Patriotic Fever in Berks County during the Great War

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When the Great War broke out in the Summer of 1914 the seeds of patriotic fever were planted in the citizens of the United States. Originally, President Woodrow Wilson adopted a strict neutrality policy, declaring that the United States is “neutral in fact, as well as in name.” The issue of involvement was hotly debated in the United States in the early stages of the War, especially between the isolationist and preparedness movements that were growing in the country.

During the period of 1914-1916, patriotic fever gained momentum as tales of the atrocities in Belgium spread. Then came the sinking of the British liner Lusitania, which claimed 128 American lives and fueled the fire of a growing anti-German sentiment. This was an era when the concept of Americanism – what is means to be an American – was energetically courted and hotly contested. This wave of fever found its way to Berks County as it did everywhere in the nation. As propaganda posters (pictured above) and Tin Pan Alley composers did their part to energize this movement nationally, Reading and Berks County felt the effects and responded with national pride.

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Mary Archer, chairman of the Belgium Relief Committee in Berks County, worked tirelessly to ensure food was shipped to the starving Belgians. A full-page advertisement in the Reading Times detailed what the money raised could buy to aid in the relief effort.  The ad from November 12, 1914 is rich in dialect informing its readers the time to feed starving women and children is now, and the cargo ship is waiting in Philadelphia for your reply! By April 1917, Reading led the nation in the relief effort, giving 50 cents per capita, which was 5 times more than the national average. The Reading Patriotic Committee was formed, which coordinated the patriotic functions in the area. Their efforts to stoke the fires of patriotism really blossomed when the United States entered the war. Even a story I worked on for the Historical Review earlier this year showed the patriotic fever. The spring issue of the Review tells the story of a large Tiller sled of the era by the name of “Old Glory.”

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When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, and no sooner than George M Cohan wrote the song “Over There”, the Reading Patriotic Committee had a parade organized to be held April 14, 1917, to showcase the City’s patriotic pride. The parade had 30,000 participants, with the parade column 4 miles long. There were 53 bands participating in this event, which took 2-1/2 hours to completely pass any one point. The parade started at 9th and Windsor Streets, winding its way through the city and ending at 6th and Oley Streets. Jonathan Mould had the distinguished honor of appearing in the parade twice, marching the route entirely with the Reading Planning Commission in the first column. Mould then went downtown to watch the parade, to see the Reading Rotary Club with a strong contingent marching. Being an enthusiastic Rotarian himself, Mould joined the column at  4th and Elm Streets to rousing cheers by the members of the club. The Hippodrome filmed the pageant with the motion picture to be shown in conjunction with its vaudeville acts later in the week.

There was an incident of interest that occurred during the parade on Penn St. As a recruiting officer was driving in the parade at a point on Penn St., a young man made an insulting remark about the service. The officer stopped his vehicle, and proceeded to give the young man a lecture he was not likely to forget. The offender said nothing, fearing a beating from those who heard his insulting remark. The officer told him that enlisting would make a good citizen out of him. The draft was met enthusiastically on the local level. According to the Reading News-Times, “Practically every man expressed a willingness to go to war when the time came. Volunteering for service rather than being drafted appeared to meet with more favor.” The American Red Cross recruited volunteers from the Reading Hospital Nursing School to serve at home and abroad.

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“To the Tannery” An Effigy (stuffed costume) of Kaiser hung in downtown Reading, PA c. 1915 from the Berks History Center Research Library Collection

As America moved forward in the Great War, the local swell of patriotic pride did not diminish. National guardsmen were stationed at strategic points along both the Philadelphia & Reading and Pennsylvania Railroad lines for fear of sabotage. The strong influence of Germanic descent in the area brought an awareness of who was loyal to our country and who harbored loyalties to the Kaiser.

The Reading Defense Committee was organized, headed by  H.J. Hayden, with Mary Archer in charge of agricultural work. Patriotism was on display in Berks.  Scenes such as 1200 people singing patriotic songs to the music of the Ringgold Band at Reading Saddle Manufacturing at 316-322 Maple Street, and the Liberty Committee offering you to “Pack All Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag” and come to Lauer’s Park for a patriotic sing along were all too common.

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

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War Bonds for Liberty: WWI Collection

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WWI Era Advertisement for Liberty Bonds from the Berks History Center Museum Collection

During the Great War, or the “War to End All Wars,” public support at home was crucial to the success of our troops overseas.

The Liberty Loan drive was devised to help cover the expenses of the United States war effort. There were five loan drives in total during the Great War, the last ending in 1919. The poster shown is by Joseph Pennell from the fourth loan drive, depicting what would happen to the home front if the civilian population did not buy war bonds. New York harbor is ablaze, German air fighters rule the sky, Lady Liberty’s head has been severed and lays in the harbor, with the German Eagle standing proudly at her feet, and a U-boat patroling the harbor. If this horrific scene didn’t make the public buy war bonds, what would?

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Victory Liberty Loan Medallion from the Berks History Center Museum Collection

The fourth Liberty Bond ultimately wound up defaulting, as the terms of the bond were payable in U.S. gold coin at maturity in 1938. Unfotunately for bond holders, Franklin Roosevelt eliminated the gold market in 1933. Bond holders wound up losing approximately 41% of the bonds principal.

The U.S. Treasury commissioned the Victory Liberty Loan Medallion shown above in conjunction with the 5th loan drive of 1919. The medallion was made from a German cannon captured at Chateau-Thierry in north west France. The medal was awarded by the Department of Treasury to victory Liberty Loan campaign volunteers.

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