WWI Artifacts and Memories: “Chow” Time

19, August 2015

William H. Danforth was born in Mississippi County, Missouri, in 1870. An ambitious man, in 1894 he founded the Purina Mills Company at age 24. A significant producer of animal feed, the Purina Mills Company went on to expand into breakfast cereals and renamed the company the Ralston-Purina Company. The renaming was the result of an endorsement of their cereals by Webster Edgerly, founder of Ralstonism, a pseudo-health and social movement. The company went on to great success in the early 1900s, but it is World War I that made the most enduring impact on the success and branding of the company.

YMCA Secretary William H. Danforth distributing cigars to the troops  during WWIYMCA Secretary William Danforth distributing cigars to the troops of the 3rd Division, American Expeditionary Force. From Daring Adventure: The Life Story of William H. Danforth, Gordon M. Philpott.

William Danforth never shied away from a challenge. In early 1918, as the United States prepared to bolster its troop strength overseas, he saw the chance to do his part. At age 47, Danforth was too old for front-line service, but there was a call to the YMCA to establish canteens and recreation centers across Europe for the 2 million American troops being shipped overseas. Leaving his wife, Adda, and two children, Donald and Dorothy, Danforth took up a position as General YMCA Secretary for the 3rd Infantry Division. He was responsible for establishing YMCA canteens, providing entertainment, organizing athletic events, conducting religious services, and keeping up the morale of over 27,000 troops.

Working under dangerous and strenuous conditions, Danforth kept up the work, but he still found time to write letters to his family. He also found time to write home to his business associates and employees to encourage their work producing food for the war effort. Posters of Danforth with the message, “Work Hard, Pray Hard, Play Hard—We Have a Victory to Win,” were hung in the company’s offices and mills.

Shrapnel-piereced sign from WWIShrapnel-pierced YMCA sign from one of Danforth’s centers, brought back and displayed in his office after the war. From Daring Adventure: The Life Story of William H. Danforth, Gordon M. Philpott.

While he made a lasting impact on the war effort and the men for which he was responsible, the war made an impact on Danforth as well. According to company’s history it was during his World War I service that Danforth first heard the term chow, an endearing word for food that American soldiers used ubiquitously. Ralston-Purina trademarked the term, substituting “chow” for “feed” on all of their products, and Purina Chow was born.

William Danforth would go on to head the Ralston-Purina Company until 1932, when he turned it over to his son. Danforth left many lasting legacies beyond Purina; in 1925 he co-founded the American Youth Foundation, and in 1927 he established the Danforth Foundation, which granted funds to projects in the St. Louis region and subsidized the construction of 24 “Danforth Chapels” on college campuses across the country. He stayed active in the St. Louis community following his retirement. He died in his sleep on Christmas Eve of 1955.

—Patrick Allie, World War I Curator