Home Front Headache: Rationing


“All RED and BLUE stamps in War Ration Book 4 are Worth 10 POINTS EACH. RED and BLUE TOKENS are WORTH 1 POINT EACH. RED and BLUE TOKENS are used to make CHANGE for RED and BLUE stamps only when purchase is made. IMPORTANT! POINT VALUES of BROWN and GREEN STAMPS are NOT changed.” This government announcement was the language of the Home Front consumer during World War II. Young consumer hands over his ration card. Mastering the language of rationing and living under its draconian rules became a necessary evil on the the road to victory.

During the Great Depression Americans had “done without” because thay had little money. When war broke out in Europe, in the fall of 1939, England and France placed orders for war materials with American firms, thus ending the decade long depression. Throughout 1940-41 the American economy rose dramatically and continued straight up following the nation’s entrance into the war. With unemployment dropping to miniscule levals, everyone had money and a pent-up desire to spend it. But the demands of total war forced the American consumer to put long delayed pleasures on hold for the duration of the war. Priority for all commodities from food to gasoline went to the United States armed forces; civilians would have to take the hindmost and divide it as equitably as possible. This meant rationing.

To administer a nationwide ration program the government created an agency hated only slightly less than Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini: The Office of Price Administration (OPA). The only commodity produced by OPA besides hatred was stamps — three billion ration stamps every month.

In the case of food rationing, each family in a community received a quota of ration stamps doled out by their local ration board. Meat was purchased with the book of red stamps, while canned goods required books of blue, green, and brown stamps. To illustrate: Every month each consumer received 48 blue stamps, also called points. When a person used their last blue stamp for the month, no matter how much money they were willing to pay for a canned item in the blue stamp category, they could not legally purchase the item without the required blue ration stamp. On the other side of the equation, grocers had to reconcile stocks sold with the amount of stamps collected.

Points, printed on cans next to the price, fluctuated from month to month depending upon an item’s availability. In The Home Front: U.S.A., Ronald H. Bailey reported that applesauce went from 10 points in March, 1943 to 25 points a year later, while grapefuit juice dropped to 4 points from 23 during the same year.

While home front Americans only grumbled about food rationing, they despised gasoline rationing. Even during the Depression, most Americans kept their cars; the once sparkling new sedan might have turned into a jalopy, but the drivers hung on to them,if they could. As humorist Will Rogers pointed out, “We’ll hold the distinction of being the only nation in the history of the world that went to the poor house in an automobile.” If the Great Depression failed to kill Ameica’s love affair with their automoblies, neither could World War II.

Gasoline rationing came about because of a rubber shortage rather than a gasoline shortage. When Japanese troops poured into the Dutch East Indies and Malaya, in early 1942, the United States lost 90 percent of its rubber imports, which led to the rationing of this essential military commodity. After rubbber rationing proved insufficient, the government decided to ration gasoline to keep the rubber from hitting the road.

Gas rationing required every automobile to have stickers pasted on the windshield. If a car’s owner used the vehicle for pleasure trips only, he received an “A” sticker entiling him to one stamp good for three to five gallons a week, depending on location. People using their automobiles for work received the “B” sticker, which took into consideration the distance they had to travel to work. Police, fire, and other emergency vehicles received unlimited amouts using the “X” stamp, as did politicans. Begun on December 2, 1942, nationwide gasoline rationing reduced automobile milage one-third by the end of 1943.

Rationing, no matter what the commodity, was about as popular as Prohibition and like the “Noble Experiment” rationing led to much wheedling by almost everyone and major black-market activites by the same group that had profited from Prohibition — the Mob. Organized crime operated many black-market rings and also sold counterfeit ration coupons. Yet, only 1.5 percent of convicted black-marketeers went to prison, the rest paid fines.

With only certain commodities rationed, shortages of unrationed items often plagued consumers. Housing proved one of the worst shortages, particularly in Wahington, D.C. and anywhere new defense plants sprang up. Cigarettes often came up short along with the matches to light them. The War’s most famous disappearance involved Lucky Strike Green. American Tobacco Company ads announced, “Lucky Strike Green has gone to war,” then explained that the need for dyes in the war effort caused the company to change the package design of Lucky Strikes from the traditional green color to a white package (the one still in use today). In fact, American Tobacco had planned to redesign the package to attract women; the war gave them patriotic cover. Of course, Lucky Strike Green never returned from the war.

Despite the black markets and small time chiseling, rationing worked. Between 1942 and 1945, the inflation rate in consumer goods rose only nine percent. Rationing also served as a daily home front reminder of global war. As Bailey noted in the The Home Front , “Practically every inconvenience, every shortage, every small sacrifice — meatless Tuesdays, gasless automobiles, ketchup-less hamburgers — was justified as a contribution to the war effort.” Rationing with all its headaches proved a small price to pay for the “folks back home.” The American home front never felt a bomb or an invaders boot, unlike many other nations whose home front became the battle front.