WWI Archives: Edna Gellhorn and Food Conservation

During WWI, America sent nearly two million people overseas to fight in Europe, but the war also had a tremendous impact on the lives of those who stayed behind in the United States. The Washington University Archives’ Edna Gellhorn Papers highlight some of the ways everyday life was altered for Americans as they sought to help their country win the war overseas.

This poster encouraging citizens to conserve food was put on 300 billboards in St. Louis in the winter of 1917-18. Photo from the Washington University Archives’ Edna Gellhorn Papers.

By the time the United States entered the war, its European allies were facing a severe food shortage. In August 1917, President Woodrow Wilson issued an executive order to form the United States Food Administration to figure out how to get food reserves overseas to US soldiers and their allies as efficiently as possible. In order to accomplish this goal, the new organization merged with the already existing Women’s Central Committee of Food Preservation, which had been formed months earlier and was already organizing thousands of volunteers. Together, the organizations taught citizens to can and preserve their own food, create war gardens, and limit their consumption of meat and grains.

A pamphlet encouraging citizens to “Can the Kaiser” by canning surplus fruits and vegetables for the war effort. From the Washington University Archives’ Edna Gellhorn Papers.

The Edna Gellhorn Papers Document Food Conservation Efforts in the US

Civic leader and St. Louis native Edna Gellhorn, whose husband was a member of the medical faculty at Washington University, was very involved in the Women’s Central Committee of Food Preservation. Washington University Archives’ Edna Gellhorn Papers document the many ways in which the women of St. Louis helped to reduce waste and keep the nation fed while it was at war.

Photo of the Patriotic Food Show held in St. Louis February 2-10, 1918. From the Washington University Archives’ Edna Gellhorn Papers.

The picture above shows a Patriotic Food Show held in the St. Louis Colosseum from February 2-10, 1918. Different booths set up at this event taught participants how to ration food, gave demonstrations in canning and food preservation, displayed new innovations for food production, and provided tips for cooking with less sugar and meat. The photo below shows one exhibit urging visitors to eat more fish,eggs, legumes, and cheese because cows and pigs use up valuable grains.


A display at the February 1918 Patriotic Food Show illustrating possible substitutes for expensive beef and pork. From the Washington University Archives’ Edna Gellhorn Papers.

Getting Kids Involved In Canning

Women weren’t the only ones trying to preserve food for the soldiers overseas. St. Louis, like many cities, had Boys and Girls War Canning Clubs in which school-aged children learned how to can fruits and vegetables. In a letter to a donor dated October 30, 1918, the leader of the St. Louis branch of these canning clubs claimed that its 618 members had canned 12,836 quarts of food worth roughly $6000 in the 1918 currency.

Students from the Cleveland High School in St. Louis learning how to can vegetables. From the Washington University Archives’ Edna Gellhorn Papers.

Growing War Gardens

In addition to engaging in preservation and rationing, citizens were also encouraged to grow their own food in war gardens. The “War Garden Guyed” featured below contains cartoons printed in newspapers throughout the nation encouraging citizens to help win the war by planting and canning their own vegetables so more food can be exported to Europe. The Food Administration provided pamphlets informing citizens which seeds they should plant and when, and encouraging them to make use of as much vacant land as possible.

Page from the War Garden Guyed, 1918. From the Washington University Archives’ Edna Gellhorn Papers.

More About the Edna Gellhorn Collection

Edna Gellhorn was a civic leader, reformer, and first vice president of the National League of Women Voters. In addition to the numerous photographs and pamphlets documenting food conservation efforts during WWI, her papers also include information files on the League of Women Voters and the American Association for the United Nations and documents pertaining to her various reform efforts through the 1960s. Also included in the collection are photocopies of her correspondence with Eleanor Roosevelt from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library.

A photo of a community food demonstration. From the Washington University Archives’ Edna Gellhorn Papers.

Resources on WWI

Letters from the Gellhorn Papers and other materials from Washington University’s WWI collections are now available digitally through the Missouri Digital Heritage project, “Missouri Over There: Missouri and the Great War,” a project to digitize collections of Missouri’s participation in the First World War. You can check out the project at http://missourioverthere.org/.

Patrons interested in researching more about WWI can also view the library’s WWI Archival Sources finding aid to discover other related University collections.

About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.