Rationing

Life in America during the war years was marked by sacrifice. The war effort demanded huge amounts of metal, paper, rubber, and other materials, and Americans were expected to donate as much of these substances as possible and live without until the war ended. Scrap drives were a common community activity, with high school groups going door to door seeking whatever materials homeowners could part with. Promotional campaigns featuring movie stars and other celebrities encouraged Americans to give until it hurt, then give some more. In one famous image, actress Rita Hay-worth sat atop her car, which bore a sign reading: “Please drive carefully. My bumpers are on the scrap heap.”

As the war effort increased, Americans learned to live with less and less. Shortages were common, and the rationing of essential materials like gasoline, rubber, and certain foods such as meat became part of everyday life for most Americans. Voluntary at first, rationing of some items became law as the war progressed.

Perhaps best remembered among those who lived in wartime America is gasoline rationing. Aimed at curbing the nonessential use of automobiles, the program required car owners to paste ration stamps on their windshields. An “A” stamp meant the car was for nonessential use, a “B” stamp meant it was needed for work, and a “C” stamp was for cars of essential drivers such as doctors. The type of stamp on a car's windshield dictated how much gasoline could be bought for it each week. Additional rationing efforts encouraged the use of car pools and public transportation.

Figure 17-2 Actress Rita Hayworth promoting the national scrap metal drive.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives (208-PU-91B-5)

A wide variety of common foods also fell into short supply as the government increased procurement for servicemen. In fact, nearly one-third of food items were rationed during the war years. Quality meat became increasingly difficult to find in civilian groceries, as did butter, sugar, coffee, and cheese. In one war-era animated cartoon, a picture of a steak smothered in onions appears briefly, then again at the end of the cartoon, so food-rationed Americans could gaze hungrily at what they had been missing for so long.

The Office of Price Administration was established in August 1941 to control and stabilize the prices of food and of goods and services and also to prevent the creation of a black market. Later, a presidential directive gave the OPA the authority to ration certain items. One of its first acts was to freeze the prices of nearly all everyday goods and most foods at March 1942 levels. Increases in rent were also severely restricted. The restrictions lasted until June 1946, when the prices of most items went up dramatically, sometimes as much as 25 percent over their wartime cost.

During the war, every family received ration books containing stamps to be given to grocers when buying certain items. Red stamps were used for meat (except for poultry, which was not rationed), butter, fats, cheese, canned milk, and canned fish. Green, brown, or blue stamps were used for canned vegetables, juices, baby food, and dried fruit. Shoppers could earn two extra red points for every pound of meat drippings and other fat they turned in as part of a national fat-collection campaign. Animal fats were used in a variety of wartime manufacturing processes, including the making of paint and munitions.

Music helped servicemen remember what they were fighting for. The music industry started producing patriotic melodies by the dozens shortly after the United States entered the conflict. Patriotic events almost always included a medley of songs honoring the armed forces. The most common were “The Caissons Go Rolling Along,” “Anchors Aweigh,” and “The Marine Hymn.”

Because of the food shortages, Americans were encouraged to plant what became known as victory gardens. In addition to placing food on the table of the average American, this freed farmers to provide still more food for America's armed forces. Americans from all walks of life participated in the victory garden program, planting vegetables wherever space was available. In all, an estimated 20 million garden plots were created across the country.

  1. Home
  2. World War II
  3. Life at Home in America
  4. Rationing
Visit other About.com sites: