Planting a garden became a way of expressing patriotism while, at the same time, feeding families.
I’m told that war bonds I must buy, in twos and fours and dozens,
Enough to make a full supply for all my aunts and cousins.
For war stamps, too, those signs of thrift, I dig into my pocket,
to give Uncle Sam a lift in cleaning up his docket.
But I’ve no kick for those who come with all their pleas beguiling.
It never makes me sad nor glum. They always find me smiling.
I know that I’m too old to fight; I can’t be caught re-nigging.
So I regard it just and right that I should keep on digging.
– “Let’s Dig & Dig & We’ll Be Big”
Even before the United States entered World War I, Europe had a crisis on its hands. The year 1916 had been one of the most disastrous agricultural years the world had ever known. Two years earlier, 20-30 million men all across Europe had left their farms to soldier. This massive deployment caused a critical shortage of workers of the land.
Prior to this, the Entente nations of Europe had developed a fine cooperative system for feeding their masses. Germany provided sugar to England; Russia sent its wheat to Italy. With the outbreak of the war, however, this joint effort was thrown completely out of kilter, and citizens found themselves subsisting hand-to-mouth.
So dire did the situation become that the entire continent resorted to meatless days. Those of the lower class lived primarily upon wheat, breads or pastas, and even that was sometimes reduced to as little as 7 ounces per person each day.
In England, dairy products became so scant that cream could only be procured with a physician’s certificate. Sugar usage dropped from 93 pounds per year to 24. Italy banned the sale of macaroni, and eggs, milk and butter were a luxury.
The effect of this blight on humankind was also felt in the United States. Not only were Americans short on food, with surpluses down by hundreds of millions of bushels due to massive crop failures, but they had pooled their resources with Europe. Since crops took months to years to provide, something had to be done – and quickly!
In March 1917, several months before the United States would enter WWI, one man, Charles Lathrop Pack, discerned the emergency. He quickly organized a committee called the National War Garden Commission (NWGC), and was joined by 18 others, among them a world famous horticulturist, a U.S. commissioner of education, staff members from Yale and Princeton, a women’s conservation club chairman, a former secretary of agriculture and the executive secretary of the American Forestry Association. Their mission was not only to arouse awareness of this crisis but to begin an urgent and ardent educational program teaching American city dwellers how to put idle land to work and grow food for the world. However, for the effort to succeed, every available American needed to be inspired.
Posters were hung all across America, touting such slogans as “War Gardens for Victory,” “Every Garden a Munition Plant” and “Will You Have a Part in Victory?” Anti-loafing laws were quickly enacted, and the slogan for the NWGC became, “Put the slacker land to work.”
President Woodrow Wilson said, “Everyone who creates or cultivates a garden helps.” And help Americans did – to the tune of 100 million. For these voluntary compatriots, the call was not to arms, but to the hoe.
Gardens sprang up all across the nation, utilizing everything from vacant plots in trailer parks to bare corporate acreage. Scores of ordinary folks who had passed the three-score-and-ten mark got busy planting their own garden plots.
Even the media got involved. Magazines as well as daily newspapers published articles and dedicated columns and cartoons to the recruitment.
Children caught the fever, too. One boy from Nova Scotia wrote: “I have decided to help win the war by having a war garden. I have just read your notice that anyone can have a free garden book. Please send it to me. My father joined the army in 1915 and was killed in 1916.”
To ensure success, these new gardeners needed to be educated, so thousands of books and manuals were printed and distributed. Individuals were taught how to prepare the soil, what kind of seeds to buy and when to plant them. They were taught the use of hotbeds and cold frames, how to transplant the seedlings outdoors, which tools to use, and even how to water.
How successful were their contributions? In 1917 alone, these mini food-production patches (nearly 5.3 million of them) produced an estimated $350 million worth of fruits and vegetables. Canning their provender amounted to more than 500 million quarts. By 1918, that number soared to nearly 1.5 trillion quarts, valued at $525 million.
In fact, so great was the response that a new problem arose – that of preserving the crops so that they weren’t wasted. “Victory necessarily brings a large increase in our obligation,” Pack wrote. “We must not only produce food as close to the kitchen door as possible, we must (also) save a vast volume … for winter use.”
Thus more books had to be printed to teach gardeners how to preserve what they had grown. One patriotic poster suggested a sure way to stop the German leader: “Can Vegetables, Fruit and the Kaiser, too!”
Pack would later write of this extraordinary effort: “During that year (1918), the answer was given by the American people with true American spirit. The war gardeners responded with a vigor which carried the War Gardens over the top to victory. … Their responsibility did not end with the coming of peace. … it must now be called a Victory Garden in the full sense of the words.”
Indeed, a precedent had been set. Three decades later in World War II, the War Garden became the Victory Garden, and the contribution would be just as amazing.
Susie Schade-Brewer lives in Adrian, Missouri, with her family and pugs. Her first historical fiction novel, The Sacrifice of the Sage Hen, is scheduled for a spring 2008 release.