Food and Rations

Recreating World War One Foods and Rations

A Guide for Re-creating Foods and Rations

By Vincent Petty

Just as a living historian strives to ensure that his clothing and equipment is correct and authentic to the period he interprets, he must also strive to ensure that the food used is authentic to the impression as well. For the First World War living historian, this can be an interesting challenge.

During the war, the Doughboy usually received his food prepared by company cooks in rolling kitchens, able to prepare meals from canned, fresh and dehydrated foods. These mobile kitchens allowed the cooking and feeding operations of a company to keep up with advances or to operate to the rear of a static line. Food was then brought up to the front in insulated “marmite cans” to be distributed to soldiers in the lines. While training with the British Army in August 1918, Pvt. Rush S. Young, Co. B, 318th Infantry wrote, “As morning came the rolling kitchens in the rear sent a chow detail with some hot coffee and slum-gullion. It was a terrible job trying to carry the food for over a mile in tin cans.” The famed “Old Virginia Never Tires” wagon served the 2nd Battalion, 318th Infantry as a mess wagon.

For the living historian though, there are no rolling kitchens available, and the re-creation of a field kitchen is such an undertaking that it is rarely attempted successfully. Without a kitchen operation, how is a living historian to re-create the rations available to the Doughboy?

When this mobile, unit mess operation was not available, the soldier had to rely on the issuance of a reserve or field ration. According to pre-war and early war manuals the reserve ration was intended as the simplest and most efficient ration available and for one day this ration could consist of:

12 ounces (or ¾ of a pound) of bacon
16 ounces (or 1 pound) of hard bread
1.2 ounces of coffee
1.4 ounces of sugar
.16 ounce of salt

The field ration was intended to consist of the reserve ration either in whole or in part, plus supplemented by articles requisitioned or purchased locally or shipped from the rear. By 1918 rations could be received by the soldiers in the trenches sealed in galvanized iron containers, containing 25 rations – 25 pounds of tinned meat in one pound tins and 25 pounds of hardbread in 8 ounce tins. This sealed container known as the trench ration included tins of meat and hardbread, coffee, sugar, salt and sometimes candy and cigarettes. In their letters, diaries and memoirs the Doughboys all too often wrote of only receiving corned beef and hard bread. When discussing rations it is very important to understand that what was “supposed to be” often differed greatly from “what really was.” This article is intended as a general guide for the WW1 living historian – especially members of the 318th – attempting to re-create the elements of trench rations, or reserve/field rations available to the American soldier in World War One. The goal is not to provide every possible variation of ration items, but to provide a basic understanding of what are appropriate foods to bring to living histories and battle reenactments and a point from which to conduct further research.

As we start, it is important to note that a large portion of the field ration was packaged in cans and tin boxes for effective food preservation, efficient use of shipping space and protection from poison gas contamination. However, after nearly 100 years, the methods of food packaging have changed considerably. The two biggest developments which affect the re-creation of the rations is the switch in the canning industry from smooth bodied cans over to corrugated bodies and the use of “EZ-open” tops. Nothing can be done about the corrugated bodies, and these will be covered by can labels, though the cans with “EZ-open” tops must be avoided (these easy open tops are becoming more common on national brand canned foods, while they remain rare on store brand cans). It is the re-labeling and repackaging that allow authentic rations take shape. It is simply not enough to just remove the modern label, as the cans will still stand out as being “out of period.” Removing the modern label and replacing it with a period label will go a long way to creating a period item.

So how does one re-label cans? The first step is to actually start a collection of original canned food labels. You should keep these in a handy folder, and whenever a label is needed, carry the folder down to the local office supply or Kinko’s and have the original color copied. Color copying will give you the best quality reproduction from the original. Another option is to print reproduction labels from computer files such as jpg or pdf files. The original label should be scanned at 300 dpi or better and then printed on a laser printer. If you do not own a laser printer such files can be saved to a disk and again taken down to an office supply/Kinko’s and printed on the laser printer from the disk. Once the reproduction label is created, remove the modern label from the can and apply the reproduction to the can – it’s that simple.

During the period, canned vegetables and fruit often came in 28 and 29-ounce cans, which are still available today. On the other hand, though, should you find yourself in possession of a label that is too big, a slight reduction in the copy size will make it fit. For example, if copying an original 2 pound can label for a modern 28 or 29 ounce can, you might find that copying at 95% of the original will give you a reproduction label that fits the modern can perfectly.

Collecting vintage canned food labels is a growing and popular hobby and finding and purchasing labels at a reasonable cost is very easy. E-bay is a very good source and a large number of labels are always available. The single best source for original can labels is Dwayne Rogers of Chico, CA. Mr. Rogers’ website can be found at http://thelabelman.com/ or his label auctions can be found on E-bay under the user ID “thelabelman.” On his website look under the “Gallery Links” for “cans” and this will take you to the section of his website where he sells original can labels. He has all sorts of labels that will be found to be useful – fruit and vegetable can labels, canned salmon labels, tinned milk, etc. He also provides the dimensions of the labels, which will allow matching it up with an appropriate can size.

The only labels that The Labelman does not list on his website are labels for the trapezoidal meat cans. For this style can, the best labels available are reproduction labels from Tommy’s Pack Fillers; the website can be found at http://www.tommyspackfillers.com. This company is based in the UK and prices are listed in pounds. However, purchases can be made using Paypal.

Recommended tinned corned beef labels include –

  • “Fitzroy Compressed Corned Beef replica label from the Central Queensland Meat Export Co Ltd. of Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia.”
  • “Armour Brand Corned Beef. Armour and Co “Veribest” brand (Chicago) Corned Beef label.”
  • “Fray Bentos Corned Beef label. “Fray Bentos” Corned Beef label by Liebig’s Extract of Beef Co, (OXO Ltd.) London, England. Product of Argentina, shipped via Fray Bentos, Uruguay.”
  • “Libby, McNeill & Libby, Corned Beef label. Full color, Libby, McNeill & Libby of Chicago U.S.A.”
  • Tommy’s Pack Fillers also offers nearly 100 reproduction labels for canned meats, tinned milk, canned vegetables, condensed soup, and candy. Some of these labels have been adjusted for modern and popular smaller can sizes.

When purchasing canned food labels stick to labels from between 1890 to 1920. Of course, these are years nearest to the war years; but beyond this period the artwork and design of labels change as a result of food labeling laws. I also have a growing collection of can labels and candy wrappers (chocolate bars and chewing gum) that I am happy to share with members of the 318th.

Meat
Corned beef was probably the most common form of the meat ration. This is the stuff that comes in the 12-ounce trapezoidal cans. It is still available in any grocery store in the canned meat section from companies such as Libby, Armour or the store’s brand, such as Food Lion. While Hormel’s corned beef still comes in the trapezoidal can, these cans now have an “EZ-open” pop-top, which is not historically accurate and can not be hidden.

Canned salmon was probably the next most common variation of the meat ration. Today it is also found in the same canned meat section of any grocery store that the corned beef is found. Current brands include Chicken of the Sea, BumbleBee, Royal Pink, Double Q, and the store’s brand and generally come in 14.75-ounce cans.

Bacon is probably the easiest part of the ration to re-create, requiring no special labeling or packaging (while bacon is acceptable to use, the soldier usually received cooked bacon through the rolling kitchens, rather than issued as part of the field rations). The only storage necessary is the M1916 bacon tin. Cured bacon can be found in any grocery or specialty store. For those not able to find unsliced cured bacon in their local grocery there are a number of companies that offer bacon through mail order. Edwards of Surry, Virginia sells cured slab bacon in a slab that is about 5 pounds and costs about $20. Edwards has two retail stores located in Surry County and Williamsburg, Virginia, but they also conduct business by mail order. Edwards can be reached toll-free at 1-800-222-4267 or visit their website http://www.Virginiatraditions.com/. Scott Hams in Greenville, Kentucky is another possible source. Cured bacon from Scott’s is about $2.50 per pound in 9-13 pound slabs. Scott’s Ham’s may be reached toll-free at 1-800-318-1353 or visit their website at http://www.scotthams.com/store.

Bread
The soldier’s bread ration usually came in one of two possible forms – hardbread and loaf bread. Unlike the Civil War era living historian who is fortunate enough to have a manufacturer of correct hardbread, the WW1 living historian is not as fortunate. The best approximation is unsalted saltine crackers. Early in the war crackers were issued to the soldier in cardboard boxes. However, these were prone to getting damp and becoming spoiled and contaminated by poison gas. By 1918 crackers were received sealed in tin containers.

It might seem odd with the concerns over spoilage and gas contamination; however, it was fairly common for the Doughboy to receive loaf bread (again usually with food coming from the rolling kitchen). Loaves of bread can be bought at any local bakery and should generally be about one pound, plain white and unsliced. Be careful with modern ethnic and gourmet varieties.

Canned Fruits, Vegetables and Soups 
Fruits and vegetables received by the American soldier in France were most often of the canned variety and stewed tomatoes were the most commonly canned item available. More canned tomatoes were shipped to France than all other canned fruits and vegetables combined. Canned products such as pork-n-beans, green beans, peas, corn, potatoes, berries, peaches, apples, prunes, and pineapple were at times available, but when shipping space was at a premium they were not shipped, in favor of using that space to ship canned tomatoes. When using canned fruits and vegetables stick to the staples and avoid the exotic products. You can’t go wrong with whole stewed tomatoes or canned peaches.

Due to the immense demand during the war for nutritious soup, the Joseph Campbell Company (today Campbell Soup) introduced vegetable beef soup to be used as a ration item; tomato may have been available as well. If using condensed soup stick with beef vegetable or tomato. It is doubtful that a great variety was shipped to France and many of the condensed soups that we are familiar with are products of the 1930s and 40s (such as chicken noodle or cream of mushroom). Many of the WW1 era varieties, such as oxtail soup, are no longer available. Campbell’s condensed soups are now offered with “EZ-open” tops, so that store brand condensed soups are the better option. Tommy’s Pack Fillers offers reproduction labels for tomato soup.

Coffee, Sugar, Salt
There is no need to do anything special about coffee, sugar, or salt. We all have it in our home kitchen. Coffee may simply be ground or soluble (the period term for instant coffee). Soluble coffee was relatively new product invented by Japanese-American chemist Satori Kato of Chicago in 1901 (In 1938, Nescafe or freeze-dried coffee was invented). Soluble coffee could be found in the trench ration and was popular with the army because it allowed the soldier to “brew” a cup of coffee using jellied fuel, rather than fires, which were not permitted on the front. Those that are not coffee drinkers will find that tea is certainly an option but it was not as popular with the American soldier. Also for those who prefer milk in their coffee, evaporated milk was sometimes available to the soldier. Original and reproduction evaporated milk labels are available.

Condiment cans were issued and permitted the soldier to carry several days’ ration of coffee and sugar. The container was divided in the middle with screw caps at each end. In one end the coffee was stored and in the opposite end the sugar was stored. Further, within one of the end caps was another small container for salt.

Candies and Sweets
Early in the war the army averaged a purchase of 300,000 pounds of candy per month for the entire army and by November 1918 1.37 million pounds of candy per month, mostly for soldiers in France. Candy could be issued or the soldier bought candy from service organizations operating canteens, such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and the YMCA. The army bought from many of the top candy makers in the United States and France and candy purchased included assorted chocolates, assorted candy sticks, and lemon drops. In addition to candy chewing gum was provided as well, with the monthly supply amounting to 1.5 million packs during the summer of 1918. Unfortunately for most soldiers, the canteens all to often sold out of candy on hand and it was not until December 1918 that candy became a regular issue item. It was also in December 1918 that the army also took over supplying canteens with candy; the purchase for that month amounted to 10 million pounds.

Candy and gum should be treated as something special with maybe one or two candy bars or packs of gum used as part of your rations. Keep it small and keep it simple.

Hershey’s Kisses were developed in 1907 and up until 1921 they were hand wrapped in silver-colored foil (it was not until 1962 that kisses were available in colored foils). It was also in 1921 that the little paper flags were added and in 1924 a registered trademark was received. It is not known exactly when these began to become known as Kisses or how the kiss came by the name, but it is generally accepted that the name for the candy came from the “kissing” sound the production machine made when making the candy. Between 1909 and 1931, the kiss was sometimes known as “Sweethearts”, “Silvertops” and “Silverpoints” based on different milk chocolate formulas used during that period. This is really the easiest candy to make into a period item, simply by opening the foil wrapper and removing the paper flag.

Chocolate bars had become popular prior to the war. The milk chocolate Hershey’s bar was introduced in 1900 and the Hershey’s bar with almonds was introduced in 1908. In 1917 the Clark Bar was developed as a candy bar for the soldiers in France. It is difficult to find original wrappers for chocolate bars to make reproductions from, though on occasion they appear on E-bay. However, Tommy’s Pack Fillers offers several reproduction chocolate bar wrappers from both English and Canadian companies that are acceptable for use. I also have a number of original chocolate bar labels including Hershey’s. Candy bars were often packaged with both an inner wrapper and the outer label. For the inner wrapper use a lightweight paper or a foil wrapper. Silver foil wrappers for candy bars can be purchased from “Candy Wrap Designs” athttp://www.candywrapdesigns.com/foils.html.

Chewing gum was also available to the American soldier. Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit (1893), Spearmint (1893), and Doublemint (1914) were all available prior to the war. There were also a number of other brands available. Again the important part is the period wrappers. It is not uncommon to find vintage chewing gum wrappers on E-bay. Remember that wrappers for the individual stick as well as the 5-stick wrapper are needed and I have a Beech-Nut wrapper for single stick and 5 pack. The stick of gum should be wrapped in an inner wrapper, then the stick label. Five sticks then are wrapped in the pack label.

Local French Foods
While the army provided the bulk of soldiers’ food, the French population served as a possible source of food available for purchase. The soldier was sometimes able to purchase such items as eggs, cheese, breads, preserved meats, fresh vegetables, and wines. It is a good idea to take the time to research the foods that the French population might have sold to the American soldier. A good place to start your own research is with the website “French Cheese” found at http://www.frencheese.co.uk/. As with candy, locally purchased foods should be used sparingly as a small addition to the military ration.

Now with an understanding of appropriate foods, it should now be easy to re-create the rations that the American soldier might have used during the First World War.

Notes –
For an interesting overview of the Quartermaster Corps in WW1 check out “Quartermaster Activities in World War I Extracted From America’s Munitions 1917-1918 Report of Benedict Crowell, The Assistant Secretary of War, Director of Munitions Government Printing Office, Washington – 1919.” This article can be found at http://www.qmfound.com/americas_munitions.htm. It is a good, though sometimes overly upbeat, overview of the operations of subsistence and quartermaster departments written soon after the end of the war.

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