Making Do: Rationing

The war effort consumed so many resources that shortages of food, clothing, gas and rubber products like tires and rubber bands became commonplace. Rationing of a variety of essential items from leather to gasoline to ketchup and coffee was instituted by the federal government to keep inflation down, preserve necessary goods for the war effort and to fairly distribute items in short supply.1

Over nationwide radio, Secretary of Agriculture Claude Raymond Wickard and Office of War Information Director Elmer Davis explained how rationing would work. Although he promised "an adequate and healthy diet" for all Americans, he also stressed that the military would need a quarter of all the food produced by the country, including half its canned fruits and vegetables.2

The Office of Price Administration (OPA) established Boards across the country to ration some 20 essential items. Individuals were issued ration books with sheets of perforated stamps to obtain household staples such as sugar, meat and gas. To prevent hoarding, stamps could only be redeemed for a specific length of time.3

Sugar rationing began in January 1942, just weeks after war was declared. Initially, everyone was limited to just a half-pound a week, although the ration limit was increased somewhat within a few months.4

Butter was restricted to 12 pounds a year per person, or about a quarter less than normal.5 The butter substitute oleomargarine, also known simply as margarine, proved a hardy product that would outlast the war despite Americans' initial negative reaction to it. At that time, it came in white blocks; yellow dye had to be kneaded into it in order to give it a butter-like appearance. But it was soft and spreadable, an advantage over butter.6

Coffee drinkers could buy only a pound every five weeks, which meant restraining themselves to less than a cup of coffee a day. A caffeine fix meant rebrewing the grounds.7

More quotas went into effect in January 1943 covering meat products, poultry, milk, vegetables and eggs. Each person was allotted 33 pounds of canned food, about 28% less than normal consumption.8. Similalry, people had to make do with 28 ounces of meat a week.9

Families turned to creative meal-making, seeking out ingredient substitutes and experimenting with new recipes. They tried mutton and turkey, which were never rationed. They experimented with corn syrup and molasses as sweeteners. Interest swelled in less popular vegetables such as eggplant and squash.10

Home cooks used sauces, garnishes and canned fruit to liven up their meals and distract from the fact they had few ingredients with which to work. Casseroles were very common. Baked meatloaf became standard fare, as well as canned baked beans served with frankfurters or Spam.11

Secretary of Agriculture Claude R. Wickard urged citizens to cultivate vegetable gardens — dubbed victory gardens — as a means of supplementing the nation's distressed food supply. Government agencies, 4-H groups and public schools widely promoted the home gardens; it was practically unpatriotic to not have one. Flower beds, backyards and window boxes soon became home to vegetables.12


Poster for the U.S. Department of Agriculture promoting victory gardens (Photo from the Library of Congress)

In 1943, Americans planted 20.5 million victory gardens.13 Those vegetable plots yielded 8 million tons of food — one-third of the vegetables in the country — making a substantial difference in the national food supply.14

To conserve fuel and rubber, the government banned the sale of new automobile tires except for critical military needs. Automobile registration fell by more than 200,000 in 1942. This was followed by the order to limit civilian tire sales to 35,000 per month, less than 1 percent of the 4 million a month typically produced.15

Speed limits were lowered to 35 miles per hour to conserve tires, and the government discouraged people from traveling to save resources. Soon enough, the OPA banned driving for pleasure altogether.16

Car owners could only purchase a limited amount of gas depending on their circumstance; a corresponding sticker labeling their car's category went on their windshield. According to Home Front America: Popular culture of the World War II era, the categories were: "A, non-essential for war driving; B, for commuters who drive to work but do not use their vehicles on the job; C, salesmen and delivery driving-work related; E, emergency vehicles which included clergy, police, firemen, press photographers, and journalists; T, truckers, work related; X, congressmen. This 'X' category required no rationing at all and naturally brought widespread criticism and griping."17


Poster distributed to gasoline stations and garages to educate motorists on need for fuel rationing. (Photo from the Library of Congress)

People relied on thrift, cooperation and ingenuity to make do. They patched up old cars and tires. They carpooled. They turned to trains, so much so that railroads made a profit on passenger traffic in 1942 for the first time in 15 years.18


Poster promoting commuting and working together as part of the war effort. (Photo from the Library of Congress)

While clothing was not rationed, shoes were restricted due to a lack of leather. Each person was limited to three pairs per year and even then, shoe quality was poor. Shoemakers extended the life of footwear by resoling and re-heeling them.19

The military's demand for fabric such as silk, cotton and nylon resulted in a shortage of hosiery on the home front.20 Innovative women began painting on their stockings with cosmetics. They could even evoke the illusion of a seam down the back of a leg using a line drawn with eyebrow pencil. "Women had to make do with leg make-up, the so-called 'bottled stockings' that with luck and no baths, it was said, would last three days," writes Ronald H. Bailey in The Home Front.21


Citations

1Bailey, Ronald H. (1977). The home front: U.S.A. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 110.

2Casdorph, Paul D. (1989). Let the good times roll: Life at home in American during WWII. New York, NY: Paragon House, 79-80.

3Bailey, Ronald H. (1977). The home front: U.S.A. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 110.

4Casdorph, Paul D. (1989). Let the good times roll: Life at home in American during WWII. New York, NY: Paragon House, 12-13.

5Bailey, Ronald H. (1977). The home front: U.S.A. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 156.

6Lee, James Ward, Barnes, Carolyn N., Bowman, Ken A., & Crow, Laura. (Eds.). (1991). 1941: Texas goes to war. Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 79.

7Bailey, Ronald H. (1977). The home front: U.S.A. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 156.

8Casdorph, Paul D. (1989). Let the good times roll: Life at home in American during WWII. New York, NY: Paragon House, 81.

9Bailey, Ronald H. (1977). The home front: U.S.A. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 156.

10Lee, James Ward, Barnes, Carolyn N., Bowman, Ken A., & Crow, Laura. (Eds.). (1991). 1941: Texas goes to war. Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 79.

11Heide, Robert, & Gilman, John. (1995). Home front America: Popular culture of the World War II era. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 65.

12Casdorph, Paul D. (1989). Let the good times roll: Life at home in American during WWII. New York, NY: Paragon House, 82.

13Bailey, Ronald H. (1977). The home front: U.S.A. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 108.

14Casdorph, Paul D. (1989). Let the good times roll: Life at home in American during WWII. New York, NY: Paragon House, 82.

15Ibid., 14-15.

16Heide, Robert, & Gilman, John. (1995). Home front America: Popular culture of the World War II era. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 57.

17Ibid.

18Bailey, Ronald H. (1977). The home front: U.S.A. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 156.

19Heide, Robert, & Gilman, John. (1995). Home front America: Popular culture of the World War II era. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 57.

20Lee, James Ward, Barnes, Carolyn N., Bowman, Ken A., & Crow, Laura. (Eds.). (1991). 1941: Texas goes to war. Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 82.

21Bailey, Ronald H. (1977). The home front: U.S.A. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 114.