War and Chocolate

Dorothy King, Give To The American Chocolate Fund, 1918 (Michigan State University Museum, East Lansing, MI).

The American Chocolate Fund had one mission when it was established during World War I: to send to the American boys “over there” a food that provided bodily sustenance. “The soldier has no more ruthless enemy than his own limit of endurance,” Fund president Ida Tarbell wrote.

There often comes a point in the terrific strains of waiting, of attack and battle, when exhaustion overcomes. Unless he has either food or sleep, he cannot go on. Sleep, we at home, cannot assure him. A sufficient food to carry him over the danger point we can supply.

The popular muckraking journalist Tarbell certainly knew how to elicit support. Her image of an American doughboy—crouching in a dark and damp trench at the perilous edge of No Man’s Land—no doubt instilled in her readers fears for his well-being and the desire to give.

If Ida Tarbell’s words evince peril, the Chocolate Fund’s poster exhibits satisfaction—or the anticipation of that pleasure. A smiling doughboy, his hands resting on his stomach, his back arched to emphasize his stomach, appears either to have enjoyed a cake of chocolate or is contemplating what the Fund will provide for his delectation.*

Together, Tarbell’s words and the poster’s image encapsulate the feelings invoked and then indulged by Americans when they contributed to the war effort. Compelled by stories of fearful situations and courageous acts, Americans gave and felt, to one degree or another, gratification for their efforts. In that moment, an American giving to the Chocolate Fund was the doughboy’s best friend, the chocolate itself becoming not only a necessity but a gift of friendship. Indeed, as one doughboy observed, “At night when in No-Man’s Land on picket or patrol duty, chocolate is our best friend. It seems to supply the lack of everything else.”

Soldiers themselves endorsed the work of the Chocolate Fund. Corporal R. Derby Holmes, an American fighting in the British Army and author of A Yankee in the Trenches (1918), asserted:

Poster for lecture tour of Corporal R. Derby Holmes and his book, A Yankee In The Trenches, 1917-1919 (Wikimedia).

Next to smokes, there is nothing so important for the soldiers as chocolate. In the first place, it is sweet, and the soldier craves for something sweet after stew, corned beef and biscuits, day after day. Secondly, although sweet, it does not create thirst, as does candy and other like things. It is durable and keeps—that is, until the soldier gets it—then it doesn’t last long, for he goes for it like a drowning man in a life preserver. It is most sustaining, and I could tell of an experience of mine where I was in a shelter with three other men for hours without food, except that one man discovered a bar of chocolate in his haversack. Maybe your donation will help your own boy in just such circumstances, or maybe your neighbor’s boy—so give, people, give. (“Chocolate For Our Soldiers,” 143-144)

The Meaning of Chocolate in Wartime

The pioneering investigative journalist Ida Tarbell served the American Chocolate Fund in an honorary capacity. The organization had been established in 1918 by Mrs. Forrest B. (Mary Vermilye) Royal, who served as president. (Her son was then serving in the U.S. Navy.) By the end of the war, the Fund had shipped 36 tons of chocolate to soldiers and sailors through the American Red Cross, at a time when the government was restricting families’ care packages to loved ones overseas. Chocolate was also delivered to submarine chasers along the Atlantic and to army transport ships crossing that ocean. An aviation training camp on Long Island and the Navy Club in New York City received chocolate. Chocolate was provided to convalescents in many hospitals across the country.

Screenshot-2018-1-2 Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, PA) 1918-07-05 [p 10] - Public Ledger pdf
The behatted woman handing out chocolate to sailors in the news image, above right, is Mrs. Mary Royal. Evening Public Ledger [Philadelphia], July 5, 1918.

Like other war charities, the American Chocolate Fund was closely scrutinized. In June 1918, New York City District Attorney Edward Swann (himself often accused of malfeasance by reform organizations) announced he would investigate organizations which were raising monies for what he called “non-essentials”: doughnuts and chocolate. He had it on good authority that the funds were being misspent on uniforms for boys who collected money for the charity and that overhead charges neared 80 to 90 percent.

Mrs. Mary Royal dispelled the district attorney’s “facts” in a press release. The boys in uniform were members of a musical band loaned to the Fund by the Liberty Loan Committee to drum up street collections. The Fund’s office, located at 4 West 57th Street, contained donated furniture and the rent was donated as well. The Fund’s board members paid the remaining expenses out of their own pockets.

What seemed to really rankle Mrs. Royal was Swann’s assertion that chocolate was “non-essential” to the war effort. In an era in which women learned in home economics that chocolate was a good food and men thought of chocolate as sweets for their sweethearts, Mrs. Royal took the opportunity to school District Attorney Swann on chocolate as a wartime necessity.

This fund is shipping 1,000 pounds of chocolate—not chocolate candies, but the pure chocolate, which is regarded by army experts as a valuable “emergency ration”—to France every week, where it is delivered to the men in the trenches through the Red Cross without cost. The supply is purchased in New York from the same firms which supply chocolate to the government, and at the same price (Mrs. Royal Defends Chocolate War Fund,” New York Tribune, June 28, 1918, 6)

Molding Memory

Soon after the Armistice, the American Chocolate Fund ceased operations. At the direction of Mary Royal, remaining monies were sent to St. Andrews School, near Sewanee, Tennessee, for the purchase of “a peal of bells to be hung in the chapel tower. The three bells, with appropriate inscriptions, are in memory of the soldiers and sailors who fell in the great war.”

These “chocolate bells” are rung every year on Veterans Day, for 11 minutes beginning at 11:11 am.


*Little studied are the World War I posters not created through the federal government’s propaganda machine, the Committee on Public Information and its Division of Pictorial Publicity. This poster was created by Dorothy King, a student at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts (now Parsons School of Design). I am still investigating King’s biography, but it is quite likely that this poster was the prize winner in a competition in or among art schools during the war.

Works Cited

“Candy: Penny a Pound Profit” [advertisement], The Evening World [New York], June 20, 1918, 2.

“Chocolate For Our Soldiers,” The Tea & Coffee Trade Journal 35:2(August 1918): 143-144.

“Chocolate For The Doughboys,” The International Confectio ner 27 (1918): 34.

“Chocolate Plays an Important Role in Warfare,” Evening Public Ledger [Philadelphia], July 5, 1918.

“Memorials and Gifts,” The Living Church 63 (July 10, 1920): 385.

“Mrs. Royal Defends Chocolate War Fund,” New York Tribune, June 28, 1918, 6.

“The American Chocolate Fund,” The Woman Citizen 3 (June 15, 1918): 49.

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