World War II and Rationing in the US
April 17, 2018
A great deal changed the moment Japan dropped the first bombs on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The United States, a nation that for years had followed to a policy of isolationism, found itself forced into a war it had long sought to avoid. In order to succeed, the nation would have to adapt its infrastructure and industries to find the best way to support the war without completely disrupting the daily lives of its citizens. Changes were felt almost immediately throughout the United States, and many industries, like automobile manufacturing, were forced to quickly shift their focus from civilian to military applications. Another major disruption to civilian life brought about by the war was the introduction of rationing in the US.
Anticipating Wartime Shortages
In the summer of 1941, after the UK requested the United States start conserving food to send to the Allies fighting in Europe, the US Office of Price Administration addressed the potential changes that would come from war and warned the nation of the shortages that would affect the country. 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. A few weeks later, tire rationing boards were given responsibility for distributing tires from a fixed allotment based on rules implemented by the OPA. Rubber was vital not just on the home front but also to the war effort, and since Japan conquered the rubber-producing regions of Southeast Asia, the United States started to feel a shortage almost immediately.
Rationing Hits Home
With imports from the Philippines cut off, the United States was forced to restrict the sale of sugar on April 27, 1942, making it the first household commodity subject to rationing in the US. Sales were initially halted on the 27th and resumed on May 5, with the introduction of ration books with stamps allowing the purchase of one pound of sugar per person every two weeks. Companies that relied on sugar weren’t cut off entirely, but received 70% of what they would normally use in a week. After sugar, coffee was added to the ration list in November 1942, largely due to German U-boats sinking merchant ships sailing from Brazil.
Within the first year of the war, the United States had introduced rations on at least 13 items. By 1943, that list extended to more than 21 items, including typewriters, bicycles, silk, nylon, fuel oil, lard, shortening, cheese, margarine, processed foods, canned milk, jelly, fruit butter, and dried fruits. Even penicillin was rationed by triage officers. Non-military hospitals were given only small amounts of the antibiotic, mostly because it wasn’t mass-produced for consumer use until after World War II.
In the wake of Pearl Harbor, Americans rushed to purchase things they deemed necessary during an emergency. Retailers found themselves fighting low stock on items like flashlights and batteries and, when rationing was introduced, they welcomed it without hesitation. Rationing kept people from overbuying and hoarding commodities, leaving others without similar resources empty-handed.
Classifications and Rationing in the US
On May 4, 1942, Americans started to receive the first ration books, also known as War Ration Book Number One or Sugar Book, stamps from which were turned in to obtain specific food items and other necessities. Each person in a household received a book, including babies who qualified for certain items unavailable to adults, but to be approved for rationing stamps and obtain a classification, each family member had to appear before a War Price and Rationing Board.
Classifications were used to determine an individual’s need for an item. For instance, when gasoline was rationed, cars with an “A” sticker were considered low priority and only entitled to three to four gallons of gasoline per week. “B” stickers received up to eight gallons, and a “C” sticker indicated that person was vital to the war effort. Anyone provided an “X” sticker—typically clergy, police, firemen, and civil defense workers—was entitled to unlimited supplies.
To indicate what items people could redeem each stamp for, they were marked with drawings of an airplane, tank, aircraft carrier, fruit, ear of wheat, airplane, or other symbol together with a serial number. 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.
The Black Market and the End of Rationing in the US
As with any sort of regulation, there were people looking to find a way around the rules. This black market in stamps became apparent to the OPA when people were found using stamps that had not been issued directly to them. To combat the growing problem of ration cheats, the OPA issued a directive to vendors ordering them to refuse any stamps that they didn’t tear out of the books themselves. This was difficult to enforce, however, with people claiming that the stamps fell out of the books, a common occurrence with the cheaply-made books.
Though the fighting ended on August 15, 1945, not all items were immediately removed from rationing restrictions. The restrictions on the purchase of gasoline were among the first to be revoked, but the sugar ration would remain in place until 1947 in most parts of the country.