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Food Supplies and Shortages


With the First World War raging in Europe, much of the land had been devastated, and food was scarce. Herbert Hoover, as national food administrator, submitted guidelines for housewives to follow to ensure an adequate supply of food at home and abroad. Those who signed a pledge to cooperate received a “home card,” the first of many small publications concerning food supplies and rationing. They were instructed to buy less, serve smaller portions, and preach the Gospel of the clean plate. Full garbage pails in America meant empty dinner pails in Europe and America. They were also instructed to watch for the food wasters in the community.

Caught somewhat unprepared for America’s entrance into the war, local farmers were struggling to meet demand. But even more serious, a lack of rain contributed to a 40% smaller wheat crop than anticipated, and food shortages were a real possibility. The good news was that a smaller crop meant higher prices for farmers. Potatoes, which had been planted in every available space, rural or urban, would now be needed to stabilize the food supply. Potato dehydrating facilities were proposed to help preserve the massive supply, plus reduce shipping space and costs.

A national shortage of rail transportation, always a problem in North Dakota, was creating havoc, not only for food, but all aspect of the war effort. Mountains of potatoes rotted in the east and coal destined for northern states laid stranded on the docks at Duluth. North Dakotans were warned to prepare for a scarcity of coal come winter. To ease the burden on shipping, locally grown vegetables were touted as a dinner table replacement for other commodities.

For some goods, especially those from Europe, the market had long been affected. Black market profiteers were quick to make a buck, and they weren’t the only ones. Today we deal with computer scams and phone scams, but in 1917, chain letters were the gimmick. Many women in North Dakota, in fact, women from as far away as Manchuria, fell victim to a chain letter in which they were told to send copies of the letter to several of their friends. They could then send ten cents to a Post Office box in Minneapolis for which they would receive a silken petticoat. Although the post office squelched the scheme early on, almost one million, one hundred thousand dimes were received, creating an impressive sum for 1917. Scarce items would provide opportunities for such unscrupulous activity throughout the war.

Dakota Datebook by Jim Davis


The Dickinson Press, July 14, 1917

The Bismarck Tribune, July 26, 1917