World War I was a modern war with new and deadly weapons systems including tanks, submarines, and poison gas. In 1915,Germany first used poison gas, or the “Frightfulness” as it was called, to push back Canadian troops in Belgium. The best protection against this terror-weapon was a gas mask.
On this date in 1918, North Dakotans observed “Gas Mask Day,” a day set aside for all citizens to collect materials to be used to make gas masks for our soldiers in Europe. Governor Lynn Frazier officially designated November 9, 1918, as a day that “all the people of our state” should bring “fruit pits and nut shells” to collection centers “to be used in the manufacture of carbon for the respirators” in gas masks. Frazier was responding to an appeal of the U.S. Chemical Warfare Headquarters.
Carbon filters neutralized the deadly fumes of chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gases used in the Great War. Governor Frazier listed what was needed: “peach stones, apricot pits, prune pits, plum pits, olive pits, date seeds, cherry pits, butternut shells, brazil nut shells, walnut shells and hickory nut shells.”
It took “two hundred peach pits” or seven pounds of nutshells to make one filter. The Red Cross was in charge of collecting the pits and shells that citizens were to drop off at specially-marked receptacles in grocery stores. In Grand Forks, there were seventeen stores accepting the pits, including the Groceteria.
The goal for Grand Forks and an eleven-county area was to collect twenty tons of nutshells and fruit pits, which would be only about four ounces per person for the 160,000 people in the zone. All fruit pits needed to “be dried thoroughly in the sun.”
Government officials urged consumers to show a “little thoughtfulness” to save the life of a U.S. soldier by giving him a gas mask. Gas Mask Day DID inspire fruit-pit and nutshell donations. For instance, the town of Niagara shipped 20 pounds to Grand Forks as their contribution.
But just two days after Gas Mask Day came the end of the war on November 11th. And on November 23rd, the word came that “all work on the fruit-pit campaign be stopped immediately.”
And so, North Dakotans stopped collecting nutshells and turned their focus to welcoming veterans home from the war. Surely, they later approved of the Geneva Convention’s 1925 prohibition of poison gas in future wars.
Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.
Sources: Gas Mask Day proclamation from Gov. Frazier for November 9, 1918, announced in “Gas Mask Day on Saturday,”Minot Daily News, November 8, 1918, p. 4.
“Government Appeal to Boys and Girls,” Grand Forks Herald, September 3, 1918, p. 5.
“Grocery Stores to Aid in Collecting Pits and Shells,” Grand Forks Herald, September 28, 1918, p. 10.
“Urges Speed In Collection,” Grand Forks Herald, November 1, 1918, p. 8.
“Epidemic Hurts Gas Mask Day; Jackson Wires “Keep Working,” Grand Forks Herald, November 10, 1918, p. 12.
“To Ship Pits and Shells,” Grand Forks Herald, November 16, 1918, p. 5.
“Fruit Stone Needed For Use in Gas Masks,” Grand Forks Herald, November 16, 1918, p. 16.
“Campaign For Fruit Pits To Be Stopped,” Grand Forks Herald, November 23, 1918, p. 12.
“Call For Nut Shells,” New York Times, October 26, 1918, p. 18.