A Guide for Re-creating Foods and Rations
By Vincent Petty
Just as a living historian strives to insure that his clothing and
equipment is correct and authentic to the period he interprets, he must
also strive to insure that the food used are authentic to the impression
as well. For the First World War living historian this can be an interesting
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
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 affects 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.
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.
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
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 ox tail 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
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” at
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.
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 then
end of the war.