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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: Rationing During World War II

By Tom Morrow

For civilians during World War II, rationing was introduced in stages, which was a process that controlled the size and frequency of a number of items used in everyday life.

In the summer of 1941, the British government appealed to the United States to conserve food in order to provide a bigger supply to be shipped to Brits, who were already fighting the Germans. They were being starved out by constant bombings and U-boat attacks on shipping. The “Office of Price Administration” warned Americans of potential gasoline, steel, aluminum, and electricity shortages.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, of most concern was a shortage of rubber since the Japanese controlled the rubber-producing regions of Southeast Asia. Throughout the war, rationing of gasoline was motivated by a desire to conserve rubber. Accordingly, tires were the first item to be rationed by the OPA, which ordered the temporary end of sales Dec. 11, 1942.

“The War Production Board” (WPB) ordered the temporary end of all civilian automobile sales on Jan. 1, 1942, leaving dealers with a half million unsold cars. Only certain professions qualified to purchase the remaining new car inventory.

By early February of 1942, automobile factories ceased manufacturing civilian models and converted to producing ships, aircraft, tanks, trucks, cannons, and other military products, with the United States government as the only customer.

May 4, 1942, civilians first received ration books through more than 100,000 schoolteachers, PTA groups, and other volunteers. A national speed limit of 35 miles per hour was imposed to save fuel and rubber for tires. Each person in a household received a ration book, including babies and small children, who qualified for canned milk not available to others.

To receive a gasoline ration card, a person had to certify a need and ownership of no more than five tires. All tires over five were confiscated.
Gas rationing was by category:

  • An “A” sticker on a car was the lowest priority of gasoline rationing and entitled the car owner to 3 to 4 gallons per week.
  • “B” stickers were issued to workers in the military industry, entitling their holder up to 8 gallons per week.
  • “C” stickers were granted to persons deemed very essential to the war effort, such as doctors.
  • “T” rations were made available for truckers.
  • Lastly, “X” stickers on cars entitled the holder to unlimited supplies and were the highest priority in the system, including ministers, police, firemen, and civil defense workers. A major scandal broke out when some 200 Congressmen received “X” stickers.

Anyone wishing to purchase a new metal tube of toothpaste had to turn in an empty one. Sugar was rationed a half-a-pound per person per week — half of normal consumption. Bakeries and ice cream makers received rations of about 70 percent their normal usage.

Because of German U-boat attacks on shipping from Brazil, coffee was rationed to one pound every five weeks, about half of normal consumption. Other rationing included gasoline, bicycles, footwear, silk, nylon, fuel oil, stoves, meat, lard, shortening and oils, cheese, butter, margarine, processed foods (canned, bottled, and frozen), dried fruits, canned milk, firewood and coal, jams, jellies, and fruit butter.

Penicillin was rationed by the military. Hospitals received only small amounts. Each hospital decided which patients would receive the wonder antibiotic.

There was a black market in ration stamps. The OPA ordered vendors not to accept stamps they themselves did not tear out of books.

As a result of the gasoline rationing, all forms of automobile racing and sightseeing were banned.

In 1946, a year after the War ended, all rationing ended. Ironically, rationing in the United Kingdom went on until 1953. Throughout the war and up until today, the American meat product, “Spam,” became a staple for the British.


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