Austerity Britain in 1914-15: from war economy to radium bread.


Copyright. Imperial War Museum. The poster dates from 1917, and illustrates a later phase of what came to be known as voluntary food rationing.

War economy   n.  (a) a measure taken in order to save money or other resources because of a war;  (b) an economy, characteristic of wartime, in which a large part of the labour force is engaged in arms production, etc., rather than in the production of goods for export or for civilian use (OED)

1919   W. B. Yeats Cutting of Agate 16   The Print Room of the British Museum is now closed as a war-economy.

While the OED’s entry for war was written in 1921, war-economy would make its way into the dictionary only in the final volume of the four Supplements edited by Robert Burchfield between 1972 and 1986. Dated to 1919, the earliest  evidence, as in extract given above, derived from the poet W. B. Yeats. War economy, and the exigencies of conflict as experienced on the Home Front, has, however, a far earlier history as detailed in the Words in War-time archive. Prominent from the autumn of 1914, it can, as the archive confirms, prompt a wide range of associated forms.

Economy in the sense ‘careful management of resources, so as to make them go as far as possible’ was. of course, already well-established (the OED traces evidence of relevant use to 1670). It would nevertheless, as Clark observed, emerge as yet another ‘catch-phrase’ of the war, often being made part of a wider rhetoric of sacrifice by which individuals could be seen to ‘do their bit’, and integrated alike into government advice and popular advertising.  “Study economy and health’ was, as one advertisement proclaimed, a particularly appropriate ‘Maxim for War-Time’ — a premise realised in this instance by the injunction to drink ‘Pure Indian tea‘. Further emphasis was provided by the topical pun deftly aligning maxim in the sense ‘a pithy saying, expressing a general truth’  and maxim  as ‘a machine gun’. HP sauce was, in another advertisement (here from November 1914), proclaimed as ‘the most pleasing war economy’ — as well as ‘the most delicious and economical of all’.

Clark’s account of the rhetorical persuasiveness of economy is nevertheless marked by a certain scepticism: ‘

“The cry “economy” originated in the increased cost of food-stuffs at the beginning of the war, became a parrot-call on the part of mouthing politicians and frothy newspaper leader-writers, and was intensified by the heavy taxation imposed by the 1915 budget’.

Issues of economy, as the examples above suggest, were often located specifically on the domestic front — a domain in which a further collocation, food economy, often comes to the fore. As a specific aspect of war-economy and its individual implementation, food economy (still unrecorded in OED) was, as Clark notes, yet another topical ‘catchphrase’ which made its way into contemporary use. He provides a telling example in the advertising for Allinson’s bread in the Evening News in June 1915:

In view of recent advice tendered by the government on food economy, the FACT that a half-quartern Allison loaf contains as much real nutriment as a pound of beef (costing three times as much) is a point of economy that none can afford to overlook

A certain reorientation of taste, and priorities, can be a staple feature of marketing of this kind. Plasmon Oat-Cocoa  — ‘a wonderful new food-beverage which gives more nourishment at a lower cost than almost other beverage you can buy’ — provided, as it stressed, a clear example of ‘War-Time Economy’  (Daily Express October 6th 1914), not least in its claim of ‘Three Cups a Penny’, Clark carefully underlined food-beverage, another still unrecorded compound which war had apparently elicited. While boxes of comforts designed for the Front could be replete with delicacies, war-economy — and the sense of individual accountability which advertising as well as other aspects of news discourse sought to  foster — could, as here, demand sacrifice on a range of levels. ‘What you have once viewed with distaste becomes a pleasure’, advertisements for Romo Margarine bravely declared in March 1915, instructing readers that

‘If you want “Economy” without discomfort give up that Butter habit and try the “Romo” margarine way’.

The inverted commas which frame economy signal its specific connotations in a time of war. Butter habit, as Clark notes, is another distinctive construction, replete with the moral pressures that appeals to economy could invoke. Formed by analogy with the kind of cigarette habit discussed in an earlier post. Its connotations reside in the sense of a now uncalled-for luxury and extravagance, as well as wilful expense. “Doing one’s bit” calls for restraint, and self-imposed moderation.

As a further article, here from the Daily Express in February 1915 exhorted, it is fuel value rather than taste which, in another maxim of war-time Britain, was to be of prime significance. This — like the associated collocation food value (both  were unrecorded in the OED of Clark’s day) – unambiguously placed the virtues of food economy in the utilitarian and pragmatic:

With the exception of salmon, the humble salt herring has the highest food value. Many of the cheaper kinds of fish and the cheaper parts of fish may be used for fish puddings, fish cakes, kedgeree, etc. and those dishes would have additional “fuel” value from the potatoes, rice, or breadcrumbs mixed in with them.

Both food value and fuel value can, however, assume striking and, at times, highly unexpected forms in the evidence that the archive provides.Food, as other articles stress, could also be a battle, as well as indicative of the struggle to survive. Tulip bread, in other unprecedented collocations, is, for example, documented in accounts of privation in the Netherlands in September 1914, and K-Brot (or Kartoffel bread) in Germany in November of that year (as well as its alternative designation as Krieg brot — a form which presented other readings of patriotism and public participation).  It is radio-active bread — ‘made without German yeast’, as we are informed —  which presents, perhaps, the most striking intersection of lexical and culinary ingenuity in the archive at this time. As the Evening News elucidated in April 1915, radioactivity provides the requisite raising agent (thereby presenting fuel value of a rather different kind). Known as ‘radium bread… [by] the use of what is called radio-active water with flour, German yeast is, it announced, ‘no longer necessary’; flour and water alone are required. Radium bread, radio-active bread, and the radio loaf are all picked out as headwords in Clark’s notebooks — even if, at least with hindsight, these might be deemed to carry austerity, patriotism, and war-economy rather too far.**

Additional notes

Radium had been deemed potentially ephemeral and excluded as a result from the relevant fascicle of the OED (it was added in 1933, along with radio-active and related words). Clark’s emphatic engagement with the details of history and language – and the value of what otherwise might, as he argued, be lost — can, as here, offer information of surprising interest and value. Radioactivity as a component of food, water, and medicine assumed an unexpected popularity   in Edwardian England (as well as elsewhere). The scientific premises behind radioactivity as raising agent seem, however, extremely doubtful, and I have been unable to locate evidence outside the archive on radioactive bread as commodity in 1915 …!


One thought on “Austerity Britain in 1914-15: from war economy to radium bread.

  1. The two uses of ‘war-economy’ are interesting and of course the domestic one is arguably the one truest to the Greek roots of the word.
    There is an interesting tension running through 1914-15 between the macro imperatives of the British economy and the moral climate. Lloyd George as Chancellor of the Exchequer gives a speech at the start of the war encouraging ‘Business as usual’ which in todays language is about restoring consumer confidence. The start of the war had seen domestic trade collapse and a massive rise in unemployment, so this was a serious point. British strategy to some extent depended on the economy operating normally and yielding tax revenues that could then be loaned to Britain’s continental allies ( who it was assumed would be doing most of the actual dying). But this quickly runs up against a counter current that demands that civilians be seen to be making appropriate sacrifices. To some extent a campaign against waste provides a squaring of the circle- good spending can continue whilst bad spending is cut. Reduction of imports clearly made sense to free up shipping, so for example wholemeal bread which used grain more fully than white bread reduced Britain’s heavy dependence on wheat imports.
    By mid-1915 military recruiting had eliminated unemployment and had indeed created a labour shortage (hence things like ‘women’s right to serve’) But a further effect of full employment was to improve the bargaining position both individual and collective of the working class. This threatened to push up wages which in turn in a situation of limited imports would push up prices by classic supply and demand mechanisms ( and indeed by the end of 1915 prices are up 50% + on pre-war levels) . At this point and for the rest of the war the two uses of war economy begin to align, largely around pressuring the working class to control their consumption and also constraining their wages in 1915-16.

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