World War I on the Northfield Home Front

Members of the St. Olaf College Home Nursing, Red Cross, and First Aid programs

Members of the St. Olaf College Home Nursing, Red Cross, and First Aid programs

Primary Source Set

By Stephanie Hess, Northfield History Collaborative, January 2018

On April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I. In very short order, Americans across the country began to mobilize soldiers, supplies, and support for the war. While all men between the ages of 21 and 31 registered for the draft and prepared for service in the national army or navy, the rest of the country also found ways to serve during wartime. People in Northfield and its surroundings in Rice County were called to “do their bit.”

The first thing that the country needed from its citizens was money. The government had to draft, clothe, train, and equip millions of soldiers. They used a combination of taxation and government bond sales to finance the war. In May 1917, the first of five national Liberty Loan drives of the war began.

Local committees in Northfield went out into the community to get pledges of support from their neighbors. Patriotic citizens who had purchased these bonds proudly wore buttons and displayed window stickers for all to see. Newspapers urged everyone to participate and reported on the success of each drive.

Northfielders also learned that increasing food production and conservation would help win the war. Farms were called upon to send flour and meat overseas, not only for suffering Europeans but also for their own soldiers. Housewives learned new methods of preserving the food they grew. They also began to create meals using wartime recipes that utilized more potatoes and corn.

By the end of the war, households in the Northfield area were eating less sugar and fats. Most followed government guidelines for wheatless and meatless days every week. Students at St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges attended classes on food science, first aid, and home nursing.

Many Northfield women volunteered for the local chapter of the American Red Cross and contributed their time and talents to knitting clothes for soldiers, rolling bandages, and fundraising. Others became leaders within organizations like the YMCA to support the soldiers in ways the military could not.

Families and community groups recognized the service of their local boys through starred service flags and pins, and wrote them regular letters with stories of home. In order to win this “war to end all wars,” American leaders needed total support from the home front, and from Northfield, they received it.

Liberty Loan Committee ribbons, 1917-1918

Liberty Loan Committee ribbons, 1917-1918

Parade in Bridge Square, c. 1918

Parade in Bridge Square, c. 1918

V for Victory window sticker

Northfield News column, February 2, 1918

Northfield News column, February 2, 1918

Poster, "Are YOU a Victory Canner?"

Poster, "Are YOU a Victory Canner?," 1918

Lecture outlines for the United States Food Administration Course on Food and the War

Lecture outlines for the United States Food Administration Course on Food and the War

First Congregational Church Service Flag Dedication, May 26, 1918

First Congregational Church Service Flag Dedication, May 26, 1918

Service Flag with two blue stars for Walter and Oscar Gustafson

Service Flag with two blue stars for Walter and Oscar Gustafson

Poster urging people to donate books to soldiers, 1918

Poster urging people to donate books to soldiers, 1918

Northfield News advertisement, February 15, 1918

Northfield News advertisement, February 15, 1918

Letter from Northfield Mayor A. O. Netland to Arthur Persons, July 10, 1918

Letter from Northfield Mayor A. O. Netland to Arthur Persons, July 10, 1918

Members of the St. Olaf College Home Nursing, Red Cross, and First Aid programs

Members of the St. Olaf College Home Nursing, Red Cross, and First Aid programs

Red Cross Benefit Pageant Program, June 3, 1918

Red Cross Benefit Pageant Program, June 3, 1918

Women rolling bandages for the Red Cross

Women rolling bandages for the Red Cross, c. 1918

Red Cross lapel pin

Red Cross lapel pin, 1919

Our Servicemen from Waterford, page 31

Our Servicemen from Waterford, page 31

Pledge for United War Work Campaign

Pledge for United War Work Campaign, 1918

Northfield News cartoon, "Patriotism begins at Home"

Northfield News cartoon, "Patriotism begins at Home," 1918

Discussion Questions

When you look at the individual items in the Northfield History Collaborative, use the zoom-in tool to view details in the images or more easily read the documents. Use the tab labeled “TEXT” to read full transcriptions of the documents.

  1. How did World War I affect the lives of children in Northfield? In what ways could they contribute to the war effort? See Read Ruth Pritchard’s childhood home front story in the Waterford Servicemen booklet (page 31) among others.
  2. Why was it so important for the home front to support the war in the ways described above?
  3. Take a look at the Golden Palace War Flours advertisement. Think of some ways the war would have hurt businesses like theirs, and also ways that they benefited from it.
  4. Do you think that Americans could have helped win the war as quickly as they did (the war was over on November 11, 1918) without home front support? Why?
  5. Can you think of any reasons why someone might choose NOT to support the war’s fundraising drives or other patriotic efforts? What are they?
  6. What tools did the government use to encourage its citizens to support the war?
  7. Even though the fighting stopped in Europe on November 11, 1918, many of these home front efforts continued well into 1919. Why do you think that was the case?
  8. Propaganda is a way to promote or publicize a particular cause or point of view. Can you think of ways that propaganda can be used “for good”? And ways it can be used “for evil”? Which of the documents in this set do you think are propaganda? Why?
  9. In what ways can you see women’s roles changing during wartime?
  10. Identify ways in which life in Northfield during World War I is similar to how it is today, and how it is different.

Additional Resources for Research

Eighmey, Rae Katharine. “Food will win the war: Minnesota conservation efforts, 1917-1918.” Minnesota History, Minnesota Historical Society. 59.7: 272-286. Web. 26 January 2018.

Eighmey, Rae Katharine. “Liberty Gardens, 1917-1919,” MNopedia, Minnesota Historical Society. 20 April 2016. Web. 26 January 2018.

Goetz, Kathryn R. “Women on the World War I home front,” MNopedia, Minnesota Historical Society. 20 April 2016. Web. 26 January 2018.

Nathanson, Iric. World War I Minnesota. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2016.

Northfield News issues, 1917-1918. Northfield, Minnesota. Available online through the Minnesota Historical Society’s Digital Newspaper Hub [filter by city and year]. Web. 31 January 2018.

Sutch, Richard. “Liberty Bonds: April 1917-September 1918,” Federal Reserve History. 4 December 2015. Web. 30 January 2018.

Urban, Carla. World War I on the Minnesota Home Front Primary Source Set, Minnesota Digital Library. Web. 26 January 2018.

World War I and the American Red Cross. American Red Cross.  Web. 26 January 2018.

World War I in Northfield and Rice County Collection Guide. Northfield History Collaborative. Web. 31 January 2018.

WWI: Minnesota in the Great War: Minnesota’s Home Front” Library Guide, Minnesota Historical Society. 17 January 2018. Web. 30 January 2018.

NOTE: To see all of the World War I-era digitized items from the Northfield area, visit the Northfield History Collaborative’s online database.

Primary Source Analysis

Here are some tips for analyzing the primary sources found above and throughout the Collaborative. For each source, ask students to indicate:

  • the author’s point of view
  • the author’s purpose
  • historical context
  • audience

For inquiry-based learning, ask students to:

  • explain how a source tells its story and/or makes its argument
  • explain the relationships between sources
  • compare and contrast sources in terms of point of view and method
  • support conclusions and interpretations with evidence
  • identify questions for further investigation

Additional Tools

This publication was made possible in part by the people of Minnesota through a grant funded by an appropriation to the Minnesota Historical Society from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Any views, findings, opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the State of Minnesota, the Minnesota Historical Society, or the Minnesota Historic Resources Advisory Committee.