Friday, September 14, 2018

Every War Garden a Peace Plant

Don't expect a guard to know about an exhibit.

When I walked into the Library of Virginia, I was on a mission. At a lecture there back in late August, the speaker had mentioned an exhibit upstairs of U.S. war posters pertaining to food. And while I'm no fan of the government's propaganda machine, I am a fan of poster art.

But it was more than that. At the lecture, the VCU professor speaking about food during WW II had mentioned how surprised her students were that Americans had been willing to pull together for a national cause, even when it meant major personal sacrifices on their part. That kind of patriotism was foreign to her students, even when they had grandparents who confirmed it to them.

So naturally my curiosity was piqued about how posters had been used to convince people to change their eating habits for the sake of war.

But going through the metal detectors and asking about the exhibit, the guard said there was no such thing. Ignoring him, I took the stairs to the second floor to ask a knowledgeable woman behind a desk who pointed in two directions to show me where I could find the propaganda.

Woodrow Wilson had been the one to create the U.S. Food Administration and tapped Herbert Hoover to lead it in August 1917, just a few months after we entered WW I. Hoover, who thought food was second only to military action during the conflict, used the Food Administration to produce posters as propaganda to encourage good Americans to conserve food and use substitutions and augmentations.

Basically, the posters played on people's emotions and sense of patriotism to eat less meat, sugar, wheat and eggs, as well as grow their own veggies and keep chickens and pigs. It speaks to what a different place the U.S. was that keeping pigs was even an option for more than farmers.

Food was the means by which every citizen could be part of the war effort. And I'm talking every American.

One poster, aimed squarely at the bibbed toddler pictured, read, "Little Americans, do your bit! Eat oatmeal-corn meal mush-hominy- other corn cereal- and rice with milk. Save the wheat for our soldiers. Leave nothing on your plate!"

I'm sure every toddler responded accordingly.

One somber looking poster showing a basket of food says simply, "Food is ammunition. Don't waste it!" In another, a heroic-looking woman wearing a dress made from the flag - white-starred blue bodice and red and white striped skirt - is shown sowing seeds from a basket, the copy reading, "Sow the seeds of victory! Plant and raise your own vegetables. Every garden a munition plant!"

Wait, does that mean the government was okay with turning the flag into apparel? Discuss.

In another poster, a line of supply trucks, each labeled "FOOD," traverses a series of snow-covered hills. The message reads, "Keep it coming. We must not only feed our soldiers at the front but the millions of women and children behind our lines." It's signed by none other than General John J. Pershing.

When need be, the government always pulls out the women and children to great effect.

Several posters touted the Salvation Army, reminding the viewer that they gave doughnuts and coffee to the boys "over there." Another showing a woman in uniform carrying a plate of crullers exhorted the viewer to, "Keep the Salvation Army lassie on the job." Yes, sir.

I think we can all agree that doughnuts were integral to the war effort. And not those iced, candy and bacon-covered Sugar Shack monstrosities so popular today, but simple, unadorned cake doughnuts.

Imagine the government trying to tell entitled Americans today what foods to sacrifice for the sake of the greater good. As for corn meal mush, who even knows what that is?

As usual, I like my American history with a strong dose of skepticism. Kind of like my attitude when that guard told me there was no poster show.

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