Rationing & Scrap Drives

During the Depression of the 1930s, Americans “did without” because they didn’t have jobs to buy food and clothing. During World War II, Americans again “did without,” this time because of the war effort. Rationing affected rural America particularly.

The federal government set up a rationing system in 1942 and limited purchases of sugar, coffee, meat, fish, butter, eggs, cheese, shoes, rubber and gasoline. Silk and newly invented nylon was used to produce parachutes, and so women around the world found it hard to get fashion stockings.

Other commodities were in short supply because trade routes were disrupted. Shellac, for instance, was produced in India and was used for building products and music record discs. Because of the war in Asia, trade with India was disrupted, and so new records were hard to come by.

play me iconThe shortages became such a nuisance that they even got the attention of song writers.
Jazz musician Louis Jordan was one of those who had fun with rationing when he wrote “Ration Blues.”
 Click the jukebox to hear the song.

Farm production, however, was vital to the war effort, so farmers got extra rations of gasoline and other staples. Yet, it was hard to get new machinery as factories were retooled to produce tanks rather than tractors.

Here’s how rationing worked: Each member of the household got a ration booklet, usually distributed at a the local school. Each booklet had stamps in it that translated into a certain amount of the commodity being rationed. For instance, there were only enough stamps for one person to buy 28 ounces of meat per week, 4 ounces per day. Merchants collected the stamps when you bought something, and when the stamps were gone so was the item for that week.

The challenge was to use everyone’s stamps to buy the food the family needed. The Office of Price Administration gave out points that could be used to purchase goods in very short supply, but it was up to the consumer to use the coupons when buying rationed items.

Freddie Oglesby (left) remembers having to have coupons ready before she bought anything. “When you bought something,” Freddie says, “you’d have to have the stamps ready to hand them because that was what our allotment was.”

Kelly Holthus (right) remembers that, in a town of 600 people, everyone knew how much everyone else was supposed to be getting
. So, cheating was hard to get away with. “It was all those little things that were so important,” he says. “The gas rationing, the sugar stamps, the coffee stamps. The ladies couildn’t get nylons.”

Winton Wright (left) talks about how families adapted to rationing. “You done with what you had,” he says. “Now, I often wonder if that happened again today, how people would cope with that.”

Diena Schmidt (right) remembers how her family worked around the wartime shortages. “We just became more ingenious,” she says. “If we could buy a box of Jell-O, we’d make a piecrust and put Jell-O in it and we had pie.”

Regulating the supply of goods led to a “Black Market” – the sale of items “off the records,” from farm equipment to gasoline to beef and pork. The government was so concerned that they actually produced a short dramatic film encouraging people not to break the law.

Technically, Mildred Hopkins (left) sold cigarettes on the “black market,” although she did it just to help out friends. She stopped after she stored a carton in a drawer with perfume and her friends complained about how the cigarettes tasted.

Millie Opitz and her husband Chris had to go on the black market to get a combine they needed in the middle of the war.

Save those scraps. With so many commodities in short supply, the government not only rationed them but also campaigned to save and reuse vital materials. Many people who were children or teenagers during World War II remember how their small towns held scrap drives. People collected scrap paper so it could be used for packing around equipment and weapons. All kinds of metal was collected so it could be recycled and made into bombs. Engine grease was saved. The government needed copper for war material and minted pennies from zinc-coated steel in 1943. Towns had paper drives, rubber drives, and scrap metal drives. Children went door to door in their neighborhoods. The drives generated a strong sense of community and a patriotic feeling that everyone was helping in the war effort. The actual savings from these drives is difficult to measure.

So today’s recycling movement may have actually begun in the 1940s.

Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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