By Mark Hauser
My dissertation, “All the Comforts of Hell: Doughboys and American Mass Culture in the First World War” examines how the centralization of men and materials by the United States military and its affiliated welfare agencies played a key role in disseminating and strengthening the grasp of mass culture on American society. When the US entered the war in April 1917, American officials remembered the negative press coverage of soldiers drinking, gambling, and cavorting with prostitutes during their recent pursuit of Pancho Villa along the Mexican border. Military leaders turned to welfare organizations such as the YMCA, Knights of Columbus, and Jewish Welfare Board to develop programs capable of entertaining millions of diverse soldiers drafted from across regional, racial, ethnic, and class boundaries. These organizations built a network of (mostly segregated) “huts” both in US training camps and behind the lines in France that provided a variety of secular entertainments and consumer goods with which welfare officials had to make their peace.
I spent most of my time at the Hoover Institution examining its voluminous holdings of soldiers’ personal papers. These include the papers of soldiers such as Maximillian Boll, a soldier drafted into the army from Germantown, PA, who wrote in his diary and memoirs about his enjoyment of the local Liberty Theatre, a government- built theater found in most in training camp where soldiers could watch movies and leading vaudeville entertainers from around the country. However, these programs often brought opportunities for the same immoral activities they were intended to counter. Sumner Martin, a lieutenant from Pleasantville, OH, recorded one such example in his memoirs, describing a trip to Atlanta where he recruited twenty beautiful chorus girls from the Keith vaudeville circuit to return to camp with him and entertain the soldiers, only to discover that after their show the women “disappeared like magic and I was helpless to do anything about it, and I do not know how they got back to the city.” In France, YMCA huts provided soldiers with record players and movie theaters; again, soldiers’ responses were more complicated than those anticipated by Y officials. John Wister, a horticulturist from Philadelphia, wrote home to his family that at the Y "they never show anything but the oldest, cheapest and worst. I have seen good American pictures in Bordeaux by going to the French theatres at about 4 francs, but never anything good in the Y yet, but of course tastes differ and some like them.”
Although Army and welfare officials struggled to organize entertainment, YMCA workers were more effective at organizing sports leagues; sports had been an important part of the Y’s services in the United States where officials encouraged men to participate in sports as a form of “muscular Christianity.” Birge Clark, a Palo Alto native and former Stanford student who served as the captain of a balloon company during the war wrote in his diary of the popularity of the Y baseball league, which three times a week attracted ten percent of his company to a nearby French town. Baseball was so popular in Clark’s unit that even though the Y had spent millions of dollars on sporting goods it was unable to supply his soldiers with enough equipment; Clark’s company eventually built their own machine to sand lumber into bats. However, over time athletic programs transformed from mass participation into mass spectatorship, a change welcomed by many soldiers. Independence Day celebrations in 1918 featured huge baseball games designed to showcase the best soldier talent, yet also turned the non- participants into a crowd that watched the games with enthusiasm. Roy Davis, an ambulance driver from Los Gatos, CA, recorded in his diary the experience of attending his first football game alongside thousands of other soldiers, writing “I am willing to frankly admit that I did not know the first thing about football. However, after the ‘kickoff’ at 2:30, the points of the game soon became apparent to me and when things became especially exciting I found myself yelling and waving my arms with as much gusto as some of the one-time-stars of the game.” Winning new fans like Davis was important for football, but even more important for a controversial sport like boxing; boxing’s popularity soared after the war in large part because of soldiers’ spectatorship at YMCA and Knights of Columbus-sponsored bouts, and veterans successfully lobbied to legalize the sport in states such as New York where it had previously been banned.
In addition to entertainment, welfare organizations provided mass-produced products to soldiers in an effort to make their lives slightly more comfortable. YMCA officials operated “canteens” where soldiers could buy a wide range of goods including cigarettes, canned fruits, toiletries, chocolate, and even wristwatches. Edwin Gerth, a Knox College student who enlisted in the Army, wrote in letters to his family and his diary of his appreciation for the YMCA, and wished their canteens could be in the trenches where he could have chocolate when he needed it most. Other soldiers like Jacob Emery, a lieutenant and student at Harvard, wrote to his family criticizing the canteens for their limited selection, high prices, and inconvenient hours. The reactions of soldiers like Gerth and Emery highlighted what soldiers perceived as the unfulfilled potential of canteens to provide inexpensive, convenient comforts during times of intense physical and mental strain.
I would like to thank the entire staff for their help, and in particular Carol Leadenham for offering her insights to me before I arrived on campus and pointing me towards additional holdings in the Hoover Library. It was an honor receiving the Silas Palmer Fellowship, and I hope future scholars will continue to take advantage of the Hoover Institution’s excellent material and human resources.