During my childhood in the late 1950s and 60s, I remember my grandparents reminiscing about war rationing. They didn’t just mention it a few times, rationing was brought up quite often. The official rationing of food, fuel, tires, clothing, and other materials made a great impact in their lives and nearly everybody else’s. Rationing was burdensome in many ways, especially because it was implemented only a few years after the hardships of the Great Depression.
Even though we think of 20th century rationing in conjunction with the Second World War, it was actually put into effect to aid the efforts of the First World War. Allied combatant nations faced disruptions and shortages of food because farms had become battlefields, and the farmers had been conscripted. The shortages presented very real, harsh challenges to everyone.
Soon after the US entered the war in the summer of 1917, the US Food Administration was set up. The agency was organized to manage conservation, distribution, supply, and transportation of food. The first rationing was officially a voluntary program, but Americans were strongly encouraged to participate. Appeals to patriotism, the war effort, and decency enabled the rationing to work.
When the US entered World War Two, it soon became apparent that voluntary conservation programs would be very insufficient to help the massive war effort. Soon, restrictions on food imports, domestic shipping, and trucking were needed. A shortage of rubber tires and the need to divert foodstuffs to soldiers and sailors overseas was necessary.
These concerns contributed to the federal government’s decision to ration essential items. The Emergency Price Control Act became law on January 30, 1942. The Office of Price Administration was given the authority to set prices and ration commodities. These measures were enacted in order to prioritize distribution of scarce, yet vital resources, and to discourage civilian hoarding.
Within months, sugar purchases were restricted to coupon authorization. By fall, coffee was rationed. Then by March, 1943, cheese, canned milk, canned fish, processed foods, and meat were added to the rationing list. Each American was entitled to war ration books of stamps that entitled them to purchase a set amount of restricted items.
My grandma J often told about how ration stamps were of different colors that represented a point system. For instance, people had to have 50 blue points in order to buy canned or processed food. They needed 65 red points in order to purchase dairy, meat, and fish each month, if you could find them. The Price Administration frequently changed point values as the overseas war effort became more intense. In order to discourage hoarding, the coupons had expiration dates.
To offset much of the hardship and inconvenience, people often planted “Victory Gardens”. In more extreme instances, consumers traded or bartered stamps they didn’t need for those they wanted. Unfortunately, there was also a black market in some areas.
Both of my grandfathers liked to tell about gasoline rationing coupons. Each motorist was issued stamps that were worth anywhere from three to five gallons of gasoline per week for essential activities like commuting and shopping. The letter on the stamps had to match the letter on a windshield sticker. The fuel ration was instituted mostly to save wear and tear on tires, and to a lesser extent fuel. A nationwide speed limit of 35 miles an hour was enforced in order to help save tires.
As the war intensified, so did the need for petroleum products. By late 1942, shortages in all types of fuel were becoming common. Civilians had to make do with lesser supplies. People had to cut back on home heating and kerosene lighting. By the next year, coal was also in short supply. For the first time in history, people were told to tune up their furnaces and to “winterize” their homes.
Although rationing was not popular, rationing was the best way for everybody to obtain their fair share of essential goods. Not only was rationing used in the United States, it was a policy in England and the Commonwealth, including Canada, and Australia.
What brought today’s topic of rationing to mind was my memory of something one of my great-uncles used to harp about. Uncle Albert was the family’s arch-conservative. Amazingly, we found common ground over the Vietnam conflict. He didn’t believe we had “any business being over there”. One of the points he often mentioned was that America should never go to war unless all the civilians had to also make a great sacrifice. This point of view appealed to my more liberal mindset. Because we agreed about sacrifice, we were better able to tolerate each other.
Albert was fond of saying, “If we all had to use rationing stamps everytime we wanted to buy something, there’d be a hue and cry from everyone to get the hell out of Vietnam.” In that we were encouraged to carry on with our lives as if we were living in peacetime, the country and the world would suffer greatly. It now looks like his prophesy was correct.
Great authentic sacrifices must be made when a nation is at war. Throughout history, we find examples of people only putting up with shortages for a limited time span before things become dicey for the ruling elites.
After last night’s meditation, I thought about the terrible problems our nation, and the world are suffering. There is the inhumanity of income inequality. Soon, I also thought about the difficulties surrounding global climate change. Then thoughts turned to the “endless wars” into which we’ve become entangled. I think about these problems frequently.
The old memories of my grandparents regarding wartime rationing came to mind. That’s when I also remembered my late great-uncle Albert. Then the mental gears started to mesh and the idea of instituting wartime rationing today popped into my mind.
I also remembered that our nation has been in perpetual war of one sort or another my entire life. Warfare requires a huge amount of resources, human and material. Traditionally, many years are required for a country and its economy to recover from a single war. The US and much of the remainder of the world has not had a chance for real post-war recovery since at least the end of World War Two.
It may be argued that the apparent economic boom of the 1950s was a recovery, but many of us maintain that the post World War Two economy was actually an extention of the wartime economy. Much of the economic activity involved cold war weapons build up and military expansion overseas. Our unprecedented affluence, ever since the second World War, has been built on wars and their maintenance. Apart from the great loss of human life in these wars, there has been no real wartime sacrifice by the majority of Americans.
We must also add to endless war, the endless ballooning of the human population, there is an ever increasing strain on our resources and environment. War and conflict are also becoming self-perpetuating because of competition for territory and vital resources. As global climate change becomes more apparent, this competition threatens to intensify.
Eventually, to ensure our survival, we need to implement some form of rationing or nature will force it upon us all. To fight massive wars and to maintain an affluent consumer based economy is an unsustainable proposition. We are currently burning our candle at both ends.
Somehow, some way, we need to roll back our levels of consumption in the civilian and the military sectors. If we don’t resort to some type of rationing, it will be forced upon us by future circumstances. I don’t think that coupons or stamps will be the answer this time. Anything mandatory will likely be enforced electronically.
I’m not pessimistic about the future. On the contrary, I’m also keeping updated on current developments. New ideas to conserve our vital resources are coming to light, right now.
Car, bicycle, and tool sharing have become popular in many world-class cities. Solar and renewable energy are going to be the major power sources in our future. Certainly there are barriers from traditional, powerful institutions, but the wave of new energy sources is ultimately unstoppable.
Wartime rationing of our vital resources will take a much different path than it has in the past. It will take a great deal of thinking and work, but it will be vast and all-encompassing. In order for it to work, we all need to be a part of the war effort.