Woman’s Wit Pitted Against High Food Prices

Source: Ladies Home Journal (April, 1917)
Source: Ladies Home Journal (April, 1917)

1917 was a rough year for families. World War I was raging in Europe, and inflation was rampant. Food prices increased that year at the fastest rate they have ever increased in U.S. history. According to a U.S. Congressional Research Service report titled Consumers and Food Price Inflation, “Food inflation hit its all-time high of 28.7% in 1917.”

There are lots of articles in 1917 magazines about the high cost of food. Here’s some excerpts from a hundred-year-old article about how to beat the high cost of food.

Woman’s Wit Pitted Against High Food Prices

We’re racing this year against an ever-soaring opponent, an opponent who has no thought of fairness or humanity, no thought of anything but his own variable wish. You all know whom I mean – Mr. High Cost of Food.

He is a strong opponent. We’re finding him pretty hard to beat. When he rises as he as risen in just the last year, we’re apt to forget about beating him, and give up in despair, for most of our incomes have remained stationary, while the cost of food has grown to monster size, and the elephantine cost of food, we shudder with a “What’s the use?”

To win in any race one must know one’s ground. And the ground in my case was food values–what foods give the most nourishment for the money expended, what foods can take the place of others; it was knowing how to market in order to find out what was there, and to get the best of what I wanted; it was saving of food through proper cooking; it was making use of every ounce I had of brains, perseverance and skills.

It isn’t easy to win the race against food prices- IΒ  haven’t won yet, but I’m constantly finding new ways of economy, from studying and discovering food facts. But I know I am going to win, for practical knowledge is the best sort of whip. And when I have the whip hand, why fear even Mr. High Cost of Food?

Ladies Home Journal (April, 1917)

39 thoughts on “Woman’s Wit Pitted Against High Food Prices

  1. I have a lot of sympathy for the women of that time. We’re going through the same thing now, although not so dramatically or so obviously. But I’ve been trying through the past year to keep my grocery budget at the same level, and a dollar certainly doesn’t buy what it did in 2015. One thing that astonished me, when I learned it, is that food and gas prices aren’t included in the inflation index. So, the government says “inflation is in check” — which is both true, and false. It’s like saying, “I’m in perfect health, except for this broken leg and my bronchitis.”

    1. My food bill is also higher than it was a year ago. . . sigh. . . .

      You’re probably thinking of the Personal Consumption Expenditures Price Index – PCEPI (core inflation rate). It is the method currently preferred by the Federal Reserve and excludes food and gas. There are so many different ways of measuring inflation, and different measures include different “baskets of goods.” One index that does include selected foods and gas is the Consumer Price Index. There is information about what it contains on the Bureau of Labor Statistics site.

      https://www.bls.gov/cpi/cpifaq.htm#Question_6

      Here’s a link to an article by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco that compares the Personal Consumption Expenditures Price Index and the Consumer Price Index.

      http://www.frbsf.org/education/publications/doctor-econ/2004/october/core-inflation-headline/

      Whew – enough research. I’m learning new things as a result of your comment. Thanks! It sent me to googling inflation.

  2. This seemed a very practical defense against higher food prices. All too often these days the spupermarkets, fearful of loosing custom, squeeze suppliers beyond reason, causing some suppliers to go out of business. It’s certainly true in the UK that buyers are spending a smaller proportion of their income on food than used to be the case.

    1. Similarly to you, I’ve seen U.S. statistics which indicate that people are spending a lower percentage of their incomes on food than what they did 20, or 50, or 100 years ago. According to the Economic Research Service at the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, “Between 1960 and 2007, the share of disposable personal income spent on total food by Americans, on average, fell from 17.5 to 9.6 percent.”

      https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-the-essentials/food-prices-and-spending/

      (Scroll towards the bottom of this document to see a really nice figure showing the percentage of disposable incomes spent of food eaten at home, and food eaten away from home between 1960 and 2014. )

  3. This makes me wonder how my grandmother dealt with the high food prices in 1917 with her husband and three little boys. Wish she was here to tell me about it.

  4. I wonder if any of those women’s magazines talked about giving women the right to vote? Farm policy, prices etc, so much of this was controlled by Washington. I do admire the strength of these women to make the best of hard times!

  5. I didn’t have a old lady’s journal to give me knowledge of how to handle the “Mr.” but I had grandmothers and a Mom who knew how to use their whip. πŸ˜„ I count that a blessing.

  6. According to statistics, people were much thinner one hundred years ago. Hmmm. Any correlation? I was molded to be a miser by my mother and grandmothers, but I’m sure I could squeeze harder if I had to. Love your old posts!

    1. Could be. . . They also did more physical labor and probably had to walk more than what we do. I think that your mothers and grandmothers were cut from the same cloth as mine. πŸ™‚

  7. Of course it’s a Mister haha! I told my mother About your black walnut problem. She said her dad ran them over with the car o get the outer green part off. Then my grandmother did the rest of the work and it was so hard to get the meat out. t

    1. It’s so messy to hull black walnuts. It sounds like a good idea to run to car over them. You’re absolutely right that your grandmother had the hard job. Black walnuts are so difficult to crack and then pick the nut meats out of.

  8. I think it’s salutary to read articles like this at a time when we are all terrified by big world changes (Trump in the US, Brexit in the UK where I am – and others in other parts of the world too). In 1917 things were pretty seriously bad with these high costs you write about, and the terrible loss of life in WW1 – very hard times indeed, but people rallied through.

  9. I admire the ways they managed to fight the high food prices. Making a penny stretch and making the most of left overs. Interesting article.

    1. In strange way, I think that the people felt that their knowledge of nutrition and how to stretch their pennies and dollars made them feel more empowered to successfully cope with the huge increases in the price of food.

  10. Once I find my favorite places to shop, I don’t keep track of food prices. But I do notice that my (canvas) sack holds less for my $30 than it used to. I am only feeding myself, so that also accounts for both my vagueness and my rationale for whatever splurges I indulge in. I just know they are always worth it!

    1. It does seem like issues and problems (as well as good things) re-occur over time; though there often is a slightly different twist each time. πŸ™‚

  11. I loved her last ‘weapon’ in fight against food prices “it was making use of every ounce I had of brains, perseverance and skills”… very applicable still today.

  12. I actually found this post disturbing, for the reason that I’m starting to see patterns here. Patterns in the inflated price of food. We cannot survive without food, obviously, and it is becoming harder and harder to grow your own. My husband and I bought our house over 20 years ago. Somehow, back then, I was able to afford to stay home with our boys, have an abundant vegetable garden, and we could still go on a summer vacation and save money, despite the fact that he earned 1/4 what we earn combined today. Our mortgage has hardly increased, being a fixed rate, except for taxes and insurance. Yet the cost of food primarily, as well as electricity, gas heat, cable/internet, auto and health insurance, etc. has risen three and four fold! Our monthly food costs are almost as much as our mortgage, with taxes and insurance, especially since I attempt to buy organic. And now that I must work full-time to make ends meet, I don’t have the time to tend a garden and cook as much from scratch. There is something seriously wrong, and this 100 year old article is reminding me of this. It’s like when people finally start to do well, inflation rises to make us struggle again.

    1. Oh dear, I didn’t mean to write a disturbing post – though I agree that we can learn things from the past. I try to cover a variety of food-related topics from a hundred-years-ago to set the context for the recipes, and food inflation was such a predominate issue in 1917 that I thought that I should do post on it.

  13. Sounds like this could be happening today too with increasing stories about families depending on food banks… the truth is that countries were far more self sufficient with their food supply back 100 years ago than now, so we’re far more vulnerable than we used to be. With all the GMO products now too we’ve got so much less variety of species in case of diseases. I’m sure back then a lot more families also had seasonal gardens, something families are starting to turn to again it seems. Very thought provoking post Sheryl!

    1. I have this urge to raise all of my own food so I know exactly what I’m eating – yet I know that it is not the least bit practical for me to do that. . . sigh . . .

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