A Time For War… Cake


Source: National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the U. S. Food Administration

America’s most patriotic woman in 1917 was a doe-eyed beauty with a pert nose and cupid bow lips. Atop her curly hair she wore a Phrygian cap, a symbol of liberty, and dressed her athletic body in a snug-fitting, sleeveless ball gown in a stars and stripes pattern. When one encountered this woman, she literally welcomed them with open arms.

Who was this woman? Like many idealized beauties of the early 1900s, she wasn’t a real person, rather an illustration from a man’s imagination. She was drawn with an allure that would stop people in their tracks and was purposefully placed above an encouraging yet forceful message: “Be Patriotic. Sign Your Country’s Pledge to Save the Food.” Despite her beauty, she wasn’t a piece of art, nor was that call-to-action text written to sell a good or service. She was a creation of the United States Food Administration.

During America’s involvement in World War I, the United States Food Administration created and distributed illustrated propaganda under the guise of patriotic messaging and eye-catching imagery. By doing so, the organization influenced the actions of citizens without mandating new laws or restrictions.

Source: ‘Food Will Win the War! (1917-19). National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the US Food Administration.

The brain behind the propaganda was Herbert Hoover, who before becoming president of the United States in 1929, was appointed food czar by then-chief of state Woodrow Wilson. The responsibility of the food czar was to manage America’s food, which the Wilson administration believed to be a vital sector. “Food will Win the War!” exclaimed an illustrated poster of Hoover sternly glaring at the viewer. “…There Is Another More Vital Necessity: THE CONSERVATION OF FOOD.” 

Before the United States entered the war, Americans had learned of European food shortages caused by blockades and famines. (1) “Food shortage is worse in Allied Countries Than Ever Experienced,” informed a 1917 headline. (2) A few months later, anxiety had reached the States: “Food shortage is probably the most dangerous enemy of the United States today.” (3)

Tense from this news and a rise in prices caused by a poor crop season the year before, Americans began to shop beyond their needs and stored extra food in their homes. (4)  Although this hoarding benefited the individual, it accumulated in shortages, price inflation, and rioting at the mass level. 

With a strained food situation at home and a costly war across the Atlantic Ocean, Hoover had to create a plan that simultaneously preserved essential goods for soldiers and auxiliary, while feeding citizens in the States. Many countries fighting in the war instituted food rationing programs to restrict the public’s intake of high-demand items. Such a program was not an option for the United States because a state-governed food system was considered too close to Communism for the government’s comfort. (5)

Hoover’s alternative was to create a program that convinced U.S. citizens to grow their own produce, cook with little to no flour, and reduce their daily meat and dairy intake. This was a drastic ask for a country that relied on beef, chicken, pork, eggs, milk, and flour for their daily meals. But if Hoover could convince the public to forgo these products and alter their buying habits, food would win the war.

But in order to win, Hoover knew that he could not simply release the program to the general public. He and his team designed the campaign directly with women in mind. As the primary buyers and makers of household meals, women had the capacity and knowledge needed to participate in a conservation program.

Instead of purchasing a meal’s ingredients at a local market, those obeying Hoover’s plan dug up vegetables from their victory gardens, replaced animal-sourced goods with shelf-friendly alternatives, and thought up new methods to create tasty yet filling meals.

But women were doing more than just making dinner. War had forced many to part from the adult men in their life, moving women from a supportive role to the head of their households. They were also taking on work that was once solely occupied by men, serving as clerks, stenographers, radio operators, and agriculture workers for the Women’s Land Army. They weren’t only cooking the food; they were earning the money to buy it.

With busy schedules and little time to adjust to a new way of cooking, women sought advice from recipes in magazines and newspapers. If they could not find the right information from these texts, cookbooks filled with wartime alternatives were available for purchase. Some of these publications were even raffled off as charitable donations for the troops, which doubled a woman’s patriotic contribution. (6)

The U.S. Food Administration even lent a hand by funding expert-led weekly demonstrations on the art of wartime cooking. (7) Such an event was the subject of a 1918 advertisement for a co-sponsored demonstration at a Wear-Ever Aluminum Ware store in Greensboro, North Carolina. (8)  In similar imaging and wording as the Administration’s posters, the advertisement featured a beautiful woman placed above a combination of forceful and anxiety-filled phrasing. “…WE MUST SAVE MORE AND MORE…GET MORE NOURISHMENT OUT OF EVERYTHING WE EAT.”

When not planning public events, the Administration distributed pamphlets written in the same politically fueled messaging. Once a reader pulled back the publication’s cover, she was greeted with a message from then-President Woodrow Wilson. “The women of the Nation are already earnestly seeking to do their part… By so doing they will increase the surplus of food available for our own Army and for export to the allies.”

Source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

The next page carried on the President’s message with a pledge card, which physically committed readers to the Administration’s mission. Women were to sign their names, note their addresses, and publicly display the card to signify that they were supporting America’s fight through food conservation.

If a woman was on the fence about participating, Hoover took over the narrative on the next page. He explained, “Wheat must be sent to them (allies), for their harvest are short … Meat must be sent them (sic), for their herds are depleted… Dairy products must be sent them in three and five and ten times their accustomed volume… Sugar must be sent them, since they are cut off from all other sources…”

After Hoover’s reasoning, the thirty-page pamphlet carried on with charts, recipes, and a weekly meal plan. Hoover encouraged households to go meatless on Tuesdays, wheatless for Wednesdays, and spend Saturdays with no pork.

Instead of using traditional whitebread, suggested was an array of alternatives made with cornmeal, potatoes, rolled oats, peanuts, rye, and barley. Fish was to be baked, broiled, and jellied, while rabbit was casseroled, and hominy was encased in cheese. And when a housewife needed butter, she could substitute the fat with vegetables and nuts.

Sweets were under even more restriction; candy was to be completely cut out of the diner’s diet, and the fructose of honey and fruit were to replace icings and sugar. Although not an essential need of an American woman’s diet, desserts, especially cakes, were a part of their social life. How could holidays be celebrated, weddings thrown, and guests greeted within one’s home without a dessert? Despite living in a country at war, the carnage was far from one’s abode; American women still had the privilege to plan and host celebratory occasions.

The first sugar-free dessert featured in Hoover’s pamphlet was perhaps the most popular alternative food of World War I-era cooking, the war cake. Thick and sturdy in a nut-brown hue, the war cake was a simple spiced loaf or cake made from a mix of corn syrup, molasses, flour, fat, assorted seasonings, and raisins sprinkled in for sweetness. Although the visual of an un-iced cake isn’t as enticing as the original thing, the boiled-baked dessert lasted for days and tasted better over time. (9)

Hoover’s recipe was far from the first iteration of the war cake; instructions on baking a war cake were printed in American newspapers as early as the 1870s. (10) The version popular during World War I was often referred to as the Canadian War Cake. This recipe may have been sourced from the figgy duff, a dish from the far-eastern Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Like the war cake, this dessert was a joining of boiled flour, yeast, and molasses with raisins dredged in for sweetness.

Newspapers reporting on the war cake were especially prominent in 1918. America was a year into the war, and the Spanish flu began to spread across the country. The minimal ingredients of the dish likely complimented the new routine of women who were following both a restricted diet and a distanced social schedule in fear of catching a highly infectious disease. It also may have served as a much-needed break from the stress of the world.

Another perk of the boiled fruit dessert was that its simple formula could be reinterpreted with a variety of goods found in a cupboard. Cakes could be sweetened with flakes of coconut, spiced as gingerbread, salted through peanuts, and even infused with chicken fat as an alternative to shortening. (11)

Potatoes were also a helpful alternative. The international press went abuzz early in the war when students at a high school in Berlin, Germany, crafted a war cake with the starch. (12) The invention was made into a public event when the Kaiserin arrived at the school to try a piece of the cake. She was so impressed that she baked one herself and claimed to have sent it to the Kaiser.

Americans would eventually use this recipe when the country entered the war. Instead of serving mashed potatoes for dinner, the pureed starch became a sweet treat through the addition of corn syrup, walnuts, and a square of chocolate. (13)

War cake was also a profitable opportunity for bakeries. In 1918, the famed kitchen at the Waldorf Hotel in New York City offered their own version, the ‘War Cake a la Waldorf.’ Created by the hotel’s famed chef Oscar Tschirky, the cake was made with no eggs or butter and was a standout dish at a benefit dinner for the Fifth Avenue Association. (14)

Although many favored the war cake, its taste wasn’t so sweet for some. The author of a Buffalo Morning Express opinion piece was fatigued by its popularity and stated that Americans should go without “rather than eat poor cake.” He wrote, “Cake never is a necessity … And a cake made without butter or eggs and sometimes with almost no white flour is an inferior substitute, if indeed it can be called cake at all.” (15) He explained that America is a “cake-eating nation” that should view the dessert as a luxury in light of the expensive prices before the war.

Another criticism came about in a two-panel cartoon from The Wichita Beacon. Drawn is a man at rest in a robe and house slippers. He is disrupted by his presumed wife who presents a darkly colored loaf fresh from the oven. At her urging, the man tries the war cake. But trouble presents itself when he attempts to slice into the food; the war cake is so dense that the man has to leave the comfort of his chair to hack at it with an ax. (16)

As war cakes became a common sight at celebrations and the end of a meal, their reign was cut short in December 1918 when the Food Administration lifted sugar restrictions for private and public consumption. This shift was thanks to an increase in the nation’s sugar supply, which was supplemented by Cuba.

With the reentry of sugar in American diets, housewives could now craft “old fashioned-before-the-War Cakes With Lots of White icing.” (17) But as raisins were getting pushed to the back of the cupboard to make room for bags of granulated white sugar, American women still held on to those war cake recipes.

The war cake reappeared on tables a decade later during the Depression and again when America restricted certain foods during World War II. Even today, war cake recipes have been the subject of many cooking videos, where their simplistic yet delectable nature amazes audiences.

To learn more about the United States Food Administration during World War I, visit the National Archives and read Tanfer Emin Tunc’s article, “Less Sugar, More Warships: Food as American Propaganda in the First World War.”

Tunc, Tanfer Emin. “Less Sugar, More Warships: Food as American Propaganda in the First World War.” War in History, vol. 19, no. 2, 2012, pp. 193–216. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26098429, p. 197.

About Sierra Holt

Sierra is a writer and producer originally from Southern Ohio. She is in her last year in the Biography & Memoir program at CUNY’s Graduate Center. Sierra creates content focused on fashion, Appalachia, and women’s history.


(1) Tunc, Tanfer Emin. “Less Sugar, More Warships: Food as American Propaganda in the First World War.” War in History, vol. 19, no. 2, 2012, pp. 193–216. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26098429, p. 197.

(2) “Sub Campaign Hurts England.” Concordia Blade-Empire, 23 February 1917, p. 1.

(3) “Food Shortage Threatens.” The Enterprise and Vermonter, 19 April 2007, p. 1.

(4) Tunc, 197.

(5) Tunc, 197.

(6) Tunc, 210.

(7) “Will Deliver 16 War Food Lectures.” The Eugene Guard, 26 Jan 1918, p. 1.

(8) “Wear-Ever Aluminum Ware.” Greensboro Daily News, 01 May 1918, p. 10.

(9) “1918 War Cake.”The Evening News, 29 Apr 1918, p.8.

(10) “War Cake.”Burlington Daily Sentinel, 09 Mar 1876, p.4.

(11) “Shorten War Cake With Chicken Fat.” The Yonkers Herald, 30 Jan 1918, p. 5.

(12) “Kaiserin Bakes Potato Cake At High School.” The Journal,13 May 1915, p. 4.

(13) “War Cake (Potato).” Buffalo Evening News, 12 Mar 1918, p. 6.

(14) “War Cake a la Waldorf.” The Sacramento Bee, 05 Jan 1918, p. 13.

(15) “The Fate of the War Cake.” Buffalo Morning Express, 06 Jan 1918, p. 30.

(16) “And He Did.” Cartoon. The Wichita Beacon, 04 Feb 1918, p. 12.”No Need To Count The Grains Hoover Takes Lid Off Sugar Can.” News-Democrat, 4, December 1918, p. 1. 

(17) “No Need To Count The Grains Hoover Takes Lid Off Sugar Can.” News-Democrat, 4, December 1918, p. 1.