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Supplying the Great War

This post was written by Kelsey Diemand Librarian in Residence in the Science, Technology and Business Division.

The hand that threatens our industrial life American industry – the heart of the nation / / Phifer. (1917)
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This month, we have commemorated the centennial of the end to the Great War. The Armistice of 11 November 1918 effectively stopped the fighting between Germany and the Allied forces after four years of violence, destruction, and chaos. The United States joined the Allied cause in 1917 after a neutral stance was shattered by a declaration of war. The First World War not only had a profound effect on the lives of the American people, it greatly changed the US economy, over time bolstering employment and business. While preparing for war in the early twentieth century, the United States had to flex its domestic muscles and mobilize its economy for the first time.

In his article about the “Industrial-Military Complex” in WWI, Paul A.C. Koistinen includes a statement attributed to Howard E. Coffin, vice president of the Hudson Motor Car Company, from the 1934 Digest of the Proceedings of the Council of National Defense during the World War, which speaks to this idea:

Twentieth century warfare… demands that the blood of the soldier must be mingled with from three to five parts of the sweat of the man in the factories, mills, mines, and fields of the nation in arms (Business History Review, vol.41, no.4, p.382).

As national production shifted from civilian to war goods, government departments, especially the armed forces, partnered with American businesses to support the war effort. The National Defense Advisory Commission (NDAC), organized in 1916 under the Council of National Defense, divided itself into committees. According to Koistinen’s article, these committees would each focus on different parts of the economy as they related to the impending war, including transportation, raw materials, munitions and manufacturing, and general supplies.

These documented supply contracts from the First World War can sometimes be difficult to track down. To our knowledge, there are no published lists of war contracts and suppliers like those that can be found from WWII, which are often recorded and bound in volumes. But there is hope yet! We discovered in the Library of Congress collections a publication that includes lists of these WWI war supply contracts. The hundred-year old wartime serial publication, Official Bulletin, includes lists of purchase orders and contracts by US government departments, including the Army and Navy.

Official Bulletin. August 10, 1917 (p. 16).

Official Bulletin was a daily newspaper that ran from 1917-1919 “under order of the President by the Committee on Public Information.” The first issue was published on May 10, 1917, just one month after the US entered WWI. Official Bulletin contains statements from the government and mainly reported positive news and propaganda. That said, issues often included names of American soldiers who perished overseas. There are a lot of other fascinating things covered in this publication (check it out!), but let’s get back to supply contracts.

Most issues of Official Bulletin contain lists of companies that contracted with different areas of the US government. After flipping through several issues of this publication, there doesn’t seem to be just one way to present this information. Be aware that these lists of contracts can sometimes appear in different forms. Depending on the issue, you might find a pages-long, detailed list of purchase orders and contracts, like this one on May 16, 1918. Alternatively, you could find a list of proposed purchases but with only the location, and not the corresponding company. Some examples of this can be found in the August 10, 1917 and February 14, 1918 issues. In some instances, the contracts are mentioned in the narrative of an article and are not listed as obviously on the page. This seemingly unorganized way of documenting war supply contracts may be tricky at first to get used to, but it definitely gives you a sense of the urgency in which these were published.

Official Bulletin. May 16, 1918 (p. 9)

We hope that researchers, World War I enthusiasts, and business buffs alike will enjoy sifting through the newsprint to discover these materials. However, if antique newspapers aren’t your style, or perhaps you can’t make it to Washington, DC to view these materials, I am excited to say that Official Bulletin can be fully accessed online for free! Official Bulletin is just a click away – here are a few ways to get there:

  1. Through HathiTrust Digital Library, via the Library of Congress catalog. You can find one record here – but don’t forget to look at this record, too! Individually, these two sources only cover some issues of Official Bulletin. However, if you utilize both sources, you will find the complete collection of all 575 Official Bulletin issues at your fingertips (and downloadable, too!).
  2. On the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission website. This resource has various issues of Official Bulletin available to read and download online.

Women working in ordnance plants in World War I at Gray & Davis Co., Cambridge, Mass. (1914-1918)
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We also have a complete set of print volumes, microfilmed copies of volumes 1 &2, and Original print copies, which are located in the Newspapers & Current Periodicals vault here on Capitol Hill. If you are interested in learning more, you can check out this article about contract terminations after the First World War.

As we reflect on the past hundred years, we consider the effects that World War I had on our country, our economy, and the world at large. If you’re looking to keep learning about WWI, be sure to check out some other Library of Congress blog posts that observe the WWI centennial. You will be sure to find some treasures that live in our collections about what was once considered “the war to end all wars.”

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