[ Protesting wartime food shortages, thousands of women in 1917
protested with food riots and boycotts. ] [https://portside.org/] 




 Alan J. Singer, Jasmine Torres 
 October 16, 2018
New York History Blog

	* [https://portside.org/node/18900/printable/print]

 _ Protesting wartime food shortages, thousands of women in 1917
protested with food riots and boycotts. _ 

 Hungry Mothers and Babies of New York's East Side, Underwood &


Mass organization, non-violent civil disobedience, and a little
unlawful protest have been effective ways to draw attention to issues
and change public policy. Today’s anti-gun violence, #MeToo and
Black Lives Matter activists can learn lessons from both the success
and failure of the 1917 food riots led by immigrant women that swept
through United States cities.

In February 1917 the United States still had not entered the Great War
in Europe. But the week of February 19-23, 1917, there was a wave of
food riots in East Coast United States cities attributed to wartime
food shortages, profiteering, and hoarding. _The New York Times_
reported riots in New York City’s the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan
and in Boston, Massachusetts, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In Williamsburg and Brownsville, Brooklyn an estimated 3,000 women
rioted overturning peddler’s pushcarts and setting them on fire
after food prices spiked. On New York City’s Lower East Side an army
of women, mostly Jewish, invaded a kosher poultry market and blocked
sales the day before the Jewish Sabbath. They protested that the price
of chicken had risen in one week from between 20 and 22 cents a pound
to between 28 and 32 cents a pound. Pushcarts were overturned on
Rivington Street and at a similar protest in the Clermont Park section
of the Bronx. Four hundred of the Lower East Side mothers, many
carrying babies, then marched on New York City Hall shouting in
English and Yiddish, “We want food!” “Give us bread!” “Feed
our children!” The Manhattan protests were organized by consumers
committees led by the Socialist group Mothers’ Anti-High Price
League, which had also organized a successful a boycott on onions and

At the City Hall rally, Ida Harris, President of the Mother’s
Vigilance Committee, declared: “We do not want to make trouble. We
are good Americans and we simply want the Mayor to make the prices go
down. If there is a law fixing prices, we want him to enforce it, and
if there isn’t we appeal to him to get one. We are starving – our
children are starving. But we don’t want any riot. We want to soften
the hearts of the millionaires who are getting richer because of the
high prices. We are not an organization. We haven’t got any
politics. We are just mothers, and we want food for our children.
Won’t you give us food?”

After the rally the police arrested Marie Ganz, known in leftwing
circles as “Sweet Marie,” when Police Inspector John F. Dwyer
claimed he heard her inciting a group of women to continue rioting
while she was speaking in Yiddish, a language it is unlikely that
Dwyer understood. Ganz was soon released with a suspended sentence.
Dwyer, four years later, was implicated in a Congressional
investigation of real estate fraud in New York City.

New York City Mayor John Purroy Mitchel, who was away from City Hall
during the protests, finally meet with the group’s leaders and then
directed city commissioners of Charities, Health and Police to
determine whether there were cases of starvation or of illness from
insufficient nourishment amongst the city’s working class and poor.

At a public hearing the city’s Board of Estimate and Apportionment
unanimously passed a resolution instructing its Corporation Counsel to
draw up a bill to be presented to the State Legislature City that
would authorize the city to purchase and sell food at cost during
emergencies. It also urged Congress to fund an investigation of food
shortages and price spikes. Speakers at the hearing in favor of
immediate action to address food shortages and price hikes included
Lillian D. Wald of the Henry Street Settlement, “Sweet Marie”
Ganz, and Rabbi Stephen Wise of Manhattan’s Free Synagogue.

Ganz told the hearing, “We are all of a common people and we would
lay down our lives for this country. The people are suffering and ask
you to do what you can for them. What you should do is get after the
people who have been cornering the food supply.

Rabbi Wise demanded to know if “there is food enough the city or
there is not food enough. If there is not food enough here then the
city officials should do what England and Germany have done. They
should have supplies passed around equally. If there is enough food,
the question is: What can be done to control prices?”

Speaking directly to Mayor Mitchel, Rabbi Wise declared: “If an
earthquake should happen, you would not hesitate a moment, Mr. Mayor,
to go to the Governor or to telephone to the President at Washington
if a telephone could be used, or go to General Wood at Governors
Island and demand army stores. Of course, that would be an emergency,
but this is an emergency also, though, of course, it is not as
spectacular an emergency as an earthquake would cause. But the fact
remains that you have got to take energetic steps. Let us have an end
of this cheap peanut politics.”

In response, the Mayor launched a campaign to have women substitute
rice for potatoes while George W. Perkins, the chairman of the
city’s Food Committee, personally donated $160,00 for the purchase
of 4,000,000 pounds of rice and a carload of Columbia River smelts
from the State of Washington. Arrangements were also made with William
G. Willcox, President of the New York City Board of Education, to
distribute a flyer to every school child encouraging parents to
purchase and serve rice as a way of holding down the price of other

Following the food riots, Congressman Meyer London, a Socialist who
represented a Manhattan district, gave an impassioned speech in
Congress where he argued: “While Congress is spending millions for
armies and navies it should devote a few hours to starving people in
New York and elsewhere. You have bread riots, not in Vienna, nor in
Berlin, not in Petrograd, but in New York, the richest city of the
richest country in the most prosperous period in the history of that

Abraham Cahan, editor of the _Jewish Daily Forward_, a Socialist and
Yiddish language newspaper, reported that they had investigated a
number of cases and that families, even with working members, were
suffering from hunger.

After speakers at the Boston rally denounced the high cost of food, as
many as 800 people, mostly women and children, looted a grocery and
provision store in the West End. Police finally suppress the rioters.
Philadelphia was under virtual marshal law after a food riot led to
the shooting of one man, the trampling to death of an elderly woman,
and the arrest of four men and two women. Several hundred women
attacked pushcarts and invaded shops.

The United States Attorney for Massachusetts announced the formation
of a special Federal Grand Jury to investigate food shortages and
price increases. He blamed “local intrastate combinations” that
were forcing up prices. New York County District Attorney Edward Swann
also began an investigation into reports that potatoes were being
warehoused on Long Island while farmers and agents waited for prices
to rise.

Another possible source of the probably were coal shortages caused by
wartime demand that were disrupting food supply lines. The Bangor &
Aroostook Railroad in Maine, that served the country’s chief source
for potatoes, reported it had only a five-day supply of coal in stock.

The _Times_ also reported on the formation of “Feed America First”
in St. Louis, Missouri. Police officials warned the protest movement
might be the result of pro-German propaganda designed to pressure the
Wilson administration to embargo food shipments to European
combatants. Federal investigators, however, argued that there were no
facts supporting this rumor.

Pressure from protestors and the city government pushed New York State
Governor Charles S. Whitman to endorse emergency measures to contain
food prices. In a public announcement he declared that “There is no
doubt in my mind that the situation is the most serious perhaps in the
history of this State, and it will grow worse before it grows better.
I intend to take any steps that may be necessary to bring relief to
the famine-stricken poor in New York City and other communities where
there is widespread suffering.” Whitman then called for the
immediate passage of the Food and Market bill proposed by a special
state legislative committee headed by State Senator Charles W. Wicks.
However, by mid-March the original Wicks Committee bill, which would
have allocated broad power to the city government to regulate food
markets, was dead after facing fierce opposition from farm groups in
upstate regions.

A month later everything changed when the United States entered the
war. The Socialist Party of America continued its opposition to United
States involvement and many of its leaders were imprisoned while the
mother’s food campaign receded from public view.

_Jasmine Torres, a student in the Master of Arts program in Forensic
Linguistics at Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY, co-authored this

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