This article first appeared in the March/April edition of Home & Harvest magazine.
By Dulce Kersting-Lark, former LCHS executive director.
In the spring of 2020 I was confronted with a scene that I had never encountered before in my thirty-something years of life. At first I hardly noticed it, dismissing passing news stories about this occurrence as a fact of life in places other than my quaint little town. Within a few weeks, however, the growing magnitude of the problem was inescapable. Perhaps if I had grown up in hurricane country I’d have been better prepared for the realities of the situation, but I was blissfully naïve of how frustrating it could be until it smacked me right in the face. The source of my consternation? Bare grocery store shelves.
Americans who lived through WWII were no strangers to the supply shortages we abruptly faced during the onset of the current pandemic. Scarcity of goods was common in the early 1940s when large parts of the American manufacturing industry were retooled to serve the war effort overseas. Making do with less became a point of patriotic pride, as citizens saw their sacrifice of material comfort as a meaningful contribution to the war.
Managing access to limited products is a tremendously important task. Anyone who elbowed their way through a store to grab a pack of toilet paper in April 2020 knows that shoppers cannot always be trusted to self-regulate their purchases. One of America’s greatest experiments with directing commerce and individual consumption was the war rationing system that was put in place to manage scarcities brought about by WWII. Through rationing, and a companion program of price fixing, the federal government intended to keep prices stable and ensure that Americans had roughly equal access to scarce goods, which might otherwise be exclusively available to the highest bidder.
Even before America officially entered the war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt realized there was a need to address growing pressures on the country’s economy as a result of the war escalating in Europe. In May of 1940, the National Defense Advisory Commission created a Price Stabilization and Consumer Protection division. It could set standards for the price of scrap metal, but little else at the time. By August of 1941 the responsibilities for protecting consumers from price gouging had been shuffled to the newly formed Office of Price Administration. Following the December 7th, 1941, Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the OPA instituted a formal rationing of rubber tires. As American servicemen and women shipped out for duty in early 1942, rations rules were placed on a variety of valuable commodities stateside, including automobiles, gasoline, and sugar. Limits were subsequently placed on meat, processed foods, coffee, shoes, and more.
Some rations were necessary because the supply of raw materials needed for production was disrupted by the war. Rubber, for instance, came largely from Southeast Asia where fighting made it difficult to maintain normal supply chains. For the better part of the war drivers were encouraged to take great care of their car’s tires because replacements were nearly impossible to come by. Other products were scarce because the means of production had been reallocated to wartime needs, like automobile production lines. Still other goods, like canned foods, were needed supplies for American and Allied soldiers. Consumers were asked to scale back their reliance on such products so that they could be used to feed hungry troops abroad.
The ration system implemented by the OPA with very little notice in the spring of 1942 was fairly complex and involved the use of physical ration stamps, issued in booklets to every man, woman, and child in America. At least five ration books were issued by the OPA between 1942 and 1945, each with slightly different looking stamps that had number and letter combinations that indicated their value and when they would expire. After the first ration booklet, which was used exclusively to purchase sugar, the collections contained stamps in multiple colors or with different imagery to signify the items they could be used on.
With such a complicated system, it’s little wonder that news agencies played a central role in helping families make the best use of their rations. An Associated Press article from the time provided a series of important dates for holders of ration books, including notes about household staples. “Processed foods – Book 4 blue stamps H2 through M2 good through June 2; N2 through S2 good through June 30; T2 through X2 good through July 31; Y2 and Z2 and A1 through C1 good through August 31. Shoes – Book 3 Airplane stamps 1, 2, and 3 good indefinitely, OPA says no plans to cancel any. Next stamp valid August 1.”
The papers also published lists of the point values set on common goods. Such a table was included in the March 25th, 1943, edition of the Spokesman Review and was clipped by an anonymous Latah County shopper for reference. Meats of every variety were listed, including beef tripe valued at just three points per pound and bone-in sliced ham for 11 points per pound. The essential nature of this information even inspired Moscow’s Daily Idahonian to run a subscription advertisement proclaiming “don’t penalize your family by ignorance.” It went on to advise that “the only way to keep fully informed…will be through The Daily Idahonian. For the Idahonian will publicize all additional rationing regulations, and will keep its readers informed on the various ‘points’ allotted each item of food and each coupon in the new ration books.”
The system, while complicated, became a fact of life for Americans who believed their collective actions would benefit their country’s ability to win the war. One Moscow resident recalled later in life that there wasn’t much choice but to “learn to live by the ration books.” Norma Zenier described life on the WWII home front in wonderful and vivid detail in an account now housed at the Latah County Historical Society archives. “Filled with small numbered and colored stamps,” Norma described, “a special stamp would have to be presented for such items as gasoline, sugar, meat, butter, coffee and shoes. If a purchase, such as meat, did not use a whole coupon, ‘change’ was given in tokens smaller than a dime. Those little, round, hard cardboard discs were hard to keep track of. When stamps were gone, it was wait until a new book was issued before more of such a rationed item could be purchased.”
Not everyone, it seems, could so easily “live by the ration books.” Both good-intentioned rule bending and outright cheating of the system were easy to find, if you knew where to look. Much of the OPA’s expansive rationing program was administered by volunteers from each community, who made up local ration boards and used social pressures to persuade retailers and consumers to honor the rules. The ration board serving most residents of Latah County was chaired by Milburn Kenworthy, owner to two theatres in downtown Moscow. All applications for ration booklets passed through Milburn’s committee, as did petitions for additional allotments and other special requests.
One account of a Latah County resident’s dealings with Milburn and the ration board was recorded for posterity in 1975 in an oral history interview with Emmett Utt of Princeton, Idaho. During the interview, Emmett recalled how he and his wife Anna were having trouble stretching three gallons of allotted gas between their two cars. Anna worked as a teacher about five miles from their home and Emmett worked at the Potlatch Mill, plus he farmed and needed to deliver milk and cream into town. Although he requested additional gas rations from the official rationing board in Moscow, he was denied. With no other options, he turned to the gas in the farm barrel, which was only to be used in farm equipment. In order to get your weekly ration of gasoline, however, you had to provide your odometer reading to verify that you were not cheating the system. When he was found out after about a month, Milburn called him in and said “boy, you sure are getting good gas mileage.” When Emmett admitted to his actions, the chairman was livid. Emmett explained his situation again – that his wife was teaching and he was working and farming – and the decision was reversed. The next day he got home and found a string of tickets for gas so long that he figured he might never use them up. Stories like these demonstrate how such an enormous program was difficult to apply uniformly across the country. Although it is less well documented in the community archives, there was no doubt a local black market for rationed goods existed if you knew where to look.
For those committed to upholding the ration system as best they could, there were a number of ways to enhance a family’s mealtime. As had been the case in WWI, Victory Gardens were promoted as a patriotic endeavor. Growing one’s own fruits and vegetables meant industrial agriculture could be focused on supplying troops, less gasoline would be needed to transport food to grocery stores, and packaging materials could be spared. Victory Garden guides were distributed widely to aspiring gardeners. As one such guide proclaimed, “growing a Victory Garden is easier than you may think and there is a lot of satisfaction in picking fresh, crisp vegetables just a few minutes before they are served.” Further assistance could be obtained through local Extension Service offices, a program that was and remains a collaboration between the USDA and land grant universities like the University of Idaho. The Extension Service offered thousands of classes across the country on ways to preserve food and minimize waste. According to the USDA, an estimated 4 million cans of sweet and savory foods were preserved by Americans in 1943 alone.
Making thrifty use of rations was another subject of interest for home cooks during the war. Pioneering columnist and radio host Marjorie Mills wrote an entire book on the subject in 1943, titled Cooking on a Ration, or Food is Still Fun, in which she promised that “the plain, down to earth foods we’ll be eating for the duration – and for a while after – could be made exciting.” “This book is planned,” she goes on, “for women who have been whirled into a dizzy series of readjustments. They are showing, nevertheless, dauntless spirit, courage, and the resolve to turn out delectable food with whatever materials may be available.” Marjorie’s book included more than 120 recipes for meatless main dishes, a special appendix on clever uses for leftovers, and a list of twenty fundamental rules for using one’s ration points wisely. Many of Marjorie’s pointers are in fact timeless, like “watch your local papers carefully for abundant supplies and seasonal wealth of fruits and vegetables. Buy in season.”
Even the physical book was a reflection of the ways that rationing reshaped American lives. Inside the front cover of Cooking on a Ration is a note reading “war has made people eager for books. It has also created a scarcity of paper. Books must be smaller now and thinner than the ones you have been used to. However, on the average such books are not shorter and your dollar buys as much reading matter as it ever has.” With so many recipes and suggestions, readers no doubt found Marjorie’s book worth the $2.00 cover price.
Over the last couple of years I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about how history can help us better process the unprecedented era we are living through. Learning about the war rationing system has helped me appreciate the sacrifices made by my fellow countrymen and women, put my own experiences with scarcity and inconvenience in perspective, and consider how we might all be better prepared for the next major challenge to our collective community. Americans have weathered enormous disruptions to their normal lives before, and emerged in relative good health and humor. That gives me hope that there are brighter days ahead.