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- Making Do: Rationing
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
Gwen Atwood Uzzell
Gwen Atwood Uzzell reminisces about food restrictions:
Gwen Atwood Uzzell: Well, you just had certain things to cook with and so much of it. Meat was in very bad supply. It all went to the military. You just didn't have much meat. 'Course, Dad had a vegetable garden; we had plenty of veggies and that sort of thing. And back in those days, everybody had a cow.
Gwen Atwood Uzzell Audio Clip
Gwen Atwood Uzzell's Entire Oral History Interview
Read the full Gwen Atwood Uzzell's Oral History Transcript (PDF).
Rationing Sugar & Butter
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
Lou Ringer describes how you got margarine to look like butter:
Rebecca Snow (interviewer): But how about things like getting butter or getting margarine?
Lou Ringer: Oh. The butter was so cute. Yes. We would get the box of-the yellow went to war, so you were given your own little packet of yellow. You would get what looked like a pound of lard, and you would work this yellow into it, so your butter would be yellow.
Lou Ringer Audio Clip
Lou Ringer's Entire Oral History Interview
Read the full Lou Ringer's Entire Oral History Interview (PDF).
Coping With Rations
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 Similarly, 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
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
Fuel & Rubber
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% 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
Mary Ann Reed Talks About Tires
Mary Ann Reed's family's arrived in Austin driving on the rim of a flat tire:
Mary Ann Reed: Gasoline and tires were rationed. I remember one time that the family was driving to Austin in our 1936 Chevrolet. We couldn't buy new cars during that time. Maybe it was a '38 Chevrolet. Anyway, I remember it was old. We were not happy-the girls were not very happy with it.
But we were driving to Austin and one of the tires blew out, so my dad got out and put the spare on and we went several more miles and it blew out. And you couldn't just go to a store and buy a tire. You had to have a special certificate to get one. So we drove into Austin on the rim. We just-we didn't have any choice because there was no other way to get there.
And there was a song about someone in an airplane who had been shot in the war. It was called "Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer." So we girls sang "Coming in on a 'Rim' and a Prayer" all the way to Austin. My father almost lost his mind. (Laughs.) Mother finally turned around and told us we'd better be quiet. (Laughs.)
The next day he had to go to the rationing board and get a special certificate to get a tire. The tire-they sold retreaded tires; they were not new rubber. But anyway, he was only able to get one and we had to just hope we didn't have another blowout. So that was an adventure.
Mary Ann Reed's Audio Clip
Mary Ann Reed's Entire Oral History Interview
Read the full Mary Ann Reed's Entire Oral History Interview (PDF).
Lyman Reed Talks About Tires
Lyman Reed recalls the sad state of tires during the war years:
Lyman Reed: The tires were terrible. Now it's not unusual to go 40,000 or 50,000 miles without a flat tire and all. But then you were having blowouts left and right and then having to try to find a tire and an inner tube and all like that. They had devised a great big sort of semi-rigid patch to put on the inside of the tire when there was a hole in it so that the inner tube didn't poke out through a hole and get punctured. It was called a boot. People nowadays don't have the faintest idea what that was.
Lyman Reed Audio Clip
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
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
Fabric & Clothing
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
Poster Promoting Commuting and Working Together as Part of the War Effort
Gwen Atwood Uzzell
Gwen Atwood Uzzell shares how shoes were poor quality during the war years:
Gwen Atwood Uzzell: I have to tell you about the shoes. We didn't have leather shoes because all the leather went to the servicemen so they could have shoes. I had a pair of high heels and the soles were cardboard (laughs) and the uppers were a sort of canvas.
Gwen Atwood Uzzell Shoes Audio Clip
Gwen Atwood Uzzell's Entire Oral History Shoes Interview
Read the full Gwen Atwood Uzzell's Oral History Shoes Transcript (PDF).
Mary Ann Reed Talks About Shoes
Mary Ann Reed describes the fragile state of her shoes during her childhood:
Mary Ann Reed: We had-shoes were rationed. And with three daughters in the family, I don't think my parents got a pair of new shoes during the whole war (laughs) because our feet would grow and we'd have to use their stamps for shoes. But I'm always amazed to see how many shoes my grandchildren have because we had one pair. (Laughs.) Possibly, after the war, we were able to have two. (Laughs.)
Vivi Hoang (interviewer): Did that mean, since you were the oldest, did that mean your younger sisters would get hand-me-downs?
Mary Ann Reed: Oh yes. Although I think we pretty well wore our shoes out. They would make-they had some fabric shoes that they made that you didn't have to have stamps for. But if you wore them out in the wet grass, they'd fall apart, so they must have been glued together.
Mary Ann Reed Shoes Audio Clip
Mary Ann Reed's Entire Oral History Shoes Interview
Read the full Mary Ann Reed's Oral History Shoes Transcript (PDF).
Gwen Atwood Uzzell Talks About Hosiery
Gwen Atwood Uzzell details how women dealt with the lack of hosiery:
Gwen Atwood Uzzell (GAU): Oh my goodness-you didn't have hose. If you were fortunate enough to have a relative or a boyfriend or somebody in the service, they could go to the commissary, maybe, and get you a pair of nylon hose. Oh, (claps hands together) that was a big treasure.
We had to wear rayon hose. Now, I don't know whether you know what rayon is but we'd pull them on-'course, we had garter belts to fasten them to-and when you sat down in a chair like this, with your knees bent, when you got up, well, the knees were still bent like you were still sitting down (laughs).
Vivi Hoang (VH) (interviewer): Oh my goodness!
GAU: It wasn't very attractive. Finally it got to where we painted our legs with makeup, you know, makeup like they have now. And that worked pretty good. But we did without a lot of things like that that you just took for granted.
VH: What gave you that idea, the painting your legs?
GAU: Well, just, you know, we just hated those old rayon hose. And the paint, unless you got wet or something, it didn't-it stayed on. But back then, women didn't wear the slacks and things like they do now. We wore dresses. So it was a bit airy (laughs) with painted legs and no hose in the wintertime.
Gwen Atwood Uzzell Hosiery Audio Clip
Gwen Atwood Uzzell's Entire Oral History Hosiery Interview
Read the full Gwen Atwood Uzzell's Oral History Hosiery Transcript (PDF).
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.
16Heide, Robert, & Gilman, John. (1995). Home front America: Popular culture of the World War II era. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 57.
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.