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100 Years Ago: September 1917


This is my thirty-third installment in a series of short reviews of National Geographic Magazines from a century ago.



As you can see from the cover, there are four main articles in this month’s issue.  The first is entitled “The Food Armies of Liberty” with a subtitle of “The Winning Weapon – Food”.  It was written by Herbert Hoover, “the man who saved Belgium from starvation and now National Food Administrator”.  He, of course, will become President of the United States several years in the future.  The article has twenty-one black-and-white photographs, of which eleven are full-page in size.

This article is actually two speeches by Mr. Hoover, the first having the same page title as the one on the cover.  The second speech has a slightly different page title than the cover subtitle.  It reads: “The Weapon of Food”.  There is a brief introduction by the editorial staff before the first speech.

In his first speech, Mr. Hoover begins by stressing the need for America to increase food production.  He states that our Allies are dependent on us for food and that they are our first line of defense.  Even before the war, England, Ireland, France, Italy, and Belgium combined imported 750,000,000 bushels of grain and “vast quantities” of animal and fat products.  These countries have been cut off from Russia, Bulgaria, and Romania, and the demands from Germany have reduced supplies from neutral quarters.  Added to this the submarine destruction of shipping has blocked the great markets of Australia and India, while Argentina’s last harvest was a failure.  Therefore, the burden of feeding these people, both soldier and civilian, rests on North America, “the nearest and safest route”.

He goes on to explain that the necessity of raising armies has led to a reduction in farm labor resulting in lower food production.  With grain production about 525,000,000 bushels below normal, they must import 1,250,000,000 bushels during the next twelve months if consumption is to be kept at normal levels.

After several more examples of the enormity of the task ahead, Mr. Hoover discusses what all Americans must do as soldiers of the Food Army.  First, farmers must grow as much food as possible, including cultivation of lands not currently under the plow.  Next, all Americans need to plant gardens, even in urban areas.  Third, we must reduce waste and conserve food wherever possible.  And lastly, we need to adjust our diet to those foodstuffs that are not exportable.  A good example of this is corn, which Europeans have not learned to eat.

Under these circumstances, the free market cannot be used adequately to regulate consumption.  For if prices alone are used to limit our access to food, then the burden rests solely on the poor.  Prices will be higher, but controls, preferably voluntary, must be in place to avert famine.


Mr. Hoover’s second speech touches on the same topics as the first but he mainly concentrates on voluntary price controls.  Having the farmers have a voice in setting the price helps maintain a reasonable price and eliminate all speculation.  He refers to the profiteer as a modern Judas.  He goes on to warn that, if voluntary controls do not work then federal legislation may be required.

Using Russia as an example of a country whose lack of commercial regulation and distribution led directly to unrest to the point of revolution, he warns of “the looming shadow of Socialism”.  He also warms of “the ugly alternative” of autocracy as practiced in Germany.  Either we organize from the top down or from the bottom up.  The first is autocratic while the second is democratic.  If democracy cannot organize to accomplish its economy as well as its military defense, it is a false faith and should be abandoned.


The second (or third) article is entitled “The Geography of Medicine”.  It has the subtitle: “Wars’s Effect Upon the World’s Sources of Supply”.  The author is John Foote, M.D.  It has twenty-six black-and-white photographs, out of which seven are full page.

Prior to the war, most of the medicine consumed in America was either chemically produced, mainly in Germany, or herbal in nature, coming mostly from the tropics.  Even before our entry into the war, importation of chemical medicine from Germany was halted due to our support for the allies.  As for herbal medicines, the unrestricted use of submarine warfare has drastically limited the availability of most of them.

Chemical medicines can be produced locally and, given time, will be back to full availability.  Several steps are being taken to address the shortage of plant based drugs.  Wherever possible, grow these plants within the U.S.  Try to identify substitute medicines from plants more accessible.  Try to isolate the active ingredients and reproduce them artificially.

Next, the article gives a brief history of the spice trade in Europe, especially the rise and fall of Venice.  With the Dutch reaching India via the Cape of Good Hope, Venice’s monopoly in herbal medicines was broken.  Columbus himself was seeking “the spices of the Indies” when he accidentally discovered America.

The article continues with a comparison of pre-war prices for various medicines to current prices.  A few examples of chemical medicines are: aspirin went from 32 cents to $1.25 a pound; thymol, a specific for hookworm, from $1.20 to 6.50 an ounce; and antipyrine from 30 cents to $3.00 an ounce.  As for medicines derived from plants, some examples of price hikes due to the war are: opium went from $9.05 to $35.00 per pound; camphor went from 44½ cents to 90 cents per pound; and henbane, a source of scopolamine, jumped from 8 cents to $3.00 per pound.


The next article, “A Few Glimpses into Russia”, by Lieut. Zinovi Pechkoff, is a rose-colored view of the current situation in Russia.  It contains ten black-and-white photographs, two are full-page.

Considering its long history under Tsarist rule, the author states that “the Russian nature is always democratic”.  He uses a speech by President Wilson in support of this and other claims.  Another claim the author makes is that Russians inherently have no desire for expansion and conquest.  They only fight in defense of the homeland.  Future events, both near term and farther along, disprove both of these claims.  The typical Russian is patriotic and a lover of democracy who loves to talk.  He uses anecdotal evidence throughout to prove his points.

He ends this short article with examples of contributions made by Russians to modern civilization.  In literature there are Dostoyevsky, Gorky, and Tolstoy among others.  As for music, the list includes Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and Stravinsky.  Some of the scientists Russia has produced include Lobachevski, Minkovsky, and Lebedev.


The last main article is titled “Conserving the Nation’s Man Power” and was written by Rupert Blue, Surgeon General, U.S. Public Health Service.  It has a rather long subtitle, “Disease Weakens Armies, Cripples Industry, Reduces Production.  How the Government is Sanitating (sic) the Civil Zones Around Cantonment Areas.  A Nation-wide Campaign for Health”.  The article has seventeen black-and-white photos with nine being full-page.

Dr. Blue describes the efforts being made to ensure the health of the soldiers stationed at the various cantonments located throughout the country.  Not only do these training and staging facilities need to be built, the surrounding communities need to be brought up to a minimum health code.  Only this way can the new armies of this country be protected from disease.

Interestingly, at the start of this effort, the health conditions of the local communities were all in poor shape, be it in a rich state or a poor state, North or South.  While health measures in the cantonments are under military control, the surrounding areas are under civilian authorities.  These “health wardens of the general public” reside at the federal, state, county, and municipal levels of government.  While some local and state public health organization are already in place, others are lacking or understaffed and underfunded.  It was decided early on to place the bulk of the effort and responsibility at the lowest level of government.  Whenever the local public health officials can do the job, it is theirs to do.  Next, the state takes over when the county and/or municipal resources cannot do the job.  Only when this effort is inadequate does the federal public health service do the work.  All of these efforts are overseen at the federal level.

The efforts are both comprehensive and wide-ranging.  All wells and water sources need to be tested and, if a problem is found, either closed or corrected.  Water and sewer lines need to be extended or built from scratch.  Some locales even lacked regular garbage pickup and needed to be brought up to code.  Milk production needs to be in sanitary conditions and all milk needs to be Pasteurized.  Food needs to be inspected and kept protected from flies with screening.  Toilets need to be modernized, not only in restaurants and saloons but also in individual homes.  Housing needs to be provided for the workers building the cantonments adding to need for the above work.

Large scale efforts to eradicate mosquitos need to be undertaken, including draining of breeding areas wherever possible and oiling of the areas where it is not.  Also, a large-scale vaccination effort is being undertaken.  Vice laws in the military and a frank education program for the general public are being implemented to combat the “insidious social diseases”.  Work is even being done nationwide where soldiers must be, i.e. the railway stations and trains.  Their sanitary conditions must be brought up to a new standard.  All of this can only provide better national health as a by-product of the war.


After the last documented article, there is a short, two-page article, sans photos, that extols the many ways the Society is aiding the war effort.  When the draft law was passed, the Geographic offered the use of its graphotype machines, used to make stenciled addresses, to the Provost Marshal General for mailing instructions to over 10,000,000 men registered.  Several hundred young ladies of the staff have made innumerable sweaters, neckpieces and socks for the soldiers and sailors as well as sheets, towels, and bandages for the Red Cross.

In their magazine, the Society has printed appeals for the U.S. Treasury’s First (and now Second) Liberty Loan Campaign, the Red Cross, and the YMCA.  In the next issue of their magazine they are publishing the special “Flags of the World” number.  The color work alone in this issue will cost $60,000.  The National Geographic Ward at the American Ambulance Hospital at Neuilly, France with twenty beds is described.  And the Geographic is being sent gratis to the libraries, YMCA and Knights of Columbus buildings in every military facility in the country as well to our boys “over there”.  Ten thousand copies of the “Flags” number are being sent to the military, 5,000 to the Army and 5,000 to Navy.


As mentioned above, there is a donated advertisement page for the U.S. Treasury’s Second Liberty Loan bond campaign.  Also, as with the last two issues there is a request for money to fund the National Geographic Society Ward.  Again, it is preceded by a full-page, black-and-white captioned photograph.  This one is a repeat of the one published two months ago.  It shows the inside of a ward much like the one being built with Society funds.



Tom Wilson

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