Tiny capsules, national service: The draft during World War I

After maintaining neutrality for three years, the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917. Expecting around a million enlistees but receiving only 73,000 volunteers for military service, Congress and President Woodrow Wilson realized other methods were required to call up a large military force. By July 20, Wilson would enact a military draft lottery. Secretary of War Newton D. Baker was in charge of administering this new conscription act, which could have resulted in a riotous backlash as it had in the New York Draft Riots during the Civil War. It didn't, and Baker's implementation of the process may help explain why.

Black and white portrait of a man. He looks at the camera and wears glasses.

President Wilson's Selective Service Act of 1917 differed from the Civil War's conscription act of 1863 in that those who were drafted could neither purchase an exemption nor hire a substitute to take their places. Exemptions and substitutions during the Civil War were unpopular with many, as only the wealthy could afford to evade military service. With the option of substitution off the table, the Selective Service Act was more acceptable to many during the Great War.

Black and white photo of one man visiting another in hospital. One man lays in bed, looking up at visitor. The other looks down, chatting, holding hat.

While Baker's job made him central to the war effort, he had often identified as a pacifist. In a 1961 biography by C. H. Cramer, Baker is quoted in remarks to the Reserve Officers Association in 1916 as saying, "I am a pacifist. I am a pacifist in my hope; I am a pacifist in my prayers; I am a pacifist in my belief that God made man for better things than that a civilization should always be under the blight of this increasingly deadly destruction which war leaves us."

In addition to avoiding the option for substitution, Baker used another strategy to establish a feeling of fairness around the implementation of the Selective Service Act: local draft boards. According to the U.S. National Archives, which holds a collection of World War I draft registration cards, "The local boards were charged with the registration, determination of order and serial numbers, classification, call and entrainment of draftees." The serial numbers were printed on small pieces of paper and inserted onto capsules.


This is when the draft process may have begun to resemble a state lottery. The capsules were placed into a large glass bowl and mixed thoroughly using a ladle. The gelatin capsules helped reduce the probability of disorder during selection.

On left, an American penny. On right, a small, red capsule. Pill-shaped. Appears glossy or maybe sticky. Very small in comparison to penny.

Small pill-shaped object and even smaller object next to it.

Small slip of paper with a number on it. In a gloved hand. The glove is black.

Black and white photo. In front of what appear to be tall storage cabinets with small, numbered drawers, a blindfolded man picks something out of a glass bowl. Other men watch.

On July 20, 1917, Baker was selected to draw the first capsule for the draft.He drew it at 9:30 a.m. It held the number 258. The drawing would last into the early hours of the following morning. In this first drawing, 10,500 numbers were drawn.

Black and white photo of a glass bowl on a wooden table. It has high walls with no curve and a wide opening on tap. Inside, a few small pill-shaped capsules.


Document written on typewriter. It describes each scene in a film. It begins with President Wilson speaking.

Typewritten document listing scenes in a move titled "Made in America."

The Selective Service System is still with us today, as every male over the age of 18 can attest. In recent years, as women have officially been allowed in combat roles, Congress has debated including women in Selective Service, but no official change has been made to date.

Three capsules. Two are large, one red, one blue. One is small. It is dark red.

Annika Lundeberg completed a summer 2017 internship in the Division of Armed Forces History. She is a junior History and Nordic Studies major at St. Olaf College.

Learn more about the drawings in this digitized report.

Posted in World War I