In today’s world, you’re free to buy just about anything you want, as long as you have the bucks to pay for it and it’s not illegal. But that was far from the case during World War II. Back then, Americans couldn’t run out and gas up the car whenever they felt like it, or buy a couple of pairs of shoes, or even stock up on staples like sugar, butter, and coffee. There was a war on! And items like these were rationed. This meant that if World War II women and men wanted such things, they had to produce a certain amount of coupons, in addition to cold hard cash, before they could purchase them. These coupons were available in very limited amounts, and they all had expiration dates.
Rationing, the brainchild of the U.S. government’s Office of Price Administration (OPA), was designed to ensure that everybody had at least some access to the goods that were in high demand like sugar, butter, coffee, eggs, meat, fish, cheese, certain dried and processed foods, rubber, gasoline, and shoes, just to name a few. Rationing began in the spring of 1942, when the country was completely focused on supporting the war effort. Industries that had once produced cars, appliances, and frying pans were now manufacturing jeeps, tanks, and airplanes. Huge factories, recently built, were running day and night, seven days a week, churning out military equipment, ships, planes, and the endless gear needed by soldiers and sailors. All of this ramped-up production put a huge strain on U.S. resources, and for civilians created major shortages of just about everything.
Here’s how the rationing system worked: Let’s say you’re one of America’s World War II women. Each month, you and every other person in your household (including infants) are allotted 48 “blue points” for foods that are canned, dried, or bottled, and 64 “red points” for meat, fish, and dairy products. This, of course, doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to find these foods. Shortages are rampant. But even if you do find them, chances are good that you’ll stand in long lines at the local grocery store, hoping to score a decent piece of meat or a pound of coffee before they disappear.
The first item that OPA rationed was sugar, in short supply because much of it is imported from the Philippines, which are now occupied by Japan. You’re allowed just one cup of sugar per week, which means you can pretty much forget about eating cake, pie, candy, or other sweets, except on special occasions. If you happen to be getting married in the near future, you’ll need to beg your friends and family for their sugar and butter coupons because the baker won’t make your wedding cake a hefty amount of them.
Careful planning of your meals is suddenly essential. Your meat allotment is about 2 pounds per week, depending on the scarcity of the cut of meat you’re coveting. This means that if you squander your family’s coupons on a fancy roast for Sunday dinner, everyone in your household might have to go without meat for the rest of the month. To compensate for the general lack of meat, you might start raising chickens and rabbits in your backyard, hoping to turn them into hearty future meals. You might also develop some recipes that use organ meats, which are cheaper and easier to find than regular cuts of meat. Vegetarian dishes are another option; many people have started observing “meatless Tuesdays.” And in a pinch, you might even consider venturing into the black market, where you can purchase plenty of coupons for whatever you want, as long as you’re willing to pay the high prices.
If you’re like the vast majority of Americans, as the war drags on you’ll most likely take rationing in your stride and simply find ways to do without. You’ll rarely complain because you know that whatever you give up could, in some small part, help the Allies win the war and ensure the safe return of the “boys.” And if that means giving up sugar or sirloin steak for the time being, well, that’s A-OK with you.
If you enjoyed this article, you’ll also enjoy my book If My Heart Had Wings: A World War II Love Story — the true story of the life and death of a WWII pilot and the tumultuous life of the young widow he left behind. Available on Amazon!