Weathering the Storm: Feeling the Effects of the Great War on the Homefront

Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · Thu, Jan 3, 1918 · Page 1
Reading Times, Thu, Jan 3, 1918 · Page 1

Winter 100 years ago was not unlike our current weather conditions; the winter of 1917-1918 was exceptionally cold. With a healthy accumulation of snow beginning in December and more on its way, temperatures dropped to the single digits as the New Year began.  The citizens of Reading and Berks County were presented with difficult challenges in January 1918. By order of President Wilson, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the Pennsylvania Railroad had been taken over by the United States government. Nationally, the railroads were deemed inefficient for the government’s needs supporting the war effort. President Wilson appointed William Gibbs McAdoo as Director General of the Railroads. By taking control of all railroads in the United States, McAdoo’s task was to make the roads more efficient in freight transportation by eliminating competitive traffic between rival railroad companies. Locally, it would not be unusual for a P & R car to travel on the Pennsylvania Railroad line or for Pennsylvania employees to work at a P & R station. Both railroads were already cutting passenger services significantly because of the other hardship bestowed upon the local citizens – the shortage of coal.

Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · Wed, Jan 30, 1918.png
Reading Times · Wed, Jan 30, 1918

The origins of the coal shortage came from an act of the government and an act of nature. President Wilson appointed Harry A. Garfield to lead the Federal Fuel Administration (FFA), which was born out of the Food and Fuel Control Act of 1917. The FFA was tasked with conserving energy through the managed use of coal and oil and the war effort was first in line to access the natural resources. After the war effort was satisfied, the remaining coal was distributed down to the state and county level through agents under Garfield. At the time, Reading’s fuel administrator was H.A. Acker. It was Acker’s responsibility to set and enforce the prices of coal on the local level. Coal supplies for the public had lessened since the creation of the FFA and was perceived by the public as a gradual inconvenience. However, the winter of 1917-1918 changed the gradual inconvenience to a severe crisis. The first page of the Reading News-Times would announce when coal cars would enter the city for distribution. Relief arrived in the January 7th edition of the News-Times when the headline proclaimed that 83 cars of coal had reached Reading for distribution.

Although the coal crisis had lessened, the coal supplies remained limited. Local citizens relied on coal to heat and light their homes.  In an effort to relieve the stress of the shortage on local citizens and to ensure that households had sufficient coal to keep warm, the FFA instructed businesses not essential to the war effort to shut down 3 days a week, starting on January 14, 1918. Three days later, in a drastic effort to curb the coal famine, the government ordered all businesses to close 5 days the first week. Every week thereafter, for a duration of 10 weeks, Sundays would become “lightless nights” and Mondays and holidays would become “coal-less days”. In Pennsylvania, the Blue Laws prohibited businesses from opening on a Sunday anyway and that day did not count towards the 5-day closure rule. On the first week of the order, Penn Street looked like Sunday for six days straight – all of the businesses were closed.  Day by day, the crisis brought new adjustments to combat the coal famine. Food stores, saloons and movie theatres were affected by the ban. Those who did not comply with the rules of the FFA were initially given an embarrassing lecture on their lack of patriotism, and subsequently, if they violated the ban again, were given a fine. Shortly after the ban, food stores were ordered to be closed by noon and movie theatres were allowed to remain open.

Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · Sat, Jan 26, 1918.png
Reading Times · Sat, Jan 26, 1918

Not everyone was happy to “live with less” as their civic duty in the war effort. Those who refused to go without risked the repercussions as Edith Grant of 139 Lemon St. learned. On January 24, 1918, Ms. Grant was arrested for hoarding coal with bail set at $300. She was charged with having 400 pounds of coal in her cellar and purchasing 1300 pounds on top that. She claimed she was ill and had no coal to heat her house. On the other side of the coal crisis, a York coal broker was held on $5,000 bail for selling coal above the price set by the FFA. Children would go door to door tagging coal shovels with cards prepared by the United States fuel administrator. The cards read: “Save that shovel of coal for Uncle Sam.” On the back of the card were 6 tips on how to conserve your coal supply.

In addition to feeling the effects of energy conservation, the people of Reading and Berks experienced other inconveniences as the war effort continued. Food was another area of national conservation. Meatless, wheat-less and pork-less days were enacted by the United States Food Administration, which was led by Herbert Hoover. Hoover did such an outstanding job heading the Belgium Relief while in London that President Wilson requested he return to the United States to lead the Food Administration. The local administrator for Hoover was Charles T. Davies and the policies enforced were similar to those of the FFA. The popular term regarding the Food administration’s policies was to “Hooverize” your food, or otherwise, to be satisfied with less. The call to restrict consumption as part of the war effort was widely regarded and expected of everyone. An article appeared in the Reading Eagle that former President William Howard Taft, on a trip to Lebanon, made a stop at the Outer Station for lunch. The newspaper reported that Taft, a man who weighed close to 300 pounds, “Hooverized” his lunch by ordering smaller portions than a man of his size would consume.

Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · Sat, Jan 12, 1918.png
Reading Times  · Sat, Jan 12, 1918

While the war raged on overseas, the City of Reading had its own war to fight at home with the Reading Traction Company, operators of the city’s trolley system. The Traction Company proposed raising the fare for a street car ride from 5 cents to 6 cents, which prompted outrage from the citizens, the Chamber of Commerce and the City of Reading. The Traction Company wanted to raise the fare with no justification for the increase. The coalition of opposing forces demanded the Traction Company to make their case for the increase before they would determine if it was justified. The city hired John P. Fox of New York City, a widely known traction expert, to assess the necessity of the one cent increase. The issue dragged out for several months and was not easily resolved.

YMCA Building at 631 Washington Street. Postcard belonging to Richard Polityka

Today, while we can relate to feeling the effects of the winter’s wrath, we might be stretched to understand what it is like to feel the impact of war in our daily lives. 100 years ago, the people of Reading and Berks County definitely paid a price, trading in their comfort and excess to support their countrymen overseas.  Many felt as though it was their patriotic duty and nearly everyone kept close tabs on the state of the conflict in Europe. Jerry Edwards, Secretary of the YMCA of Reading would hold Sunday talks at the Reed and Washington Streets facility on the effects of the war on Europe. Edwards spent considerable time overseas, first in Egypt and then France where he served as a camp secretary at both locations. He returned from France in November 1917 to Reading, where he travelled to Dayton Ohio to conduct a lecture series on the conditions of the war. When he returned to Reading, he continued the lecture series at the YMCA Reading branch to capacity crowds in the facilities auditorium.

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I & Berks project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War. 


Riding the Rails of History: How the Railroad Industry Sparked Government Intervention


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The artifacts we collect at the Berks History Center have the power to tell compelling stories, especially when they relate to issues that are still relevant today. This is certainly the case with a simple iron pin which we recently found during our collections inventory.

In the 19th century, railroad “brakemen” coupled cars using pins like this one in conjunction with large iron links. Because coupling required a brakeman to work between moving cars, it was extremely dangerous work. By 1890, the average brakeman had an 11% chance of being injured – with nearly half of their injuries occurring during coupling.

Drawing depicting a Breakman using a coupling pin & link to couple railcars. (Source Unknown)

Inventors were aware of the problems posed by the link-and-pin system, and they sought to develop safer coupling methods.  One of these inventors was a dentist from Bernville, Berks County, William H. Scholl, who designed a new coupling system in 1868.  We do not know what prompted a Berks County dentist to design couplers, and there is no evidence of him seeking a patent for his creation, but his design survives in the form of a model, also located in the collections of the Berks History Center.

Scholl’s Model of a Coupler from the Berks History Center Museum Collection

Railroads were hesitant to jettison their links and pins, even after the advent of a commercially viable and safe alternative, known as the knuckle coupler, in 1873.  Outfitting an entire fleet of equipment would be expensive, and they feared that upgrading would render them unable to interchange their cars with railroads that still used the older coupling method.

While railroad executives grappled with this quandary, their industry was becoming increasingly dangerous. In a four-year span between 1887 and 1890, North American railroads broke annual records for employee fatalities on three occasions, reaching a staggering 806 deaths for the year of 1890.

While the United States Government had been largely indifferent to the affairs of corporations, this railroading safety crisis caught its attention and led to intervention. In 1893 Congress passed the Railroad Safety Appliance Act which mandated a variety of safety upgrades, including a provision specifying that any railroad engaged in interstate commerce must adopt “automatic couplers that can be uncoupled without a man going between” prior to 1900.

Example of a Knuckle Coupler (Photo of the Reading Railraod Locomotive Model in the Berks History Center Museum Collection)


This was a radical and unprecedented move for a government which had never involved itself with worker safety or corporate regulation.  It opened the door for subsequent regulation including additional railroad safety acts and the Adamson Act which established an eight-hour work day for railroad employees.

Despite some corporate resistance, implementation of the Railroad Safety Appliance Act was a relatively smooth process, and studies showed that employee injuries declined sharply after 1900, despite the fact that railroads were greatly expanding their operations. With the link and pin coupling system obsolete and illegal, most coupling hardware was discarded and lost to time.

The “P&R” marking on our coupling pin is the abbreviation for the Philadelphia & Reading Railway – the corporate predecessor to the more commonly known Reading Railroad.  It was discovered by a resident of Leesport who generously donated it to the History Center in 2014.  We also discovered a coupling link in our collection, though its railroad of origin is undocumented. These artifacts are unique survivors that remind us of an era when industrial jobs were extremely dangerous and the United States Government took unprecedented measures to address the problem.

Article Researched & Written by Curator Bradley K. Smith