On 04 May 1942, the Office of Price Administration (OPA) began issuing War Ration Book Number One (or the Sugar Book). Although 180 million were printed, only 123 million were issued. The US population at the time: 135 million.
During the summer of 1941, the United Kingdom had asked the US to “start conserving food to send to the Allies fighting in Europe.” On August 28, 1941, President Roosevelt created the OPA by executive order; the OPA would control prices as well as manage rationing.
Then Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on 07 December 1941, pulling the United States into World War II and disrupting civilian life and manufacturing.
On December 11, 1941, just four days after the attack on Pearl Harbor and three days after the declaration of war on Japan, the first wave of rationing in the US was introduced.
The first products to be rationed were tires, which were officially no longer for sale on December 11.
On 27 April 1942, sales of sugar ceased.
War Ration Book Number One contained 28 stamps, and effective 05 May, those stamps allowed households to buy a limited amount of sugar. For example, stamps 1-4 could each be exchanged (at the grocer, with money) for 1 pound of sugar. Each had a designated period when it could be used; the book was intended to provide a year’s supply of sugar.
Eighty years ago, household meals were not like today.
Working men and schoolchildren would typically come home for lunch. It was the expectation that wives would provide three meals a day, each consisting of multiple courses and at least dinner would include a dessert.
The challenge of making rationing work fell to the homemaker, who was responsible for budgeting, meal planning, shopping and cooking. Many of those homemakers would also assume full-time jobs as American men left home for fighting in Europe or Asia.
Historians, particularly Barbara McClean Ward, have found that American public, specifically housewives, actually reacted quite well to the rationing scheme after a short period of confusion. Initially, there was some struggle in convincing the public, not that rationing was necessary, but that such a program was actually beneficial to the war effort…
Active soldiers and sailors eat far more than civilians and large amounts of food aid was being shipped to the embattled nations of Europe. Once this concept was broadly accepted, the rationing program became remarkably popular. Not only did it allow stateside Americans to feel that they were truly helping the national cause, but shoppers also understood that it ensured their access to available goods and ensured that early bird shoppers were not purchasing the entirety of a limited supply.
While some publications, like Gourmet, did not change their writing at all in wartime (Hayes 4), Good Housekeeping placed its abilities at the service of the U.S. government and viewed it as its obligation to remain anti-hysterical… It encouraged women to cook with ingredients they previously would not have considered, to grow huge amounts of produce, to create meatless meals that would please the whole family, and do it all while working, in many cases, a full-time job.
From the perspective of the present, the amount of work and forethought that went into the shopping and cooking routines of these women is astonishing.
How did ration books work?
The ration book was marked with a serial number; stamps were marked with symbols, such as an aircraft carrier, airplane, ear of wheat, fruit or tank. So how did you know what each stamp could be used for?
What each stamp represented wasn’t immediately clear to the public until local newspapers began providing insight into the process. For example, one “airplane” stamp may have been required to purchase a specified amount of sugar. As the war continued, what each stamp was worth changed based on the availability of the item in question. In addition to these marked stamps, households also received blue and red stamps, for processed foods and meat and butter respectively.
Each person in a household received a book, including minors and infants. Thus the homemaker could “pool the points of the entire family” to manage meals.
To obtain the book, each member of a family had to appear before the local War Price and Rationing Board.
The Office of Price Administration (OPA) was in charge of this program, but it relied heavily on volunteers to hand out the ration books and explain the system to consumers and merchants. By the end of the war, about 5,600 local rationing boards staffed by over 100,000 citizen volunteers were administering the program.
During 1942, the federal government rationed at least 13 items . By 1943, the list of rationed items included more than 21 items, including bicycles, canned milk, cheese, dried fruits, fruit butter, fuel oil, jelly, lard, margarine, nylon, processed foods, silk, shortening and typewriters.
I have a new appreciation for my mother’s story about Bob’s Candy Company in Albany, Georgia using a ration coupon to get her a bicycle to ride to work.
Punishment for violating the terms of the ration book was severe: up to 10 years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine ($176,382 in today’s dollars).
The Stamps contained in this Book are valid only after the lawful holder of this Book has signed the certificate below, and are void if detached contrary to the Regulations. (A father, mother, or guardian may sign the name of a person under 18.) In case of questions, difficulties, or complaints, consult your local Ration Board.
Before the war ended, the OPA would issue four ration books.
By 1944, whisky had disappeared from liquor store shelves as distilleries converted to the production of industrial alcohol. New car production was banned beginning January 1, 1942 as former auto plants switched to the production of military vehicles. Thirty percent of all cigarettes produced were allocated for service men, making cigarettes a scarce commodity on the home front by 1944.
The chain of custody was deep and long:
Eventually three billion ration stamps a month, each less than an inch square in size, would be passed from the cluttered handbag of the consumer to the retailer, who passed them on to the wholesaler, who sent them to the manufacturer, who had to account for them to the federal government.
Most restrictions didn’t end until fighting ceased in August 1945. Although gasoline rationing was lifted quickly, sugar rationing lasted in most parts of the country until 1947.
The common good
In 1942, the Great Depression was not a distant memory. Neither was World War I, about 25 years in the past.
Sacrifices for the common good during the war “affected every American household.” Rationing was positioned as an issue of fairness.
In 1943, as a guest on KGW radio in Portland, Oregon, OPA official E.W. Eggen explained:
Suppose the demand for coffee exceeded the supply (which it does) and there were no rationing. What would happen then is that the woman who got [to] the grocery store first would get coffee and the woman who arrived late would get none. That means that the woman working in a defense plant, with not much time for shopping around, would be coffeeless so that the woman who has little else to do but shop would have more. It means that the woman who has no children to tie her home would have plenty of time to stand in line and get coffee, whereas the mother of a family would not. The same principle would apply to towels, sheets, shoes, dresses, any other type of commodity in which shortages might develop.
Except when rationing extended to meat. That’s when many citizens began complaining; the meat industry began ‘gouging’ by selling lower quality at higher prices; and cattle rustling came back in style.
However, like today, the complainers appear a bit selfish:
[M]any low-income Americans could barely afford meat during the Great Depression, and massive government spending helped stimulate the economy back into action. With plentiful jobs during the war years and a system of equal rationing and price controls, the bottom third of American earners actually increased their meat consumption by around 17 percent, by one calculation. The top two-thirds, however, saw their meat consumption decline by around 4 percent (emphasis added).