Victory in the Kitchen

How homemakers in the twin cities of Fort William and Port Arthur coped with Canada-wide food control regulations imposed in 1917.

In the summer of 1914, the twin cities of Fort William and Port Arthur, Ontario, similar to the rest of Canada, thought the “European war” would be a short one. When Christmas came and went without any sign of peace, most Canadians just redefined their idea of “short.” Nonetheless, by spring 1915, Lakehead households were becoming concerned about food for the upcoming winter should the conflict continue. Families in Fort William and Port Arthur contributed to the war effort by accepting a government-mandated system of food control certain that victory in the kitchen would lead to triumph on the European front.

By early 1916 the federal government, without a dedicated home-front food management programme, was making public appeals for voluntary conservation through large ads in the local newspapers. Lakehead residents were urged to employ “Production and Thrift – Canada’s Call for Service at Home.” In April of 1916 the Ontario government formed the Organization of Resources Committee (ORC) to ensure food and fuel conservation. At the end of April, Fort William City Council faced their first food-issue crisis. The Council received notice from the federal Minister of Labour that local prices for milk and bread were higher than the rest of Canada. “Is there any good reason why milk should be dearer in Fort William and Port Arthur than anywhere else in Canada, and that bread should be sold there at a higher price than in the great majority of places throughout Canada?” asked Thomas Crothers, the Minister of Labour.

As the city tried to resolve the issue, another letter arrived stating that the federal government had taken steps to bring local milk and bread within national price guidelines. “I have wired the bakers and dairymen of your city that they are subject to prosecution with heavy penalties for agreeing to raise prices and warning them to restore the old price.” Fort William City Council was thus pushed into taking the first steps in local food control by striking a Local Investigating Committee to “enquire into and investigate the high cost of bread, flour, milk, coal and other necessities of life and report to the Council from time to time.” By the fall, both City Councils had expanded the mandate of existing departments to oversee issues of food control.

The need for food control in the Lakehead was rooted overseas. By autumn 1916 continental Europe was occupied by enemy forces and unable to harvest food crops for their citizens. Britain was facing shortages as harvest needs surpassed availability. At the beginning of the year North America had held surpluses from previous years. The 1916 harvest was not as successful as previous years, however, resulting in a limit to food crops available for overseas shipment. The harvest crisis was further compromised by the early 1917 aggressive activity of German submarines in the north Atlantic disrupting the Allied supply chain. These issues coalesced, impacting the availability and pricing of foodstuffs for Canadians. As Lakehead prices began to rise, Fort William City Council joined other communities calling for a federal government investigation. A few months later they demanded more. “We petition the dominion Government to take over the control of foodstuffs, and give precedents to the transportation of such foodstuffs over the various railways, and also the prohibition of the use of such foodstuffs in the manufacture of intoxicating beverages.” The city of Port Arthur voiced similar concerns at their Council meeting.

Weeks of speculation over food control in Canada ended with the June 1917 appointment of William Hanna as Food Controller for Canada.

Hanna appealed to all Canadians to voluntarily adopt a “war menu” at home. Lakehead newspapers informed residents of measures that were to be implemented immediately. The list included maximum production, consuming fresh foods to allow stored foods to be sent overseas, adopting war menus, preventing food waste, and the creation of volunteer organizations to assist the Food Controller

The majority of the initiatives were directed at women. To this end, the ORC hosted the Women’s Convention on Food Conservation in Toronto at the end of July 1917. It received the full support of the Food Controller’s office including Hanna’s attendance. Delegates from Port Arthur and Fort William joined the discussion on food conservation and the need for home-based thrift. The key result of the convention was the formation of the Woman’s Auxiliary to the Organization of Resources Committee (WA-ORC) to work through existing women’s organizations. Local chapters formed soon after the delegates returned home with the intention to be “the clearing house and the hub of the effort towards food control being made by and within all societies…”

The reality of food control in the Lakehead (and Canada-wide) began on 10 August 1917 when the use of wheat in the manufacture of alcohol was prohibited. Even more restrictive were new regulations for public eating spaces that sold meals to twenty-five or more people a week. Beef and bacon could no longer be served on Tuesdays and Fridays. On all other days it could only be served at one meal. Eating establishments had to substitute corn bread, oat cakes, potatoes or something similar for white bread.

For Lakehead households, the first food control regulation was announced on 24 August. Effective immediately, sale and consumption of canned vegetables was banned until (in the Lakehead) the first of October. The new regulation prohibited the “sale and purchase of peas, beans, tomatoes, beets, celery, corn, spinach, rhubarb and pumpkin, preserved in cans, glass jars, or any other container.” Garden produce was expected to take the place of canned alternatives. Women across Canada were chastised by Hanna who declared “[h]ousewives have been using too much can-opener and too little cook-stove.”

The Food Controller’s office continued to focus on the household. Citizens were encouraged to take a pledge to accept food control. The male head of a household (not the housewife) then signed a card with his address and number of residents in the home. A duplicate copy was supposed to hang in the dining room as means of reminding the family to be vigilant. A window card was prominently displayed, letting the neighbours know that this home was helping with the war effort by conserving food. Women in Port Arthur and Fort William’s WA-ORC were given the task of dispensing the pledges. Both cities called upon women’s clubs and organizations to canvas neighbourhoods. While carrying out this project, the women verbally encouraged households to use one-third less food so that “the proper foods may be released for the soldiers at the front.”

Throughout September 1917 the WA-ORC and the Food Controller combined their interests to run a series of advertisements in Lakehead newspapers. The ads extoled housewives to sign the food service pledge and display the window card. They encouraged women to be thrifty, conserve, and substitute foodstuffs where possible.

Page-dominating advertisements carried heart-tugging headlines such as “Vision Your Sons, Mothers of Canada! They Must Be Fed” and “Will they let Famine Fight Against Us?.” They were accompanied with drawings depicting healthy Canadians at home and suffering soldiers overseas. Advertising copy was likewise directed at the sympathies of the housewife. First, there was a message about the importance of food control:

To us who stay at home, good meals, eaten in comfort, are a commonplace. But to our Sons, Husbands and Fathers “out there” food is the only thing that matters. The possible lack of food forever haunts them, for without food, how can they “carry on.” From whence shall come their bodily strength? Realizing these things — how dare we fail to send them the foods they so sorely need? How can we refuse to eat a little less white bread, beef and bacon so there will be enough of these non-perishable foods for them? Shall we let famine, also, fight against them? Or with these facts before them will the great Legion of Canadian Women live up to their Food Service Pledges? The answer lies with each one of you. The Judgement of Mankind will write an outcast verdict upon those who do not sign and live up to the Food Service Pledge.

After this guilt-inducing plea, the rest of the advertisement offered “Practical Housekeeping Hints” to women readers in the Lakehead so they could be more efficient in the kitchen. Between the door-to-door canvassing and the advertising campaign, women of the Lakehead were educated about the need for food conservation and preservation.

As 1917 progressed Lakeheaders continued to receive public notices about curtailing food. While regulations were aimed at wholesalers and retailers, and not the consumer, shoppers found less selection offered in the shops. Newspaper articles and advertisements advised housewives that although they were exempt from many regulations, a patriotic woman would voluntarily use less of the controlled foods. “Mrs. Port Arthur, it’s up to you!” declared one local paper. In addition to less beef and bacon, “Mrs. Port Arthur” now had limited access to cereal grains, and butter was replaced with margarine. Women’s groups responded with cooking demonstrations and classes utilizing substitutions and recipe adaptations.

In December of 1917 Fort William and Port Arthur created the joint-controlled Thunder Bay Production and Conservation Association (TBPCA) to ensure people in the Lakehead contributed to the Canadian war effort and complied with the government initiatives. The New Year began with the January resignation of William Hanna as Food Controller. Henry Thomson from Victoria B.C. was appointed as his successor. In mid-February 1918, the office of the Food Controller was re-formulated as the Canada Food Board (CFB) and Thomson was retained as Chair and Director of Food Production with all the powers vested in the original office.

Throughout 1918 the TBPCA used advertising and the news media as a means of educating people to the necessity of producing and conserving local foodstuffs. 20 000 pamphlets and cards featuring the CFB’s rules and regulations were distributed to city homes while posters and window cards were placed in shop windows. The importance of growing local food crops was promoted. Public speakers, advertisements, newspaper articles on food conservation, food exhibits and contests, and a local cookbook to accompany those being offered by the federal CFB were part of the TBPCA’s work. Lakehead residents brought forth their own concerns including the need for butchers to conserve meat bones, better use of garden waste, and a request to raise pigs in Port Arthur backyards.

Some of the initiatives promoted by the TBPCA were well under way prior to its formulation. Growing produce for family consumption, sharing surplus with friends and neighbours, and market sales of other surplus produce was evident with the expansion of the Fort William Vacant Lot Garden Association from a city responsibility to one run by citizens. The Port Arthur Garden Club, under the auspices of the Parks Board, was likewise active long before the 1917 demand for increased local production. At the end of the 1918 growing season, Fort William, a city with a population of 19 000, tallied 1960 backyard gardens with a total acreage of 127.5 acres (52 hectares). The Vacant Lot Garden Association had 649 members using the majority of the 1016 gardens planted on open public and private land. This brought another 194 acres (79 hectares) into cultivation. The 16 000 people of Port Arthur were also engaged in vegetable gardening with1495 backyard gardens covering 78 acres (32 hectares). The 520 vacant lot gardeners accounted for 116 acres (47 hectares) being cultivated. In Port Arthur, the Garden Club membership reached 981. This meant that nearly half of the city’s gardeners were involved in club activities.

People wishing to have a garden larger than a backyard plot had two options. They could purchase a lot on the fringes of the less-populated suburbs, or they could apply for annual use of a vacant lot through Fort William or Port Arthur City Hall. One realtor, for example, offered acreage for sale along the Neebing River “only 4¼ miles from Canadian Car Shops which will be in full operation this fall.” The advertisement told readers that “Many Wise People Purchase Acreage on Suburban Gardens and do their own camping on their own grounds.” Interested parties were encouraged to purchase the un-tilled ground in the summer of 1917 and prepare it for a 1918 garden. “Clear little by little, just enough to get exercise, pile the brush up and burn it this fall, and be ready for the plow next spring and planting.” Both Fort William and Port Arthur also offered garden space through the city-supported vacant lot garden associations. In Fort William, a small fee of fifty cents was required when applications were made through the assessment commissioner’s office. In Port Arthur, no fee was charged although gardeners did have to register their lot with the City Clerk’s office. You could have your lot plowed and harrowed by the city’s horse teams for a one dollar fee. The groups also sold seed and fruit bushes to gardeners at cost. The newspapers in both cities ran lot-gardening columns in the growing seasons providing planters with advice on soil amendment as well as growing and harvesting specific vegetables. Women’s clubs and social organizations sponsored public lectures on gardening, as did the garden clubs.

The TBPCA encouraged all residents to turn their backyards into a vegetable garden. “Are you going to play golf or bowl or motor and leave your backyard to the weeds? If you do you have not got that true patriotism which is necessary to winning the war.” The TBPCA also successfully petitioned retailers to close their stores for Wednesday afternoon during the summer to allow owners and employees to tend to their own gardens. Other businesses, including both City Halls, closed for Saturday afternoon for the same purpose.

In March of 1918 the CFB introduced a programme aimed at helping farmers. Male youth between the ages of fifteen and nineteen were encouraged to enlist as Soldiers of the Soil (SOS). In exchange for assisting farmers during the summer months, the boys received pay of around 25 dollars a month plus room and board. As an added incentive, the boys were excused from classes and final exams at the end of the school year. When the contract was fulfilled at the end of harvest, the Soldiers of the Soil received an “honourable discharge” and a bronze badge with the SOS insignia.

Canada-wide, 22 385 “soldiers” enlisted. In the Lakehead, the CFB worked in conjunction with the Y.M.C.A, the federal Department of Labour, and local school boards to organize the SOS programme. Youth were encouraged to apply through their school while those no longer attending high school could apply at the Y.M.C.A. Farmers wanting to take part in the programme applied to the local offices as well. Promotion for the SOS included public talks by the organization’s representatives at Fort William and Port Arthur Collegiate high schools, church pastors speaking on the subject in church sermons, and a one week enrolment campaign heavily supported by advertising in the local newspapers. These ads, similar to other advertisements of the time, were designed to tug at the heart strings of the readers and bring forth patriotic sentiments. One CFB ad began “When Mother Says: ‘Do you want to go, Son?’ Speak right up and say: ‘I’m proud to join the S.O.S. Soldiers of the Soil’.” Directly speaking to the boys, the ad continued:

Think of the other Canadian boys, just a few years older, who are holding the fighting line in France, exposed to shot and shell, rain and cold, mud and dust. You wouldn’t feel worthy to shake hands with them when they come back unless you, too, did something big – self-sacrificing – and difficult – to help win the war. The call to fill the ranks of the Soldiers of the Soil is your big war opportunity. The crucial need of the Allies today is food – more food – and yet more food.

More than 50 young Lakehead men signed up. This was considered successful in the twin cities with a population of nearly 35 000. The response from the nearby farmers, however, was much less resulting in many of the “soldiers” being sent to Manitoba where they were needed. Other youth social programmes, such as the Canadian Girl Guides, earned garden badges for growing their own gardens or helping others with their garden endeavours.

Without a doubt, the majority of responsibility for food control in the Lakehead, similar to the rest of Canada, fell to the women of the household. Guides, cookbooks, pamphlets, and advertisements from municipal, provincial, and federal food controllers targeted women. In the first decades of the twentieth-century social attitudes towards women’s place continued to replicate the Victorian-era “angel in the house” ideal of true womanhood. The expectation for women was a life of marriage, child-rearing, and household care. Many women celebrated their domestic role, eagerly embracing their responsibilities. While others did not necessarily cherish their socially-constructed domestic superiority, they continued to carry out the duties necessary to sustaining a family home. With Canada’s participation in the European war, women became an important part of the home-front war effort. An editorial in the Fort William Daily Times Journal reminded local women of their responsibility: “the service rendered by the housekeeper, although very real, is not dramatic as is the work of the nurse with her attractive uniform, but the kitchen soldier in her uniform is necessary to win the war.”

The Lakehead’s “kitchen soldiers” had plenty of guidance on food thrift, preservation, and conservation. In Fort William and Port Arthur newspapers, the “Women’s Page” carried a plethora of articles and columns offering guidance. A key figure in the information published was Margaret Smellie. Smellie was born in Port Arthur in 1881 before her family’s 1891 move to Fort William. As the daughter of Thomas and Janet Smellie she (like her family) was well known in the cities. Her physician-father served as the medical officer of health for several years, owned the Fort William newspaper from 1901 to 1908, was a member of the Ontario legislature for Fort William from 1905 until 1911, and was involved in numerous local businesses. When the European War began, her sister Elizabeth began an illustrious career with the Canadian military as a nurse. Margaret Smellie was a 1910 graduate of the Macdonald Institute in Guelph. She studied domestic science for two years, earning a Housekeeper Certificate. Her course work focused on topics such as diet, cooking, food chemistry, sewing, laundry, and household sanitation. With the arrival of the Great War, Smellie, now a 33 year-old unmarried woman, was committed to helping on the home-front, putting her social-worker expertise and involvement in local organizations to good use. As a member of the National Council of Women’s West Algoma Chapter she became actively involved in the WA-ORC as well as the TBPCA.

Margaret Smellie’s written work dominated the local newspapers. Regular columns titled “The Need of the Hour,” “What to Eat and Why,” “Wartime Cookery,” “Carry On at Home” and “Home Economies” were all written by Smellie. Instead of her name, the byline read “Contributed by Housekeeper Graduate of McDonald Institute at the request of the Thunder Bay Production and Conservation Association.”

The columns all offered cooking advice, recipes, hints, and tips on being a frugal cook. In one instance, “The Need of the Hour” announced a joint demonstration of the TBPCA and the Red Cross on electric cookstoves as a means of fuel conservation and as an “attractive war-time substitute.” The column often injected a little patriotic humour, such as asking the riddle “Why is a slacker like a custard pie?” and answering: “Because he or she is ‘yellow’ all through and hasn’t enough crust to go ‘over the top’.” In June of 1918, the column “What to Eat and Why” addressed the upcoming summer picnic season. It noted that “every picnic and every private function where food is served should strictly be a substitution meal until the war is won.” Although the regulations legally applied to groups of fifteen or more, households were strongly advised that they too should follow the guidelines as part of their “food pledge.”

All of the columns advertised the 21 May 1918 Wartime Food Exhibit sponsored by the TBPCA. The Fort William exhibit was held in the new Wightman’s store at the corner of Syndicate and Victoria Avenues, while the Port Arthur display was in the Whelan Building on Cumberland Street. Women from organizations across the cities sent examples of war food. Admission was free and visitors were asked to bring a pencil and notebook as recipes would be available for them to copy. Margaret Smellie and Margaret Piper worked as the convenors as well as providing demonstrations and lectures on several topics of interest. The event was well attended, resulting in a cookbook being published and sold by the TBPCA.

In addition to the plethora of articles and columns written by Smellie, other contributions to the newspapers by citizens and other government interests captured the attention of Lakehead housewives. Mrs. Pounsford, wife of the manager of the Port Arthur Pulp and Paper Company provided a selection of nine “conservation baking recipes” to the Port Arthur News Chronicle. Interested Lakeheaders could also avail themselves of a series of CFB recipe books on bread, fruit and vegetables, fish, and canning and preservation for the cost of a nickel.

Lakehead women were guided in their wartime meal planning through a regular series of “War Menus” presented by the Food Controller (and later CFB) and published in the newspapers’ “Women’s Page.” The Wednesday 25 September 1917 issue of Fort William’s Daily Times Journal, for example, suggested a menu for Thursday. For breakfast the family could eat fresh fruit, wheat meal porridge, toast, marmalade, and tea or coffee with milk and sugar. Mid-day dinner began with pork chops, mashed potatoes, and vegetable marrow and concluded with syrup-covered Johnny Cake. The supper menu listed cream of corn soup, whole wheat muffins, apple sauce, oatmeal cookies, and tea with milk and sugar. The recipes accompanying the menu demonstrated suitable substitutions and conservation. Whole Wheat Muffins used white and whole wheat flour, sour milk, molasses instead of sugar, and melted drippings instead of butter. Cream of Corn Soup used skimmed milk (an unusual ingredient at the time) and fresh corn and onions.

On Sundays the menu was purposefully light to allow the housewife her “fair share of rest.” One “light” Sunday menu started the day with cornflakes, milk, toast, marmalade, grapefruit, tea or coffee with milk and sugar. Dinner was cold roast beef, duchess potatoes, vegetable marrow, cornstarch mould with hot chocolate sauce and cookies. The day ended with “tea” consisting of celery and beet salad, brown bread and butter, peach preserves, cake, and cocoa with milk and sugar.

While most of the menus featured the main meal at noon, there were occasional menus with a lighter mid-day lunch, reflecting the gradual move to an urbanized modern eating style that would eventually become the norm. Despite eating a heavier evening meal, the housewife still ensured her family was well-fed during the day. The suggestion for Monday, 19 September 1917 is one example. Breakfast started with liver and bacon with potato cakes, toast, and tea or coffee with milk and sugar. The mid-day luncheon included corn soup, bread, potato salad, baked apples, oatmeal cookies, and tea with milk and sugar. Dinner included mutton stew, boiled potatoes, carrots, graham bread, and cottage pudding with caramel sauce.

Present day Canadians have different notions of what constitutes food thriftiness, preservation, and conservation. They are often surprised to read about the massive amounts of foods being consumed while under food control. While current eating habits and foodstuffs did not emerge until after World War II, many of the suggested wartime menus and recipes were directed towards a middle class society who had food options. Those with large families and limited incomes may have found it impossible to follow the suggested menus. Immigrant families in the Lakehead may have had different cultural choices when it came to meals and these may not have resembled the British-inspired menus listed in the local newspapers. While their numbers were small, wage-earning women lacked the time and ability to make substantial meals from scratch on workdays and relied on lighter fare that was easy to prepare.

Fort William and Port Arthur heard the cry to “do your bit” to aid the war effort through food conservation, substitution, and thrift. In the Lakehead, any available plot of land was turned into a garden to supply local families with fresh vegetables. Public eating spaces limited beef, bacon, bread, and butter while city households voluntarily joined the effort. Public displays of food conservation were evident in food pledges placed in front windows. Women’s groups held public lectures, demonstrations, and exhibits to promote food control and conservation. Municipal organizations ensured federal and provincial government policies were followed. City newspapers filled their pages with suggestions, guidelines, and news stories on the need for food control as well as the overwhelming citizen response and participation. Victory in the kitchen was indeed achieved in the Lakehead during the Great War.

—Text by Beverly Soloway. This article was originally published as part of Canada's First World War: A Centennial Series on For this article's bibliography and other related information, visit

Beverly Soloway is a PhD History candidate at York University as well as a contract lecturer in history at Lakehead University.