Cooking, History Class, Life, Uncategorized, World War 2

Ration Books and Smart Shopping: Stretching U.S. Resources During WWII

rationing 2
“Sugar Rationing”Image courtesy of the U.S. National Archives.

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.

This photo from a colleague and his comment made me chuckle: “Apparently people are nervous, but not “Split Pea Soup” nervous, yet!”

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.

Ration Books

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.

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ration 5
I’m not sure rationing could get cuter than this. Image Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives. Caption: “An eager school boy gets his first experience in using War Ration Book Two. With many parents engaged in war work, children are being taught the facts of point rationing for helping out in family marketing.”

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!

Price Controls

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...

rationing poster
Image courtesy of the U.S. National Archives.

…to poignant…

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Image courtesy of the U.S. National Archives

…and were endorsed by artistic renditions of everything from smiling soldiers…

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Image courtesy of the U.S. National Archives.

…to posing Long Johns.

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Image courtesy of the U.S. National Archives.

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:

I wrote an article on another view of this topic last year: “Feeling Grateful For a Full Fridge: Rationing and the Black Market in WWII Britain,” on author Gail Kittleson’s blog.

G.P. Cox has a fascinating post including some of the history of U.S. WWII rationing and links to Homefront Recipes, (which I plan to try one of these days!) on his “Pacific Paratrooper” blog.

Author Sarah Sundin did a series of excellent posts detailing rationing of all sorts of items in the U.S.—they’re well worth a read. 

For more information on rationing in WWII and other fascinating topics, stop by The National WWII Museum’s website.

The State of Oregon’s archives had an excellent article on price controls/ ceiling prices

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!

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19 thoughts on “Ration Books and Smart Shopping: Stretching U.S. Resources During WWII”

  1. Dad was so surprised that I was issued a ration book when I was born. Very little was said about rationing in my WWII book, as the family lived on a farm, raised a huge garden, and used very little sugar. On the other hand, those living near military bases had trouble finding things to buy, such as hotplates and shoes. (“Can’t dance in GI shoes!”)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A farm was the place to be! Not just dancing, but I look at how my kids go through shoes and I’m glad replacements are readily available!
      The post I’m working on for November had me thinking about your book too, Joy- I’ll have to send you a message… 🙂
      Thanks for stopping by!


  2. I remember my Mom’s tales about rationing. Even getting a decent baby carriage was a challenge. A lot of our food came from grandma’s garden – in New York City! The minor shortages we are experiencing today are nothing compared to the sacrifices made during WWII.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely! That’s one of many things I love about history- it helps put life into perspective.
      What a great piece of family history- and good for your grandma for finding ways to provide alternative food options!
      Thanks for stopping by 🙂


  3. Peggy and I got a good laugh out of the split-pea soup comment, Anne.
    Family legend had my mother following my father to the Bay Area in 1943 from Medford. A massive burn from high-power lines he worked on kept my dad out of the military but he got a job helping the cause by working on Liberty Ships being built at Hendy Iron Works out of San Jose. The deal was that he would go down to the Bay Area and send most of his pay check home to Medford where my mother was. She took it for only so long and then begged, borrowed and possibly stole enough ration coupons to get her from Oregon to San Jose including gas and extra tires. All three kids (I was the youngest being only a few months old) were loaded in the car and away we went. The journey was successful and the family reunited. Of course my memory doesn’t go back quite that far… –Curt

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad, Curt! It was the same with the chunky peanut butter- I’m glad the weird shopping patterns have settled for the moment 🙂
      Wow, what a great “rationing” story- your mom sounds like a determined lady!
      When I think of this time period, I think of all of those families being seperated- it must have been so rough, especially with no idea of how long it would all last.


    1. Thanks so much GP- I was glad to finally get it put together, and I’m always happy to try to point folks to Pacific Paratrooper 🙂 Still planning to do a “rationed cooking” challenge with some of those recipes- it was going to be this summer, but then my daughter got a cookbook from her novel series, so that took precedence.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. My parents were children of the depression, although they didn’t have a great recollection of hardship because I think their parents sheltered them from a lot of the adversity. My mother used to say all WWII meant to her were that there were more men in uniform around NYC. My father volunteered for the Navy before he was out of high school. I don’t think either of them ever really felt the pinch directly of rationing.

    We are spoiled now and we need to become more independent from running to the grocery store for everything. I think one thing that needs to happen is people need to be allowed to plant vegetable gardens in the front of their homes, even in the suburbs. I know many HOA’s and towns legislate against it. There is so much more people can do to be independent, but it’s an uphill battle for many.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What an interesting piece of family history, Patti- thanks for sharing! Wow, yes, with all of those ships coming and going from NYC, there must have been uniforms everywhere! I never heard my grandparents talk about the Depression or rationing, but little things stood out- how Grandma would eat apples down to the core, how Grandpa always had some cash squirreled away, and all of the gardening and canning and sewing…
      Independence is a great goal- I know I’m working on making sure my kids can at least manage cooking and basic mending etc. We do TRY gardening- unfortunately, it doesn’t look like I got my mom’s green thumb. I can keep potted cacti alive, lol! It does seem odd to outlaw gardening on someone’s own property, doesn’t it?!
      Thanks for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Lovin’ this! Reading your post reminded me of the American Girl Molly series, especially teaching kids the importance of rationing. The amount of material put out to encourage rationing must be a pretty interesting study in propaganda, too. AND I owe you a big email! 🙂 xxxxxxx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aw, those books were great. Yes- I look at the “waste not want not” attitudes of my grandparents (and parents) and wonder how much this era influenced it.
      You’ve been a BIT busy, Miss Jean! I’m so excited for the new book release and new job! You just keep your head above water and we will talk when we talk! Xxxx

      Liked by 1 person

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