Other History

The Nazi Blindfold: Nazi Propaganda in Germany

It is the year 1933 and Germany is doing great once again. The Nazis have held true to their promise of repairing both Germany’s economy as well as their national pride. It seems like everything is going well despite the impending war. Although it looks that way evil is lurking behind the scenes of everyday life in the country. Before the eyes of the citizens of Germany rests a blindfold, carefully tied by the Nazi party to keep the true terror of the war a secret- the true terror of their intentions a secret. Every book, every television show, every radio program and all other forms of media were all meant to spoon-feed German citizens with a pro-Nazi message intricately designed by Adolf Hitler and fellow party members. Slowly but surely the Nazis would rise to the position of ultimate power before a brainwashed Germany. Through this propaganda aimed at the common citizen, children, and German soldiers the Nazi party was able to gain both the power and support they needed to take over Germany.

Propaganda put in its most simple terms it is the usage of imagery and words to reach a goal. Most propaganda is viewed as meant to deceive, mislead and confuse a people into believing one’s scheme. Everything is factored into propaganda to carefully design a brainwashing medium. Propaganda is most often seen in certain mediums including film, television programming, speeches, books, magazines, newspapers, posters, advertisements, and rumors. It generally is meant to evoke both emotion and reason in a person. When both come together it generally presents an internal conflict and makes people more susceptible to new information.[1] The Nazis were able to master the art of propaganda and utilize it.

Nazi propaganda was intended to unite all Germanic people throughout Europe for a common cause- support of the Nazi party.[2] Through carefully manipulated newspapers, books, radio programs, posters, advertisements, magazines, and television shows the Nazis were able to instill their beliefs upon German citizens throughout the world, but mainly those in Germany.[3] Propaganda was not just meant to make citizens support the party through common ideals but also through fear. By using both types of propaganda, the Nazis were able to be quite successful in manipulating German citizens.

When Hitler rose to power in Germany he planned his ascent well, taking the legal avenue which not only maximized his presence but made it possible to use less force in the long run.[4] He took advantage of both his powerful public presence, as well as his affiliation with the Nazi Party. According to Gordon Craig, Hitler had “political genius” as well as a great sense of timing, confidence, and an impressive presence.[5] He knew each one of his strengths very well. For example, through his mastery of public speaking, Hitler was able to capture a crowd and rally support.[6]

Joseph Goebbels

Hitler had big plans for Germany and his vision just so happened to draw the support of Joseph Goebbels, a powerful propaganda strategist.[7] Goebbels became the head of Hitler’s Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda and was responsible for most of the distribution and creation of Nazi propaganda, including deeming whether or not it was fit to be used in the support of the party.[8] Everything was factored into the creation of their propaganda, including the iconic and bold reds, dark blacks, grays and whites used in many of their posters. These colors not only created a striking appearance but also caught attention and stood out. Goebbels and Hitler both knew much about propaganda and how it had to be applied on a massive scale in order for it to be effective. Goebbels thought that propaganda was like the oil for a well-run machine and that machine was the German state.[9] Luckily through the organization of the Nazi party distributing, it on such a scale became an easy task.


Most Nazi propaganda was aimed at the common citizen including many working-class families. After the loss of World War I Germany’s morale and economy were both at an all-time low.[10] The Nazi party took advantage of this and used the impressionable citizens as a platform to grow their party from. They promised to help a downtrodden Germany and bring her back to her former glory.[11] After winning the election they seemed to keep true to their promises as well, making German citizens very happy. The golden years of the Nazi party were when the ministry was pumping out their best and most attractive propaganda yet, making Goebbels incredibly successful and indispensable to the party.[12]

Patriotic events like parades and rallies were frequent in Germany and led by the Nazi party, helping raise morale and rally national support with showy celebrations, but the biggest show of all came in 1936.[13] The 1936 Summer Olympics was one of the Nazi’s best chances to show off and put on a good image of the “New Germany.” During the opening ceremonies of the game, Reich Youth Leader Baldur von Shirach welcomed guests with a short greeting, “We, the youth of Germany, we, the youth of Adolf Hitler, greet you, the youth of the world.”[14]  This quote sets the tone for a whole series of impressive welcoming displays from Germany that were meant to show that nobody could put on a better show than the Nazis. From their impressive Olympic complex to their talented all-Aryan athletes, the Nazis knew exactly what to do to make their country look like a shining success.

Gustaf Adolf, Hitler & Göring at the 1936 Olympics

Ritual was a very important part of the Berlin Olympics and was meant to have a propagandistic effect.[15] Nazi party members, as well as citizens of the city of Berlin, gave the Olympic athletes red-carpet treatment. The German airship, the Hindenburg, flew back and forth over the stadium as a sign of both Germany’s inventive genius, as well as national pride. Impressive scores of music and performances, including an Olympic hymn by Richard Strauss himself, were all displayed with great organization and rigor.[16] Visitors to Berlin to view the Olympics had plenty to do when not watching the games as well. All over Berlin, there were cultural events, galleries, and exhibits that promoted the party and Germany.[17] By the end of the Olympics, the Nazis considered the event a huge victory overall. The country’s morale was at an all-time high, tourists left feeling good about their trip, and the reviews of the Nazi complex and athlete housing were raving about the lavishness of it all.[18] The victory helped the Nazi party exhibit the power of their new and improved Germany.

Walter Bruch recording the 1936 Olympics

Among one of their more impressive varieties of propaganda was television programming. German television under the Reich was on air for nine years.[19] In the beginning, Nazi television was broadcast live for about four hours a day.[20] When it was first starting out not many people were able to afford televisions and instead viewed their favorite programs at T.V. parlors. Every day people would gather around the television to watch the newest T.V. show or news report.[21] By broadcasting current events as well, viewers were made to feel well informed about their country’s happenings. It was during the 1936 Summer Olympics that the Nazi party had their first real chance to show off their programming. Views skyrocketed as the Nazi party broadcast the event live and the nation was filled with a sense of pride.[22]

After their large success, the Nazis began to develop a wider variety of programming, made to appeal to everyone. The programs included shows about arts and crafts, cooking, hunting, politics, and many more topics to entertain the average viewer. Every single show, however, was carefully censored and contained one or more pro-Nazi messages in it.[23] During musical programs, Nazi party songs were sung by charming young men and docile young women. Programs about everyday life included many Nazi ideals in them. Celebrities even came on T.V. quite often to show their support for the Fuhrer, who was treated like a celebrity himself. Cleverly phrased metaphors often passed on anti-Semitic messages or information about the so-called “Jewish Conspiracy” and T.V. hosts always said, “Heil Hitler!” at the beginning and end of each program as if it were a greeting.[24]

Along with German television, the Nazis had another form of media at their disposal, that of radio. German radio programs were also popular among the people and censored much in the same way television was at the time. Joseph Goebbels thought “what the press was to the nineteenth century, radio will be to the twentieth”, making mastering the medium a must for the propaganda ministry.[25] Dr. Adolf Raskin, one of the men working under Goebbels for broadcasting, made it clear that the radio propaganda was all meant to fit in with the idea of German race, blood, and nation.[26] By 1936 it was clear that the Germans had managed to create a radio broadcasting system that rivaled all other counties at the time. The Nazis managed to secure some of the best technology and were well staffed with loyal party members.[27]

In Germany, anti-war material in any medium was banned and propaganda that supported war and loyal heroism were distributed in their place. Everywhere the average citizen turned, one-sided information was at their disposal, while all the opposing material was hidden away or burned. Pleasant posters asking for donations to “help build youth hostels and homes” were plastered on walls while in reality, the money was going toward preparations for the war.[28] Propaganda under the Reich went so far as to single out certain groups of people and idolize them, not only making other people see them as important but giving these people a boost of self-confidence as well. Some of these groups included farmers and workers and mothers- all advertised as important roles in German society.[29]Kinder, kuche, kirche” was a common saying describing the duties of a woman as children, kitchen, and church. Women who had at least four children were even given a medal called the Mother’s Cross every year on Hitler’s mother’s birthday.[30] These ideals for women kept them uninvolved in politics and busy with their so-called duties.

Mutter mit Kindern
German mother with her children c.1933

Nazis were even able to put many of their ideals in German churches through anti-Semitic sermons fed to church-goers every Sunday. These sermons focused on messages about “blood and race”.[31]  Hitler believed that churches needed to be carefully monitored just like any other potential threat to their party’s message due to the fact that churches were very important to everyday German culture and life.[32] The Nazi party accomplished this by not only threatening clergymen and other people involved with the church, but also by creating their own church called the “Reich Church.” The traditional crucifixes of the church were replaced with portraits of Hitler. These churches, however, were not so much filled with the teachings of God as they were filled with the teachings of the Nazis. Many pastors praised the party and Hitler’s messages as a national and religious renewal.[33] It seems impossible now to escalate anyone from our government to that same god-like position that Hitler had, but the Nazis managed to make the transition almost flawlessly by eliminating many of the other options people had. Nazis were at war with the Catholic and Bavarian Protestant church from the start due to the fact that they objected to many of their ideals and teachings.[34] When the Nazi Party’s power had grown enough, they were able to combat this by bribing or arresting clergy members and commandeering churches’ land.[35] To Christians throughout Germany, it seemed like the Nazi Party’s teachings were God’s will.

Since anti-Semitism was already fairly common among citizens it was also easier for the Nazis to build off that platform and instill even more extreme views onto the people.[36] Every day Germans were fed information about the Jews being the inferior race and how the Germans were the master Aryan race. Inferior treatment of the Jews, as well as other persecuted groups including anyone of non-German descent, homosexuals, and the disabled, were able to be spun as a part of everyday life.[37]


The Nazi party was also quick to produce propaganda aimed at German children of all ages and was known as a party of the youth.[38] Aside from family television programming, the Nazi party put their ideas into schools, the home, and youth groups, like the Hitler Youth. Goebbels was one of the first to realize the powerful effect linking the Ministry of Education and the Propaganda Ministry would have.[39] Because of this attitude, the Nazi party was very aware of how impressionable children were and were determined to raise loyal citizens from a very young age.

Young people were constantly exposed to this kind of ideology. Nazi propaganda even reached into the classroom and started as early as kindergarten. Children were taught proper National Socialist ideology and how to behave at home. Sometimes their teachers even made home visits with their parents to make sure their education was continuing at home.[40] In schooling at all ages, teachers gave anti-Semitic lectures and taught children to be obedient and to follow the Fuhrer and party no matter what. Educational films were shown, usually documentary style, that discussed ideals like German freedom and expansion under the guise of geography and history.[41] It was exposure like this that began to create a new pro-Nazi generation.

Colored image of Hitler Youth c.1933

The Hitler Youth was the main way the Nazi party reached out to German youth. This party run organization was much like Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts to German children. Though membership was originally optional it became required after 1939.[42] The Hitler Youth boasted six million German citizens under the age of 18 as members.[43] The Hitler Youth was created to teach children to be strong, brave, loyal, and obedient to their country while instilling the ideals and thoughts of the Nazi party into their heads.[44]

Young girls went camping and learned homemaking skills during their meets. They also played organized sports and were taught how to be good future mothers. These teachings were meant to keep them busy throughout their life, so they would be dissuaded from ever pursuing a career. Both genders participated in events where they got to meet Nazi party members who talked to them about the importance of their lessons through the Hitler Youth. When the Hitler Youth finally wrapped up it was considered an almost too successful venture for the Nazi party. So many members were enrolled that the organization had a hard time dealing with such a large number of children.[45]

Children’s most crucial role in Nazi Germany however, was the message they took home to their parents and other adults. Children were encouraged to tattle on anyone who said anything against the Fuhrer, the war, or the Nazi party as well as anyone who supported the Jews.[46] The party used them almost like spies. Children that were members of the Hitler Youth were even given small portraits of Hitler to hang on their walls at home.[47] This made parents that did not support the Nazi party’s ideals fearful. If they did not support the party their own children may have turned against them and ratted them out to the Nazis. The children who were once many parent’s source of happiness were now a source of constant fear.

Many of the children raised on Nazi ideology were also a later generation of soldiers, going off to fight in the war. From the beginning, the order and direction of the Nazi party’s German army attracted many young men who sought order in their life to join its ranks. Others joined for the sense of adventure, and others yet for the cause while some simply needed the job.[48]


Propaganda was what really helped the soldiers of Germany into the right mindset, thoroughly convincing many that they were truly the superior race and fighting to protect their country. Even soldiers not of the Nazi party were often convinced that they were fighting for the noble cause of defending their country.[49] A Nazi party endorsed anti-Semitic newspaper called the Der Sturmer was given free to all soldiers as well.[50] National Socialist Leadership Officers were officials sent to the front lines to give informal lectures and pep talks meant to both boost soldier morale as well as hype them up in support of the cause.[51]

Auszeichnung des Hitlerjungen Willi Hübner
Goebbels awarding 16-year-old Willi Hübner the Iron Cross

Hitler gave a speech to his army on December 11th of 1941 when they declared war against the United States of America. In his speech, he convinced German soldiers that though they may be killed they will never be forgotten for their sacrifice to Germany. Hitler even addressed President Roosevelt’s refusal of Germany’s kindness and diplomacy as well, claiming he was trying to rile up his people to support the war in America. The German people watched this impassioned speech and felt as a country they must stay united. For better or for worse the German army had been brought together to defend their country against the enemy.[52]

Der Sturmer logo

Killing the “enemy” was viewed as a heroic act, rewarded by the Nazi party and encouraged to be shown-off. That view is supported by this fragment of a letter, written by an unknown German soldier:

Can you receive Belgrade with your radio; every evening they broadcast German news at eight and 10 p.m.? Maybe you will have a chance to hear it. But don’t be shocked if the number of executed Jews and Communists happens to be announced. They are listed daily at the end of the news. Today a record was set! This morning one hundred and twenty two Communists and Jews were executed by us in Belgrade.[53]

From this, it’s easy to draw that soldiers felt that killing the enemy was for the greater good of Germany, and with the reward of being recognized, soldiers were encouraged even more.

The German army was also very good at trying to save face with soldiers who had seen the terrors of the war they were fighting. Soldiers were encouraged to go to their commanding officers and report to them if they no longer believed they were able to fight. When a soldier was deemed psychologically unfit he was relieved of his duty and sent back home to do another, less stressful line of work. Although this process seemed kind on its facade it was just to keep German soldiers from snapping and possibly shooting their comrades and wasting valuable supplies[54].

Though some may argue that the Nazi’s expertise in military was their true key to success, that isn’t the case. Though the Nazis had a strong military, without winning the support of the people they would have never been able to come to power. Every form of information was controlled- from books to movies, radio to television, magazines to the spoken word. German citizens were living in a controlled environment designed and meant to filter out anything that may challenge the Nazi party’s ideals. It was brainwashing and those who weren’t blindfolded and ignorant to the true horror of the Reich were controlled by their fear. Through the effects of propaganda, the Nazi government was able to gain the support they needed in taking over Germany- and from support comes power. When the war ended and Germany lost, it became quite apparent to the German people that they had been controlled by their consumption of biased media. Propaganda has the power to sway, to control, and to mislead a people and the Nazi Party employed their techniques upon Germany resulting in her takeover.


  • [1] Z.A.B. Zeman, Nazi Propaganda (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 11.
  • [2] Cherese Cartlidge and Charles Clark, Life of a Nazi Solider (San Diego: Lucent Books, 2001), 9.
  • [3] Ibid. 56
  • [4] Nathan Stoltfuz, Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 24.
  • [5] Alex Woolf, Nazi Germany (London: Hodder Wayland, 2004), 7.
  • [6]Z.A.B. Zeman, Nazi Propaganda (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 32.
  • [7] David Welch, Nazi Propaganda: The Powers and Limitations (Totowa: Barnes & Noble Books, 1983), 3.
  • [8] Ibid. 29.
  • [9] Ibid. 29-31.
  • [10] Alex Woolf, Nazi Germany (London: Hodder Wayland, 2004), 6.
  • [11] Ilse Koehn, Mischling, Second Degree (New York: Greenwillow Books, 1977), 20.
  • [12] David Welch, Nazi Propaganda: The Powers and Limitations (Totowa: Barnes & Noble Books, 1983), 39.
  • [13] Z.A.B. Zeman, Nazi Propaganda (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 8-9.
  • [14] David Clay Large, Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936 (London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), 192.
  • [15] Ibid. 190.
  • [16] Ibid. 195-196.
  • [17] Ibid. 203-205.
  • [18] Ibid. 202.
  • [19] Television Under the Swastika, directed by Michael Kloft (1999; CA: First Run Features), DVD.
  • [20] Ibid.
  • [21] Ibid.
  • [22] Ibid.
  • [23] Ibid.
  • [24] Ibid.
  • [25] Horst J.P. Bergmeier and Rainer E. Lotz, Hitler’s Airwaves: The Inside Story of Nazi Radio Broadcasting and Propaganda Swing (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 6.
  • [26] Ibid. 6-7.
  • [27]  Ibid. 7-8.
  • [28] Linda Jacobs Altman, The Holocaust, Hitler, and Nazi Germany (Berkeley Heights: Enslow Publishers, 1999), 22.
  • [29] Anthony Rhodes, Propaganda The Art of Persuasion: World War II (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1976), 12.
  • [30] Linda Jacobs Altman, The Holocaust, Hitler, and Nazi Germany (Berkeley Heights: Enslow Publishers, 1999), 28.
  • [31] Nathan Stoltfuz, Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 55.
  • [32] Ibid. 79.
  • [33] Ibid. 55.
  • [34] Ibid. 68.
  • [35] Ibid. 69.
  • [36] Cherese Cartlidge and Charles Clark, Life of a Nazi Solider (San Diego: Lucent Books, 2001), 54.
  • [37] Nathan Stoltfuz, Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 20.
  • [38] David Welch, Nazi Propaganda: The Powers and Limitations (Totowa: Barnes & Noble Books, 1983), 65.
  • [39] Ibid. 69.
  • [40] Nathan Stoltfuz, Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 83.
  • [41] David Welch, Nazi Propaganda: The Powers and Limitations (Totowa: Barnes & Noble Books, 1983), 66-69.
  • [42] Ibid. 72.
  • [43] Ibid. 72.
  • [44] Ibid. 72.
  • [45] Linda Jacobs Altman, The Holocaust, Hitler, and Nazi Germany (Berkeley Heights: Enslow Publishers, 1999), 31.
  • [46] Ibid. 30-33.
  • [47] Ibid. 33.
  • [48] Tom Streissguth, Adolf Eichmann (Berkeley Heights: Enslow Publishers, 2005), 20.
  • [49] Cherese Cartlidge and Charles Clark, Life of a Nazi Solider (San Diego: Lucent Books, 2001), 9.
  • [50] Ibid. 54.
  • [51] Ibid. 56.
  • [52]  Adolf Hitler, “Speech Declaring War Against the United States” (December 11, 1941).
  • [53] Cherese Cartlidge and Charles Clark, Life of a Nazi Solider (San Diego: Lucent Books, 2001), 56.
  • [54] Ibid. 57.
Other History

“Food Will Win the War”: Food in the Military During WWI

“Food will win the war.” Was Herbert Hoover’s rallying cry while in charge of the United States Food Administration during World War One.[1] This statement, although an oversimplification often made on all sides of the war, had an element of truth to it.[2] All powers involved in World War One had to deal with the issue of supplying their troops with the proper nutrition to fight a war while facing shortages, shipping and delivery issues, and quality control. Food, as a result, was one of the most important factors of the First World War and created an entire culture around it. From developing new technology, industries, organizations, and other forms of participation in the distribution and production of food for the troops, food saturated the First World War.

Theory and Planning on Rationing

Herbert Hoover

America was late to the war, entering in 1917 without a very large force of men to support the European Allies, America had to catch up to their well-established counterpart’s manpower quickly. In order to do so the Selective Service Act of 1917 was deemed the most democratic process to build up a massive army in a matter of months. Thus, it was enacted, making the United States combined force of the Regular Army and National Guard (which originally was only about 208,000 men) to more than 3.7 million men with the new National Army.[3] The Americans were quickly overcome by the same issue the rest of the European troops had been facing for years now: How to supply food to their troops. Issues from the lack of proper troop diets in the Spanish American war and the questions of the quality and sanitation of meat and meat packing industries addressed in Upton Sinclair’s classic book, The Jungle, led to much debate among Americans as to how to remedy this situation before another war came knocking.[4] The Pure Food and Drug Act was established in 1906 to uphold a standard of sanitation and safety within slaughterhouses and meat plants and research into food nutrition and dietary needs began to take root in American society, preparations which would soon aid them in the war, soon to come.[5]

With a newly reorganized War Department after the Spanish American War, the United States began to examine the nutritional needs of men serving in their forces. During the previous war men serving in tropical areas had issues receiving their rations and receiving adequate rations given the harsher conditions of a tropical climate.[6] The United States was not the only country to focus heavily on a nutritious diet and just what exactly that constituted. British dieticians had determined that men only needed 3,574 calories a day to have a healthy diet but recognized that given the hard labor and conditions soldiers were meant to endure, they would need a few extra calories.[7] The rations for troops on the front lines are as follows, with the American troops receiving the highest daily caloric intake at 4,714 calories. French troops had the second-best ration system by calories, coming in at 4,466 calories, though the information was misleading since 600 of those calories were meant to be purchased by men on their daily allowance of five centimes. The British troops clocked in at 4,194 and the Germans at 4,038 calories, making their rationing the smallest of the powers.[8]

Soldiers drawing rations in France

Meat was one of the most important foods to the caloric intake of troops. American soldiers were allocated 1 ¼ lbs. of meat daily, the Germans and British received 1 lb., and the French received just less than a pound. Specialty meat like turkey could be served on Thanksgiving and Christmas, if possible.[9] Vegetables were the second most important source of nutrition in ration planning. German men received over a pound of vegetables a day, the British a little over a half pound, the French had no fixed official amount, and Americans were given 1 ¼ lbs. of potatoes to work with.[10] These numbers, sadly, are only in theory. Actual rationing ranged greatly from location to location, month to month, and sometimes day to day.

In the United States, the Office of Quartermaster was the official avenue through which troops were provided food. They were developed to consolidate food production and purchasing for the military[11]. The Quartermaster controlled many different types of food in every stage of production including flour, sugar, canned vegetables, dehydrated fruits, salmon, sardines, canned milk, and fresh beef.[12] The Quartermaster Corps requested certain foods from the Food Administration purchase list and the quantity which they needed. The Food Administration would divvy up the production of these items between different producers and their capacities before it was shipped to a general supply depot where prices were decided on by the Food Purchase board. The Quartermaster Corps purchased these rations from the general supply depots nearby army posts to lessen the shipping distance and to minimize the effect that purchasing food in such quantities would have on civilian prices for these goods[13]. They also published many manuals, like the 1910 Manual for the Subsistence Department of the U.S. Army. These manuals contained guidelines on ways to select the best ration items for quality and price, as well as the proper way to purchase these items and record ration values.[14]

The Quartermaster Corps established depots for storing the different goods they procured for the military after they purchased them. There were three main types of depots. The first of which were base depots, in which they received the initial products to unload them as fast as possible and allow the ships to go back for more shipments right away. The second type of depot was closer to the front lines. They were called intermediary depots and served as the resting point for goods between the base depots and their final destination, advanced section depots. The advanced section depots were located nearest to the front lines where the supplies would be used by troops.[15]

The French and British armies had another way of providing food to their troops, through planting vegetable gardens near more permanent types of camps close to the front line. These camps usually were used for training or hospitals, since they were moved less frequently than the lines themselves and allowed for military members to cultivate and harvest their small gardens more frequently and in general take better care of them. This system was so successful that the United States Quartermaster Corps copied it and created their own Gardens Bureau to oversee the distribution of seeds and plants for these gardens.[16] For the U.S. Army, the Quartermaster Corps only provided about 40% of all the food that the military consumed.[17]

The establishment of military training schools for cooks and bakers was one of the most necessary measures for the U.S. Army and their plans to provide the American Expeditionary Force with food overseas. In 1905 the first school for bakers and cooks was established at Fort Riley, following ration problems from the Spanish American War. This was significant because they provided men with the training and resources to cook for groups of anywhere from 20-100 men.[18] The Regular Army and National Guard already had their own mess organizations, but the newly formed National Army was desperately in need of their own cooks now that they had expanded so much. These training schools filled that void.[19] Army cooks were able to use newly developed improvements to the classic rolling kitchen, like W.A. Dorsley’s compact oil-burners that could be used within these kitchens to cook more efficiently for the men.[20] The rolling kitchens were commonly known as “Liberty Kitchens” in the U.S. and were either horse-drawn or vehicle-drawn during World War One.[21] Army bakers were given technology like continuous ovens and intermittent ovens to bake bread for the military in a variety of conditions.[22]

Specially trained cooks and bakers were not the only ones who were expected to be able to provide food for soldiers though, as sometimes nurses were called on to abandon their current medical duties to provide their patients with food. “A well-fed patient has many times the chance of recovery than the wounded soldier who is served with ill-prepared food or has an insufficient diet.”[23] Since women were part of the domestic sphere, which included caring for others and cooking it was thought that this was no issue, but as the war progressed it was made clear nurses were far more valuable to the military when able to focus completely on their jobs of providing health and healing. [24]

Rationing and Reality

The realities of rationing in every military power were far less ideal than their theoretical plans that they had begun the war with. Facts and figures could only predict so much and the reality of the situation was that the military needed to figure out ways to get more food to their men more efficiently. Shipping was one of the most difficult problems to overcome. None of the powers had enough ships, especially the Americans, to ship the rations they needed. The AEF relied heavily on food purchased in Europe initially when they arrived in 1917.[25] To free up space on ships new food shipping technology was introduced, including de-boning meat and dehydrating vegetables. These techniques took up less space than previous methods of packing.[26] De-boned beef came in three varieties of 100 lbs. cubes including tenderloins, sirloins, butts, top rinds, and shoulder steaks; prime ribs, rumps, and bottom chucks for roasts; and flanks, plates, blades, necks, shanks, and trimmings for stews. This made meat easier to prep for field cooks as well, since they no longer had to spend as much time prepping and de-boning the meat.[27] Dehydrating vegetables, the creation of soluble coffee, and the expansion of refrigeration were all other technologies that further aided the solution to the shipping problem and became even more common after the war ended.[28]

Not all issues were solved by this new technology. Some were more complicated, like the fact that even before the war began Britain imported most of the food they consumed and the German U-boat attacks and blockades made it even more difficult to import food into the country during wartime.[29] Not to mention with all the men gone to fight in the war there were constant labor shortages in industries where Britain was able to produce their own food.[30] Germans suffered some of the worst food shortages throughout the war because of the scale and scope of the Allied blockade.[31] The French had fewer issues with shortages than they did with damage to their supply and distribution system throughout the war. In 1915 an inspection found that over half of France’s 300,000 field kitchens were completely unserviceable.[32]

Due to issues like these men often got far less than the “official” ration, and as the war went on even less due to supply/distribution difficulties.[33] What food the men of the military did have in the war was usually shared quite freely between soldiers and officers. Comradery was a contributing factor, but it was also a burden to carry extra food around with them, especially food that was sent in care packages.[34] Travel troops that were not in distance of a cooking facility had a diet of bread, canned corn beef or corned beef hash, baked beans, canned tomatoes and roasted or ground coffee. If coffee was unavailable men were given twenty-one cents a day to purchase liquid coffee.[35] When troops were near serviceable kitchens, they received more elaborate meals like chipped beef on toast (commonly known as SOS among the troops) and had access to purchasing extras like candy at canteens. Candy was eventually a part of official overseas rations for U.S. troops in December of 1918.[36]

Food provided to the American draftee in training were some of the most complete meals that the soldiers would receive before going into battle. The menu from Summer of 1917 at Fort Riley gives an excellent example of a typical daily ration for the trainees:

Breakfast- Cantaloupes, corn flakes, sugar and milk, fried liver and bacon, fried onions, toast, bread, and coffee

Dinner- Beef à la mode, boiled potatoes, creamed cauliflower, pickles, tapioca pudding, vanilla [sic] sauce, bread, and iced tea

Supper- Chili con carne, hot biscuits, stewed peaches, and iced tea[37]

Pork and beans were a more common “prepared” meal in a can that troops would receive once deployed, which they could warm up or eat cold. It was similar to today’s baked beans, made with haricot beans and pork fat.[38]

Soft and hard breads were also a staple of all militaries. Bakers had the ability to bake both soft and hard breads, but as the war went on hard breads became more common because it was less prone to damage while transporting it, though it did take longer to bake because of how much denser it was.[39] During the war, one of the best field bakeries output was from a U.S. bakery company. They baked 12,096 lbs. of field bread a day at their peak.[40] The United States troops had a bakery company of around 61 personnel (which would be reduced to 48 during peacetime) for every division of men and used the Manual for Army Bakers for their recipes.[41] Hard breads were also known as “field bread” or “army biscuits” depending on the way they were produced, packaged, and consumed. The army biscuit of the Royal Artillery was “so hard you had to put them on a firm surface and smash them with a stone or something” according to one private.[42] Soldiers came up with many different methods to serve the biscuits including smashing them to a pulp and adding sultanas to make a mushy substance that they would then boil in a sandbag. When it was finished each man would take a sawed-off piece, sandbag still intact.[43]

World War One also saw the development and refinement of the emergency ration. Sometimes these were called iron rations[44] or Armour Emergency Rations, named after the company that produced them.[45] These rations were meant to be food that the troops could fall back on in case of an emergency where other food was not accessible or they were cut off from their supply lines. These products weren’t the most appetizing and it was a general rule that soldiers could not consume their emergency rations without officer permission.[46] European iron rations consisted of a tin of bully beef, tea and sugar, a few biscuits, and a wedge of moldy cheese.[47] American Armour Emergency Rations were just as bad. They consisted of three cakes made of parched wheat and powdered beef and three cakes made from chocolate and sugar. The beef cakes could be eaten dry or boiled in three pints of water for soup, and one pint of water for a porridge substance, or even sliced and fried up. The chocolate cakes were either eaten dry like candy or made into a drink by adding it to hot water.[48]

Substitution during the war was boiled down to a form of art, so to speak. Soldiers often were unable to get the original foods that their rations were supposed to consist of, so the military came up with lists of foods that could be used instead to substitute the original products. Soft bread made from flour often had to be substituted with hard bread or 50/50 bread, fresh meat with canned meat or pickled fish, dried fish, or canned fish, fresh vegetables with desiccated vegetables, and fruit was to be 30% prunes when possible.[49] The Turnip Winter of 1916-1917 was one of the most notable examples of army substitutions. Due to food shortages, the German army was forced to eat turnips in nearly everything, which was commonly thought of as animal fodder or face starvation. They ate bread made of ground turnips and sawdust with mashed turnip paste on top for flavor. They also resorted to horse meat stew with nettles, commonly called “barbed wire entanglements” as their vegetable source.[50] The Germans, also due to shortages, reduced their meat ration from twelve ounces to six ounces over the course of the war, eventually only consuming meat about nine days out of the month.[51]

Maconochie can from Musée Somme’s collection

Food for men in the war could be scarce, often face substitutions, or even be cut but much of the food soldiers did receive was undesirable in taste, quality, and variety. Canned meats were often regarded as disgusting, like the French’s “monkey meat” (a nickname given to the unidentifiable canned meat claimed to be pressed beef the French received in rations, and eventually American soldiers as well)[52] or the British’s Maconochie. Maconochie is referred to as such because of the company’s name emblazoned across the can in which it came. It was a mixture of sliced turnips and carrots with gravy described by one officer as “warmed in the tin, Maconochie was edible; cold it was a mankiller”.[53]

Even simple things like tea were often foul-tasting due to packing and preparation methods. To save room the tea was packed mixed in with sugar, which frustrated soldiers who wanted to separate out their sugar to use in other things.[54] Since all of the foods and drinks were generally prepared in two large vats by field cooks the tea often tasted like meat and vegetables or like the chloride of lime used to sterilize the water. The fact that food and drinks were often transported in petrol cans and canteens were nearly impossible to properly clean did not bring any relief to soldiers seeking a warm cup of tea that tasted like tea.[55]

The repetitive nature of meals in the army was also universally disliked, though there were little options to remedy this due to the all-around supply issues the militaries faced. Jam was one food often complained about. The British jam company Ticklers produced jams originally in plum and apple, eventually also expanding to gooseberry and rhubarb, but these bland flavors did little to make men happy, especially when they used jam near-daily. Men wondered when strawberry or raspberry jam might be introduced to mix things up, but they never were.[56] Estaminets behind front lines often only served fried eggs with chips or omelets, earning the whole La Bassée Sector the nickname of the “Egg and Chip Front”.[57] The care boxes soldiers received from their families were often the highlight of their diets, varying things with some good fresh food from home, as one solider describes in a thank you letter to his family:

You can not really appreciate what it means to me or would mean to any man down here. The meals are very much alike and plain. Now I can answer the mess call with a jar of heavenly jam under my arm and a piece of cake or pie for dessert and you don’t know how it will add to the meal. The other things— all those nuts and apples and oranges and raisins and pudding and salad and cocoanut and what not— I was simply overwhelmed when I unpacked the box.[58]

Sometimes it was the small things, like variety, that kept soldiers going through the war.

Drink was also an important ration to the men of the First World War. Every army in World War One received a form of alcohol rations for their men except the Americans, who were forbidden alcohol for fear of moral compromise and drunkenness.[59] British drink rations included one earthenware gallon-sized jug of rum a day per every sixty-four men. The bottles were marked “SRD” for “Services Rum Diluted” which soon came to be known as “Soon Runs Dry” by British soldiers, a more fitting translation in their eyes.[60] German and French had a ration more closely related to brandy, called “98%” by the Germans, who received 0.17 of a pint daily. French gnôle was described as a “cross between methylated spirits and paregoric elixir”.[61] French and German troops also had official wine rations which the French referred to as le pinard and frequently replaced water within their canteens.[62] The drunkenness that American military leaders feared from their soldiers should they have access to liquor was largely a non-issue. Though occasionally there were court martial cases involved in drunkenness and alcohol was used by some men to self-medicate, for the most part, disorderly conduct due to alcohol was so infrequent it was hardly an issue.[63]

Difficulties in the Trenches

Nowhere were supply issues more apparent than in the trenches.[64] Rear areas frequently had significantly better diets than that given to the soldiers suffering the hardships of the frontline positions.[65] Since trench warfare had very specific conditions men usually faced their rations too, had to reflect that. From gas attacks, sanitation issues, and the lack of fires allowed in the trenches to cook foods regular meals were made difficult. The America trench ration included a one-pound can of meat (bacon or corned beef), two eight-ounce tins of hard bread, two and a half ounces of sugar, a little over an ounce of coffee, and a little less than a fourth of an ounce of salt. This amounted to 3,300 calories a day in a difficult to carry cylindrical tin can. The containers were galvanized to protect them from gas and could also be used to float two men in the sea at a time.[66] Soldiers often referred to the canned salmon that was sometimes placed in their trench rations as “goldfish” and the can of meat as “canned willie”.[67]

Field kitchen near Ypres 1917

Getting food to soldiers while it was hot was near impossible. Field kitchens were not even brought close enough to the front lines to provide troops with food until 1915.[68] When field kitchens came closer to the trenches food was carried to the soldiers in dixies, petrol cans, and jam tins, all packed into straw-lined boxes. This food usually arrived to the soldiers cold.[69] Hot soup, commonly known as “slum”, stew, and coffee were brought as close to the men as possible by ration runners on two-wheeled carts drawn by two mules. Then the food was carried into the trenches on a pole by two men.[70] The luxury of carts was not always available either. In 1914 French cooks had to crawl as close to the trenches as they could get and throw food down to the men.[71] Inevitably, being a ration runner was a dangerous job and many men died trying to bring food to the soldiers.[72]

Fire was banned in the trenches because smoke was likely to give their position away to enemies.[73] This was unfortunate due to the lack of ways to heat or reheat certain food and drink items, offering comfort and sometimes sanitation to men. Some men used improvised cookers, which were rifle pull-through rags soaked in whale oil that would be lit in a cigarette tin. The flame lasted just long enough to heat a mess tin of water, which was sometimes gathered from the bottom of shell holes when fresh supplies ran out. Boiling the water was the only way to ensure some level of sanitation since it was often tainted by gas or rotting corpses.[74] Luckier men made use of Tommy Cookers, which were pocket size solidified alcohol stoves which gave off a slow and weak heat hardly any better than the improvised cookers.[75]

The Battle for Food on the Home Front

The militaries of every power faced the inevitable issue of certain foods being lost, pilfered, or thrown away before they reached the troops[76], but the American government faced a larger issue overall with their food— the quality. The Pure Food and Drug Act was enacted in 1906, well before the start of the First World War, but played a huge factor in the war when the Food Administration was created to enforce the act.[77] The Food Administration, now known as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), can be described as a series of “crisis-legislation-adaption cycles”.[78] The Spanish American war and meat packing industry abuses were just two of the reasons the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed, consumer protection becoming a necessary action for the government to take, especially when it endangered the health and safety of soldiers in the future war.[79] When the act was passed there was little done to actually enforce its policies[80] which was why in 1917 Woodrow Wilson established the Food Administration. The Food Administration, headed by Herbert Hoover, was to control the production, processing, distribution of meats, fats and oils, wheat, sugar, milk, fruits, and vegetables, all valuable commodities during wartime.[81] This process was aided by food and drug reviews also carried out by the Food Administration.[82]

At home, each and every power had their own ways of ensuring food got to their soldiers through civilian centered propaganda techniques that encouraged people to waste less and make more of their own food to save most of it for the men fighting. Hooverization, as it was called at the time, was one of the most effective of these propaganda campaigns. It was Hoover’s plan to conserve food without rationing. Hoover claimed, “voluntary action has the great value of depriving those who can afford it and not those who have no margin for sacrifice.”.[83] Hoover’s plan was directed at and embraced by the middle class, especially women due to their caring and domestic nature.[84] Who was better suited to take care of the boys off fighting than women at home? He believed that the fighting of the war was one of the greatest national tasks ever presented to the American people and that through their acceptance of this task, victory was made possible.[85]

Substitution guide for “Victory Bread”

The domestic sciences, which was largely marketed toward women to help with nutritious meal prep and focused on new research about caloric intake and balanced diets, were more popular than ever at the turn of the century.[86] Women who studied and mastered these skills could make things like victory bread or 50-50 bread, which used substitutes for 20% or more of the ingredients typically in bread.[87] This meant that the ingredients they weren’t using were able to be provided to soldiers. In the summer of 1918 when there was an overabundance of potatoes produced American housewives made potato bread instead of wheat bread.[88] Hoover emphasized that Americans needed to eat less wheat, meat, fats, and sugar at home.[89] Popular posters embodied that sentiment with slogans like “Eat Less of the Food Fighters Need”.[90] Women mostly, but also men who did not fight in the war, worked in many different food production job[91]s and even grew their own gardens at home to help supply soldiers while using less of that supply.[92] Posters, radio, and cinema reels promoted the ideal involvement of the civilian[93] and led to the popular movement of planting these gardens at home, known as Victory Gardens. They also canned their own foods to make what was grown in the gardens last even longer.[94] The American Food Administration ended up reducing the domestic consumption of food by 15% without ever having to institute civilian rationing. They used their propaganda, patriotism, and organization to their advantage.[95]

Non-military organizations were also very involved in the war effort, ensuring that rations were not the only way soldiers got their food. Aside from military surplus depots[96], many organizations like the Red Cross, YMCA, Salvation Army, National Catholic War Council, Jewish Welfare Board, War Camp Community Service, and the American Library Association provided other food for men on the front lines or moving out to fight.[97] The Red Cross, YMCA, and Salvation Army were some of the most successful in providing aid to soldiers on a large scale.[98] The Red Cross began their Canteen Service in 1917 which gave troops food, snacks, and leisure activities while in transit at ports and railway depots. They also had mounted rolling canteens to get food out to the men already on the field.[99]

Food parcel from the Red Cross

The YMCA became known for producing cookies, milk chocolate bars, caramels, jam, drinking chocolate, sweet chocolate bars, chocolate cream bars, and nut covered chocolate rolls in their own factories for the troops. The YMCA sold these goods at wet canteens throughout Europe.[100] The Salvation Army was perhaps the most highly regarded aid organization among soldiers. They were known for their good cheer and serving lemonade, coffee, cakes, and pies, but most importantly doughnuts to the men.[101] The Knights of Columbus, War Camp Community Service, Jewish Welfare Board, YWCA, and the American Library Association provided smaller scale assistance like giving coffee, chocolate, and chewing gum to soldiers.[102]

Without the combined effort on the behalf of so many different governments, businesses, organizations, and people the soldiers of World War One would have been in a much direr situation. All these factors allowed troops to receive the food they needed to fight and in the case of the Allied powers, food really did win the war. Each power did their best to overcome the issues of shortages, shipping and delivery problems, and to give soldiers a better quality of food that would have been provided in previous wars. Food was, and always will be, one of the most important factors of the First World War and paved the way for even more important advances in technology by the time World War Two came about. Without the discoveries and developments of methods for food distribution and production during the war, society would be in a much different place than it is today.


  • [1] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military: A History (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2011), 142.
  • [2] Kingsbury, Cecilia Malone. For Home and Country: World War I Propaganda on the Home Front (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), 41.
  • [3] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 115.
  • [4] Ibid. 128.
  • [5] Ibid. 116.
  • [6] Ibid. 115-116.
  • [7] Ellis, John, Eye Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 125.
  • [8] Ibid. 125.
  • [9] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 117-118.
  • [10] Ellis, John, Eye Deep in Hell. 125.
  • [11] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 115.
  • [12] Ibid. 116.
  • [13] Ibid. 116.
  • [14] Ibid. 119.
  • [15] Ibid. 122.
  • [16] Ibid. 125.
  • [17] Ibid. 116.
  • [18] Ibid. 118-119.
  • [19] Coffman, Edward M. The War to End All Wars: The American Military Experience in World War I. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 36.
  • [20] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 124.
  • [21] Ibid. 124.
  • [22] Ibid. 120.
  • [23] Kingsbury, Cecilia Malone. For Home and Country. 41.
  • [24] Ibid. 41.
  • [25] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 123.
  • [26] Ibid. 123.
  • [27] Ibid. 123.
  • [28] Ibid. 122-127.
  • [29] Hockenhull, Stella. “Everybody’s Business: Film, Food and Victory in the First World War.” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 35, no. 4 (2015) 580-581.
  • [30] Ibid. 580.
  • [31] Ellis, John, Eye Deep in Hell. 127-128.
  • [32] Ibid. 127.
  • [33] Ibid. 127.
  • [34] Ibid. 132-133.
  • [35] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 117.
  • [36] Ibid. 118-119.
  • [37] Coffman, Edward M. The War to End All Wars, 65.
  • [38] Ellis, John, Eye Deep in Hell. 129.
  • [39] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 120.
  • [40] Ibid. 120.
  • [41] Ibid. 119.
  • [42] Ellis, John, Eye Deep in Hell. 129.
  • [43] Ibid. 129.
  • [44] Ibid. 127.
  • [45] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 117.
  • [46] Ibid. 117.
  • [47] Ellis, John, Eye Deep in Hell. 127.
  • [48] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 117.
  • [49] Ibid. 116-117.
  • [50] Ellis, John, Eye Deep in Hell. 129.
  • [51] Ibid. 128.
  • [52] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 125.
  • [53] Ellis, John, Eye Deep in Hell. 129.
  • [54] Ibid. 129.
  • [55] Ibid. 130-131.
  • [56] Ibid. 130.
  • [57] Ibid. 132.
  • [58] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 131.
  • [59] Ellis, John, Eye Deep in Hell. 134.
  • [60] Ibid. 133.
  • [61] Ibid. 133.
  • [62] Ibid. 133.
  • [63] Ibid. 134-136.
  • [64] Keegan, John. The First World War (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 136.
  • [65] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 130-131.
  • [66] Ibid. 118.
  • [67] Ibid. 118.
  • [68] Ellis, John, Eye Deep in Hell. 125.
  • [69] Ibid. 125.
  • [70] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 123-125.
  • [71] Ellis, John, Eye Deep in Hell. 127.
  • [72] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 125.
  • [73] Ibid. 130-131.
  • [74] Ellis, John, Eye Deep in Hell. 127.
  • [75] Ibid. 127.
  • [76] Ibid. 125.
  • [77] Borchers, Andrea T., Frank Hagie, Carl L. Keen, and M. Eric Gershwin. “The History and contemporary Challenges of the US Food and Drug Administration.” Clinical Therapeutics 29, no. 1 (2007) 2.
  • [78] Ibid. 1.
  • [79] Ibid. 2.
  • [80] Ibid. 6.
  • [81] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 115-116.
  • [82] United States. Food Drug Administration. History Office. A Guide to Resources on the History of the Food and Drug Administration. (2002).
  • [83] Kingsbury, Cecilia Malone. For Home and Country. 27-31.
  • [84] Ibid. 28.
  • [85] Ibid. 54.
  • [86] Ibid. 50.
  • [87] Ibid. 53.
  • [88] Ibid. 29.
  • [89] Ibid. 52.
  • [90] Ibid. 52.
  • [91] Ibid. 46.
  • [92] Hockenhull, Stella. “Everybody’s Business: Film, Food and Victory in the First World War.”  589.
  • [93] Ibid. 579.
  • [94] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 145.
  • [95] Ibid. 142-143.
  • [96] Ibid. 119.
  • [97] Ibid. 127-128.
  • [98] Ibid. 128.
  • [99] Ibid. 128.
  • [100] Ibid. 129-30.
  • [101] Ibid. 129.
  • [102] Ibid. 130.
Other History

“The Most Solitary of Afflictions and the Most Social of Maladies”: Britain’s Attitude Toward Madness and Its Effect on Bedlam Asylum

Historians have a unique task of explaining the past, rather than simply relaying facts and figures to the public. This is because history is more complicated than simply recounting facts. The context of events, places, and peoples of the past must be explained in order to understand them. Historians explain that context. Similarly, sociologists often explain the behavior of individuals and society, often in a more modern context, but not limited to the present. Therefore, in the case of mental health, it is difficult to keep sociology and history apart from each other.[1] Each is very important to explain the complex behaviors and attitudes society has had toward mental illnesses in the past. Michael MacDonald once said, “Madness is the most solitary afflictions to the people who experience it; but is the most social of maladies to those who observe its effects.”[2] For Great Britain, from the beginning of the 13th century, this holds very true.

“Madness” was a term most popular to describe mental illnesses in Europe prior to the 20th century. Madness could take many forms but there were two most common distinctions between different types of madness— the raving and furious versus the melancholy. Today we have many different types of mental illnesses that cover a variety of different symptoms and have plenty of different names, but in early Britain, nearly all afflictions could boil down to fitting within one of these categories. Today we might label these cases of madness as learning difficulties, epilepsy, brain tumors, personality disorders, and other common illnesses.[3] Unfortunately for those with these illnesses before the more modern era of medicine, treatment could be often found in asylums, which for the most part were places of great horror before 19th-century reforms began to take place.

Social attitudes and understandings of mental illness have evolved quite a bit in Britain since the 13th century, but there is once infamous asylum which for many years, remained untouched by the outside world’s opinions and advancements in technology. This asylum is most known by its nickname, Bedlam. Bedlam is one of many asylums that left some people to believe that madness was a fate “even more deplorable than death itself” in England.[4] Bedlam has a very unique history and experience from other European asylums throughout the ages. Bedlam remains distinct because of its seeming uncaringness toward popular social attitudes and movements for the majority of its operating years. Bedlam’s failure to change with the times, as well as its unusually cruel methods of “treatment” was what led to the notorious asylum’s downfall in the early 1800s.

Old Bedlam postcard
Colored wood engraving of Bethlem Hospital, more commonly known as “Bedlam”

Demons and Animals

To understand Bedlam’s failure to keep up with society it is crucial to first look at society itself during the operating years of Bedlam. In the 1200s the mentally ill were thought to be possessed by demons and usually religious organizations like parishes were charged with taking care of the ill.[5] The idea of the mentally ill being possessed was popular through the 16th century until the Age of Enlightenment came in the 17th. Luckily though, in medieval Britain, the mentally ill were often left alone unless they were a threat to others or causing a disturbance.[6] Often the treatment of those who were taken in by parishes was cruel and painful, the main idea being to “drive out” the demons, oftentimes using violence.[7]

At the turn of the 16th century, the number of those affected by madness rose in Britain along with the sudden rise in the poor. Poverty was becoming more rampant due to high rates of unemployment, inflated prices, and the enclosure of land that was once free to roam.[8] To be mad was to be idle in society. The mad were those “generally incapable of productive labor.”[9] Defining madness in such a way meant that everyone from the poor and old or to the misfits and crippled could fall under the umbrella term of madness. Despite the rising commonality the mad were depicted in horrifying manners, especially through art. They were shown biting, beasty looking, tense and contorted, often in shredded clothing or shamelessly naked. It is said that these depictions were inspired by medieval depictions of Hell and the Last Judgement.[10] Madmen became a symbol of the bestial possibilities of those people who lost the “governing principle of reason.”[11]

Due to these animal-like ideas of the mad, the idea of domestication as a form of treatment became popularized.[12] “Domestic” had two different meanings at the time. The first was the ideal of domesticity in a familial way. Though this was an idea at the time, this didn’t surface very often in early asylums as it did in ones later, past the 17th century. The second meaning was domestication in the way animals would be tamed. This was the most popular use of the domestication ideology in Britain asylums from the medieval period until the late 18th century.[13] With the increase in the mad and these frightening depictions of them, asylum culture began to formulate. Rather than being an option for those who were too dangerous or disturbances to the public more and more of the mentally ill were being placed into madhouses on the grounds of “maintaining social order.”[14] In Andrew Scull’s book Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective he brilliantly sums up this growing attitude by saying it was an attempt to “conceal the ultimate affront to bourgeois sensibilities.”[15] 17th through 18th-century asylums began to advertise themselves as places to confine the mad and morally disreputable, rather than a place to treat and assist them.[16] Asylums became Britain’s place to hide away those they would rather forget about.

When Madness Becomes Trendy

Despite hiding away those that society did not accept into their “sensible” ranks, society did not forget about those who they’d locked away. In fact, madness actually became quite a popular subject in the upper classes. Sensible society became voyeurs of the mad.[17] Constantly madness was depicted in media all around. From art to literature the fascination was rampant. Plays featuring scenes in Bedlam, or other unnamed asylums were their most popular in the 17th century.[18] William Hogarth, a renowned artist, sold expensive paintings to wealthy aristocrats of Europe while selling slightly cheaper mass-produced engravings of them to the less wealthy. Many of his works included scenes depicting the moralless, sinful, and the mad.[19] 1771’s popular novel The Man of Feeling, by Henry Mackenzie, had a scene in which the main character visited Bedlam to be entertained by the patients of the institution, a practice that was not wholly uncommon at other asylums around the time.[20]

“The Rake’s Progress: Scene in Bedlam” by William Hogarth

Despite all of this, madness did not reach its peak in popularity until King George III’s case of insanity became public in the late 18th century.[21] King George III’s ailment was thought to possibly be caused by porphyria, though it is still officially unknown if this is the case. George III was locked away and subjected to humiliating and painful treatments, considered to be a “violent patient” during his bouts of madness.[22] The notorious physician of Bedlam at the time, Dr. Monroe, was even consulted and gave his opinion that King George III was helplessly insane and would never recover.[23] After his “treatments” which ranged from being intimidated and beaten to being starved and forced into a straightjacket, King George III’s madness went away, even if only for a short while.[24] Suddenly all of Britain had reason to celebrate. Their king was once again well. The fact that George III recovered also led to an interesting change in attitude toward the treatment and institutionalization of the mad. If George III was able to be “cured” of his madness, others might be able to be cured as well. If this was the case, many people began to realize, the way those were locked away were being treated, or rather the way they weren’t really being treated, had to change.[25]


Cue Moral Reform and Science

Portrait of King George III by Allan Ramsay

Institutional psychiatry was forced to broaden and diversify with the new calls for moral reform.[26] The reform, although partially spurred by George III’s own experience, was also part of a much larger concern at the time. People were becoming more and more involved in natural and human rights and other reform movements popping up because of this interest.[27] Britain was coming to the realization that although intimidation and coercion often modified the different symptoms of insanity, they did not produce any lasting or positive results, instead often making the patient’s condition even worse than before.[28] These attempts to tame and domesticate madness were increasingly seen as misguided. Interestingly enough the religious institutions that had believed the mentally ill to be possessed by demons were now becoming a more popular place to go for those who were seeking help with their mental state. Because of the horrid nature of institutions of the time, people were returning to religious-based psychiatry.[29]

During the late 1800s, there were significant discoveries about mental health made which changed much of the way we view mental health nowadays.[30] Both crises like war and revolution increase those who suffer from mental health problems due to the very brutal nature of the events.[31] Because of increases like this, it is easier to understand why the social pressure to reform asylums became so great in the late 17th and 18th centuries.[32] Scientists were beginning to realize that the body functioned much like a machine and that different parts of the body functioned like different parts of a machine, for instance, the function of the brain as the place where thoughts were created.[33] What today may be considered common knowledge were new discoveries then and it was discoveries like this that mad explaining madness and treating it advance so quickly, helping to reform asylums.[34]

The most significant of asylum reform came in the 1800s, but reform began earlier in a number of institutions.[35] Forward and modern thinkers were cropping up everywhere, bettering the lives of the mentally ill one step at a time. One of such thinkers was a doctor by the name of Thomas Bakewell. Bakewell believed that by treating the mad as if they were not afflicted by madness in any way that they would usually behave as if nothing was the matter with them.[36] Another important figure in asylum reform was John Connolly. John Connolly was originally one of the strongest critics of the asylum system and its effects on the mentally ill, but later on, Connolly adopted a more moderate stance on them, more interested in reform than abolishing the system altogether.[37] Connolly’s most notable criticism of asylums was the fact that they often paid little attention to the needs of the individual, often lumping many with many different symptoms together despite the fact that he believed it would do more harm than good to those not as mad as others. He also was opposed to the increasing amount of greed and profit-seeking within asylums, advocating instead that asylums should be a place for aspiring physicians to learn how to identify and treat illnesses for the betterment of medicine.[38]

John Connolly’s most important reforms made to the asylum did not come in the form of either of these concerns, however. After securing a position as a resident physician at Hanwell Lunatic Asylum in Middlesex, Connolly began to practice many of the methods he preached, including non-restraint treatment. Connolly believed that restraint was seldom determined based on the individual patient’s needs and often excessive and harmful. Originally Connolly’s definition of restraint was very broad, meaning the mads’ confinement within institutions, but by the time Connolly began working for Hanwell Lunatic Asylum his definition had narrowed, now focusing on the excessive use of straitjackets, chains, and other similar devices.[39] Initially, much of what Connolly advocated for was largely ignored by other physicians at the time, but after he began to demonstrate great success with the system at Hanwell in the mid-1800s this idea became more and more popularized. So popular, in fact, that it caught the attention of Robert Gardiner Hill, the house surgeon at Lincoln Asylum. Hill claimed that Connolly got the idea of his non-restraint system from a visit to Lincoln Asylum two years prior to earning his position at Hanwell.[40]

The York Retreat was another successful attempt at asylum reform. The institution was set up by former Quaker William Tuke, who believed in a more nurturing and calm environment for those afflicted with madness. The York Retreat was described as brighter and airy with about 30 patients at any given time. The retreat’s different approach to the asylum environment proved quite successful with 40% being “restored to good health.”[41] In 1845 the Lunatic Asylums Act made public provisions compulsory for lunatic asylums. Though many communities delayed building or funding their own asylums it was a step in the right direction for making asylums less profit-oriented.[42] Progress was finally being achieved.

L0012306 The Retreat, York
York Retreat

Bedlam’s Early Days

Throughout the years Bedlam was the exception, not the standard, in British lunatic asylum reform.[43] Though we now know Bedlam as England’s most infamous madhouse, its evolution toward becoming such was quite gradual.[44] Bedlam didn’t begin to specialize in treatment of the mad until the 14th century and wasn’t the large institution we think of today until the 18th and 19th centuries.[45] Bedlam, originally founded in 1247, was actually a proto-hospital ran by the Priory of St. Mary of Bethlehem. The guiding star of Bethlehem served as its emblem. It wasn’t until later that the shortened nickname “Bethlem” was popularized, and eventually “Bedlam”.[46] Monks were charged with taking care of the city’s rich, poor, and homeless for a variety of different ailments, not all of which were mental illnesses.[47]

In the early 1300s, Bedlam began to build up a reputation for housing the mad despite only having about six patients, most of which were those without friends or relations to take care of them or those who posed some sort of threat to society.[48] It was during this period that Bedlam made its slow ascent into becoming more of a prison than a hospital. The more patients Bedlam got the more they were crowded together in the small building, usually left without beds or furniture because the straw mattresses would rot far quicker than they replaced them.[49] The typical patient was a pauper, sent by their parish to be detained in Bedlam, but some patients were members of the aristocracy and supported by their families. Unfortunately, this monetary support that was meant to go toward food, clothing, and other provisions was often abused. The food that was meant to be given to patients was sold and the clothes were stolen.[50] Patients were usually beaten and chained to the walls, some even developing gangrene where the restraints would rub against their skin. Everywhere abuse and disease was rampant in Bedlam, lice, fleas, ticks, and starvation just a few other common conditions those locked away would have to deal with.[51]

The “New” Bedlam

In 1666 a fire known as the Great Fire of London struck and destroyed much of the city proper. Bedlam, which lay just outside of the city’s walls saw an opportunity in this destruction and decided to build a new location, solving the issue of their crowded, decaying, and outdated facility. In 1676 the new Bedlam was finished, now closer, but still just outside the walls of London. Robert Hooke built the grand and rather imposing looking building, which by the late 17th century was home to over 100 patients.[52] In 1728 the building was added onto once again to create more accommodations for chronic patients.[53]

Woodcut of a woman using leeches from Historia Medica by W. van den Bossche

Bedlam’s original methods of treatment relied on a medical theory called the four humors. This theory, which dates to ancient Greece, was the commonly accepted medical knowledge well into the 18th century. It was based on the assumption that the human body had four fluids called “humors” that needed to constantly remain in balance with one another. The four fluids were known as black bile, yellow bile, white bile, and red bile. These humors needed to be drained if you had too much of one or the other. In the case of patients who suffered melancholic madness, it was assumed they had too much black bile in their body. For those who suffered from rage and aggression, it was too much red bile.[54] Both biles were drained using bleeding. Those who were lucky were bled using leeches. A single leech can drain nearly 60ml of blood in just a half hour. Sadly, for those at Bedlam leeches were often a luxury they didn’t have. Leeches were more expensive than knives, so special knives were used to bleed the patients. This meant a significant amount more risk because with knives the amount of bleeding was much more difficult to control.[55] Blistering was another method for when a doctor needed to draw out yellow bile. This method was done by applying caustic substances to the skin so that it would create an infection that they could drain the bile from. Laxatives were also seen as a cleansing agent, but left patients exhausted and humiliated, the strength of the medicines often causing violent vomiting and diarrhea.[56] Nicholas Robinson, a physician at Bedlam, once said that they used the “most violent Vomits, the strongest purging Medicines, and large Bleeding… often repeated.”[57]


As the years went on at Bedlam more “modern” treatments were employed. These treatments, along with some of the four humors treatments, were used to keep patients docile and well behaved. Treatments could be withheld for good behavior or doubled down on for bad behavior.[58] These treatments included intimidating patients and using menacing language to frighten them into submission, cold baths, spinning chairs, straitjackets, and devices like the one invented by Dutch physician Hermann Boerhaave that was essentially a coffin with holes drilled into it meant to plunge an unsuspecting victim into cold water and nearly drown them, pulling them up right before they needed more air.[59] In some ways the straightjacket was one of the most pleasant forms of restraint at Bedlam, making the patient less susceptible to the injuries that metal restraints caused and preventing the necessity of corporal punishment.[60] Patients at Bedlam were still frequently bound and chained to the walls, beaten and whipped to keep them in check.[61] Luckily those who were from the aristocracy could expect slightly better treatment, as it was widely accepted that they responded better to “flattery” and “gentle physick” than harsher treatments.[62]

Electroshock machine circa 1960

Somehow, despite the Enlightenment and advances in science and medical technology much of Bedlam remained rooted in the past. The concept of “incurable care” never fully went away within the institution.[63] The only modernization that seemed to be coming to Bedlam’s medical treatments was thanks to William Lawrence, a surgeon at Bedlam in the 1800s. Lawrence believed that the mind was a function of the brain and that the physical treatment of the organ was the way to treat mental ailments.[64] Some bones excavated from the cemetery that was built beside Bedlam suggest cranial autopsies that were performed post-mortem showing the effort of understanding the brain by some at Bedlam.[65] Electroshock therapy was eventually introduced into Bedlam and patients were often connected to wires or meant to touch a brass cylinder that when cranked fast enough would induce shocks of varying intensity.[66]

Bedlam, Profit, and the Press

In 1751 Bedlam got its first dose of competition when St. Luke’s Hospital opened its doors, and unfortunately for them only more followed.[67] The Monroes, the notorious family in charge of Bedlam at the time, were known for monopolizing madness for their own profit. James Monroe was responsible for many scandals at the time that he oversaw Bedlam. One of the most famous cases of his abuse was when he ordered the detainment of a man by the name of Alexander Crutton. Monroe committed Crutton on the instruction of one of Crutton’s romantic rivals and detained and medicated him within Bedlam for over a week. Crutton alleged that Monroe even wrote the prescription for his medication six days before he was knapped off the streets and that Monroe wouldn’t release him despite his claims that he was perfectly sane.[68] This type of sensational drama was common at Bedlam during the Monroe family’s rule and the British tabloids ate it up and had a field day with it. Bedlam was so interested in profit that it offered (for a mere penny!) the opportunity to tour and view the facility and patients like a sort of human zoo, or cabinet of curiosities. Sometimes people were even upset when patients didn’t act “mad enough” and roar and bellow like animals.[69]

The “good” press didn’t last very long for Bedlam. The 19th century began the peak of Bedlam’s bad notoriety. Asylum reform was already a sympathetic movement by the time the cases of James Morris and James Tilly Matthews were published, and half of London had already toured the horrors of Bedlam first-hand. James Tilly Matthews was a patient with delusions of a group called the “Heirloom Gang” which he claimed built an elaborate contraption in the House of Commons that sent messages through the air and controlled the minds of government officials. Today we would classify what Matthews suffered from as paranoid delusions but agree that he likely posed no threat to himself or others. Matthews was noted to be well educated and able to create compelling arguments and persuasive and detailed drawings of and about said contraption. When his story was published, people were compelled and intrigued by the intelligent madman.[70]

L0001481 James Tilly Matthews'. Assassins Air-loom machine.
Drawing of the Airloom machine by Matthews


Edward Wakefield, a man who had gone undercover into Bedlam as a physician, was the man who discovered James Morris. Morris was an American sailor who had been chained up for the past ten years. Wakefield claimed the man was perfectly sane, but a little haggard looking after such terrible treatment and published a story accompanied by a depiction of him in the press. This led to much outrage, as no good explanation could be given as to why this innocent man had been detained in the madhouse for the past ten years.[71] Richard Dadd, although dangerous, was another case that intrigued the public. Dadd had cut off his father’s head and was detained in Bedlam temporarily. While there he was allowed to continue his work as an artist and created several truly haunting but beautiful paintings. When these paintings were seen by the public they were amazed to think a madman had such creative genius and seemed so human, somehow. Other patients’ depictions of their confinement were occasionally published and proved to have the power to move the public.[72]

It was not until 1815 that a parliamentary investigation of Bedlam was finally ordered and set up. This investigation led to the downfall of the Monroes and their corruption within Bedlam as well as a relocation of the institution itself. The relocation marked the end of hundreds of years of terror and abuse as well as the dawning of a new and better quality of mental health care. Bedlam’s fall, although long overdue was able to occur thanks to the changing attitudes of the British public toward mental health. Although such attitudes started off quite bleak around the 12th century, by the 19th century Bedlam was finally able to fall, and asylum reform was accomplished across the country with advancements in technology and social reform movements.


  • [1] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 3-4.
  • [2] Ibid. 8.
  • [3] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [4] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 58.
  • [5] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [6] George Rosen, Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 139.
  • [7] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [8] George Rosen, Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 161.
  • [9] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 122.
  • [10] Ibid. 113.
  • [11] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 59.
  • [12] Ibid. 16.
  • [13] Ibid. 55-57.
  • [14] George Rosen, Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 171.
  • [15] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 15.
  • [16] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 122.
  • [17] George Rosen, Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 158.
  • [18] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 106.
  • [19] Ibid. 129-130.
  • [20] Ibid. 144.
  • [21] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [22] Ibid.
  • [23] Ibid.
  • [24] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 154-155.
  • [25] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [26] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 27.
  • [27] George Rosen, Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 275.
  • [28] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 74.
  • [29] Ibid. 27.
  • [30] George Rosen, Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 244.
  • [31] Ibid. 178.
  • [32] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 27.
  • [33] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [34] Ibid.
  • [35] George Rosen, Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 276.
  • [36] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 75.
  • [37] Ibid. 163.
  • [38] Ibid. 173-176.
  • [39] Ibid. 164-172.
  • [40] Ibid. 191-194.
  • [41] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [42] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 197.
  • [43] Ibid. 213.
  • [44] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 84.
  • [45] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [46] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 84-86.
  • [47] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [48] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 121.
  • [49] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [50] Ibid.
  • [51] Ibid.
  • [52] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 85.
  • [53] Ibid. 136.
  • [54] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [55] Ibid.
  • [56] Ibid.
  • [57] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 172.
  • [58] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [59] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 68.
  • [60] Ibid. 69.
  • [61] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 154.
  • [62] Ibid. 172.
  • [63] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 185.
  • [64] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 211.
  • [65] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [66] Ibid.
  • [67] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 136.
  • [68] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [69] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 60.
  • [70] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [71] Ibid.
  • [72] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 233-234.