism, as a huge marketing opportunity:

We know that a country at war does not lose its desire for confectionery. The European war has taught us however that huge standing armies consume huge quantities of candy, and it is a fact that thousands upon thousands of men who seldom if ever eat candy before, begin to crave for sweetmeats after they feel the rigors of active army life.

Before World War I, candy had been seen primarily as the province of lovers and children. No longer: the experience of war would make candy a man’s game. The market for candy created by the war was the theme of the 1916 address by R. F. Mackenzie, president of the National Confectioners Association (NCA), at the annual convention:

The world must have its sweets. As the wise man has said, ’Candy’s fair in love and war.’ The lover demands his package of bon-bons with which to propitiate his sweetheart; and the veteran of the tranches requests his strength-renewing tablet of chocolate.

As U.S. soldiers returned to civilian life in the roaring 1920s, their candy appetite propelled an enormous boom in candy invention, production, and sales. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the American candy business of today–and especially the primacy of the candy bar–is the legacy of the dough-boys ’appetite for sweets.’

Sources: “The Chocolate Soldier,” International Confectioner October 1915, p. 36; “Preparedness,” International Confectioner June 1916, p. 39; R.F. Mackenzie speech to NCA, 10 May 1916, International Confectioner May 1916, p. 41-42. Wallace and Company “Service Package” ad, International Confectioner August 1917, p. 14-15. Dr. Naismith quotation, International Confectioner June 1917, 61.

January 18, 2010 at 7:34 am 2 comments

Chocolate War Rations, Round One

Ship cannon on gun

In my previous post, I shared some war-themed ads for children’s candy from the WWI era. It’s not surprising that candy makers would jump on the war bandwagon by using war imagery and themes to attract attention. But at the same time, the candy trade was also working very hard to position its product as an essential support for the war effort.

Everyone expected that war would bring rationing and scarcity. The economic viability of the candy business depended on defining candy as food, as a necessity for every day life. Candy makers used every means they could to bring this message to their customers. Here’s the copy from another ad for Zatek Eatmors, this one from 1917:

Show the children how to make an Eatmor Cannon. Zatek Milk Chocolate Eatmors will feed a whole army of hungry soldiers. Appoint one child “Quartermaster” and let him issue the “rations.” [image of chocolate stars flying out of tube/cannon, children playing with cannon and soldiers on the floor indoors, girl and boy]. The sealed Eatmor tube makes sure that each soldier receives his portion clean and fresh. The 28 or more sweet-milk-chocolate-stars are ample to go around. Their wholesome nourishment provides the necessary ’pep’ for long marches and trench warfare.

The message is cleverly double: the children are playing soldier, and the chocolate will give them “pep” for their play. But also we are meant to read this ad literally: chocolate provides real nourishment for real soldiers. Real cannons kill the enemy, of course. But chocolate cannons keep the troops going and, perhaps, win the war.

Candy, and chocolate in particular, was increasingly seen as the ideal ration under the dangers of war. As early as 1914, when the war broke out in Europe, U.S. candy makers took note of the popularity of chocolate among European armies as “a favorite emergency ration on account of its small bulk and the large amount of nutriment it contains.”

And then on in 1917 the life saving virtues of chocolate made the headlines. On June 1, two British aviators who had been shot down over the North Sea were finally rescued. They had been floating on wreckage for five days, sustained only by a small piece of chocolate which they shared. The U.S. Navy took note. In July, they announced “a new emergency ration, for issuance to the marines and sailors who may be ordered into action under circumstances which may result in their being separated for more than a day from their base of supplies. The ration will consist of biscuit and either a highly nutritious form of chocolate or peanut butter.”

By the time World War II came around, chocolate manufacturers were ready with U.S. military-approved field ration chocolate bars. But that’s another story.

Sources: “Troops and Chocolate,” International Confectioner November 1914, p. 42; “Aviators 5 Days on Wreckage Lived on a Piece of Chocolate,” New York Times, 2 June 1917; (No title: comment on Navy rations) International Confectioner August 1917, p. 57.

January 15, 2010 at 7:42 am 1 comment

Let’s Play War Candy!

Toy soldiers on market stall, customers in background (focus on toys)

What do you tell your children about the war? In my house, we try to avoid talk of violence, terrorism, torture, guns and bombs. My daughter is only six, and somehow I cling to the idea that I can shield her from the harsh realities for a little while longer.

So when I found ads for children’s candy from the era of World War I that emphasized war and weaponry, I was a bit surprised.

Zatek Milk Chocolate Eatmors were chocolate drops (similar to Hershey’s chocolate kisses) sold in a tube. Before WWI, ads for Eatmors suggested that kids could use the tube as a megaphone when they were finished with the candy. Then in 1916 they started a new campaign with a new toy idea:

Boom! the War is on. Children all over this peaceful land are having the time of their lives making toy cannons out of ZATEK Eatmor tubes and playing war. Each Eatmor cannon is loaded with 24 or more ’solid shot’ of pure, sweet, creamy milk chocolate.

The ads included diagrams showing how kids could turn the tubes into little play cannons by adding paper wheels, and a scene with brother and sister down on the playroom rug surrounded by toy soldiers and the Eatmor cannon.

The R.E. Rodda Company of Lancaster PA took the theme of national war preparedness for its 1916 line of penny candy novelties. Children could have 6 submarines, or 5 torpedo-boat destroyers, or 4 battleships for their penny purchase. Their ad copy featured a parody of the war-time news reels and tabloid headlines of the day:

Almost since the day the phrase, ’National Preparedness’ was born, we have been building (?) Battleships, Torpedo-Boat Destroyers and Submarines, until now we have a fleet second to none, and can supply each man, woman and child with a navy of their own. This is– National Preparedness.

Don’t wait for this ’bomb’ to drop in your territory–’arm yourself’ with a stock of these goods at once! Don’t ’defeat’ your opportunity for ’an overwhelming success’ this season, by running into doubt ’entanglements.’ Get busy! ’Mobilize’ your forces and begin ’the attack’ on the trade. ’Fire away’ with your orders–as stated before–we are Prepared!”

The U.S. joined the war officially in August 1917. But these advertisements from 1916 give a good idea of how deeply the feeling that war was coming had penetrated into the national spirit. We get a sense of jauntiness and confidence from the language of these ads: war is a good adventure, with little to fear. Candy cannons and submarines seem to transform war into a big game: its fun, if you know how to play.

For us today, the message “war is fun!” seems a little uncomfortable. Even more uncomfortable for me as a parent is the use of candy to encourage children to see the war as normal and fun. The “unconscious” work of these war candies and their advertising is to make every citizen, no matter how small, a participant in the war effort.

On the other hand, war is real. Are we doing more harm than good by sheltering our twenty-first century children from anything that would hint at the brutal truth?

Sources: Pennsylvania Chocolate Company ad for Zatek Eatmors, Confectioners Journal May 1916, p. 27; R.E. Rodda Candy Company ad, Confectioners Journal April 1916, p. 19.

January 13, 2010 at 7:15 am Leave a comment

Candy Band Aids

Sugar is a somewhat magical substance. In all its many crystalline and syrupy moods it gives us jellies, and taffies, and candy canes, and fudge. These days, we don’t often worry about spoilage, so its easy to forget that sugar is also an excellent preservative. Fruit preserves and candied fruits last a long time; the sugar draws moisture out of the microbes that would make the food spoil.

Doctor Bandaging a Knee

None of these uses would suggest that we could use sugar in the arsenal against injury and bloodshed. Yet just such a use was discovered among German surgeons during the early days of the first World War:

…it is said that many of the wounded have been cured by dressings of ordinary granulated sugar, the compresses being changed every second or third day.

Actually, it kind of makes sense. Sugar would impede the growth of infectious bacteria, just as it discourages the growth of spoiling bacteria in food. But Confectioners Journal offered a more metaphysical explanation:

Sugar is always vitalizing and it seems logical that it should purify and heal when thus applied externally.

And there was a suggestion for a new candy product:

One of these days our confectioners may be found turning out sugar plasters.

Candy band aids sounds like a great idea. Imagine how much easier it would be to sooth little Suzy’s scratched knee if you could offer one bandage for the knee, and another to suck on!

One final thought: Of course, salt would have the same effect. But in addition to the general non-yummyness of salt band aids, it should be pointed out that packing wounds with salt sounds like it would really hurt!

Source: “Sugar as a Life Saver,” Confectioners Journal April 1917 p 65

November 6, 2009 at 7:38 am 2 comments


Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure

Welcome to Candy Professor

Candy in American Culture What is it about candy? Here you'll find the forgotten, the strange, the curious, the surprising. Our candy story, one post at a time.

(C) Samira Kawash

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