2020 has done a great job of reminding me just how spoiled I am. (Maybe I should say “richly blessed with material goods.” That sounds better.) I can’t recall another time in my life when I wanted a staple item at the store (for instance, toilet paper) and was unable to find it.
Those of you who know me won’t be surprised that the early days of “Covid shopping” immediately got me thinking of the days of the Second World War. “One per customer” signs on the paper products at Wal-Mart sent my mind to the rationing policies and procedures of those tumultuous days, and the ways people tried to manage limited access to goods during the years of conflict.
The United States is a country with tremendous natural resources, and when WWII rolled around, they were certainly needed. Besides feeding the American population (about 132 million) and feeding and equipping the 12+ million people who’d serve in the Armed Forces, the U.S.’s Lend-lease program shipped somewhere around $50 billion dollars worth of goods around the world.
Someone needed to create a system to organize all of this, to make sure that high-demand goods were distributed fairly, and to keep prices reasonable.
The OPA (Office of Price Administration) created ration books for every person. (There’s a nice selection of primary source images here.) Each person was allotted a certain number of “points” to use. Your points were tracked by the number of stamps in your ration book. Once you ran out of points for an item, you would no longer be able to purchase it until you received more stamps for the next time period.
Ideally, under this program people wouldn’t be able to overbuy and hoard items while others went without. Understandably, people were forced to plan ahead and shop with care.
Tires were the first items rationed, starting in January of 1942, right after Pearl Harbor. They were followed by items like gasoline, sugar, coffee, meats, shoes, and canned goods.
There was some flexibility in the system, allowing particular groups of people to get additional rations of items essential for their jobs. For instance, most people had an “A” sticker on their vehicle windshield, granting them 4 gallons of gasoline per week. However, other stickers included “B” (for business owners) which granted 8 gallons, and a “C” for essential workers like doctors, clergy, and mail carriers.
People were encouraged to be creative and to learn to make do. Sewing and mending as well as home and car repair were important life skills. Families planted “Victory Gardens” (which will get their own post eventually) to supplement their diets. Meatless meals became more common. Boxed mac and cheese had a huge rise in popularity—it’s still wildly popular with my kiddos!
With supplies low and demand high, there was a risk that costs for items could get out of control. In 1942, FDR proposed measures to curb inflation, and the Emergency Price Control Act of 1942 allowed the OPA to fix maximum prices for goods and rents for the duration.
These controls were not always easy to enforce. Manufacturers might repackage products and claim that they were “new,” and thus not regulated. Or packaging might stay the same while quality decreased.
In 1943, the OPA was given authority to revise the system to make the regulations more clear and effective. Uniform “Ceiling Prices” were set on products—it was illegal for stores to charge customers more than a product’s ceiling price. Local boards helped monitor compliance and manage ration book distribution.
Of course, no one likes restrictions. Encouragement to follow rationing and pricing policy ranged from themes patriotic...
…and were endorsed by artistic renditions of everything from smiling soldiers…
…to posing Long Johns.
Still, even with these inspirational images, a black market on rationed goods sprang up. According to a December 5, 1943 interview with Patrick Carr, Cheif Investigator for the OPA Massachusetts, the OPA was employing 2,200 paid investigators to try to keep black market dealings in check.
When I think about the rationing challenges of WWII, I think of the “waste not, want not” attitudes of my grandparents and parents. It’s interesting how much those years influenced their generation—and where those influences show up. For instance, this summer my daughter discovered that rationing was part of the inspiration for a cookbook we purchased as a companion to a fiction series she’s been enjoying.
What about you? Have you encountered the influence of the rationing days in your own family or life? As some goods have been trickier to find, have you found yourself adapting your cooking/buying to adjust?
Thanks so much for stopping by today!
If you’d like more on this topic:
There are also many helpful artifacts and articles in the U.S. National Archives, including an online exhibit “America on the Homefront.”
On a personal note:
For those of you who are regular followers, I want to let you know that with the school year in full swing—and in true 2020 form, it’s an odd, extra busy one— and a novel going through heavy edits, my blog posts are going to have to slow down a bit. I’m still planning to post regularly, on at least the second and fourth Saturdays of the month. I plan to alternate “new content” posts with reposts of articles from my archives that are likely “new” to more recent followers. I’m hoping that by doing so I can keep my head above water and still keep regular, quality content coming to The Naptime Author.
For those of you whom I follow regularly, while I can’t do it every day, I look forward to the days when I can carve out the time to stop and read your work. Thanks for putting so much fantastic and fascinating content out there!