U.S. Government-Imposed Rationing of Meat and Butter Ends

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U.S. Government-Imposed Rationing of Meat and Butter Ends

Basic Mileage Ration Class A card, for a 1934 Plymouth
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are from Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: November 23, 1945

The Second World War seems like a very, *very* long time ago to many young people today. It was a war against tyranny, against Nazism and Fascism. The United States and its allies organized themselves to oppose Hitler, Mussolini and their partners. The stories of bravery and sacrifice on the battlefields, on the sea, and in the air fill volumes of books in libraries. However, the people on the homefront made their own contributions. In addition to working in the many industries supporting the war effort, all Americans made sacrifices through rationing of many precious commodities.


During the First World War, both German and the United Kingdom instituted some form of food rationing. The United States did not have food rationing in World War I. Through slogans such as "Food Will Win the War," "Meatless Mondays," and "Wheatless Wednesdays," the United States Food Administration – under future U.S. President Herbert Hoover – reduced national consumption by 15 percent.

By the summer of 1941 the Office of Price Administration believed, however, that with factories converting to military production and consuming many critical supplies, rationing would become necessary if the country entered World War II. It established a rationing system after the Pearl Harbor attack. The entire country was concerned with a shortage of rubber for tires since the Japanese quickly conquered the rubber-producing regions of Southeast Asia. Although synthetic rubber had been invented in the years preceding the war, it had been unable to compete with natural rubber commercially, so the US did not have enough manufacturing capacity at the start of the war to make synthetic rubber. Throughout the war, rationing of gasoline was motivated by a desire to conserve rubber as much as by a desire to conserve gasoline.

Waiting in line at the Rationing Board office, New Orleans, LA; Photograph by John Vachon, taken March of 1943 (Image courtesy of Wikipedia and Library of Congress website)
Waiting in line at the Rationing Board office, New Orleans, LA
Photograph by John Vachon, taken March of 1943
(Image courtesy of Wikipedia and Library of Congress website)

Tires were the first item to be rationed by the OPA, which ordered the temporary end of sales on December 11, 1941 while it created 7,500 unpaid, volunteer three-person tire ration boards around the country. By January 5, 1942 the boards were ready. Each received a monthly allotment of tires based on the number of local vehicle registrations, and allocated them to applicants based on OPA rules. The War Production Board (WPB) ordered the temporary end of all civilian automobile sales on January 1, 1942, leaving dealers with one half million unsold cars. Ration boards grew in size as they began evaluating automobile sales in February (only certain professions, such as doctors and clergymen, qualified to purchase the remaining inventory of new automobiles). Automobile factories stopped manufacturing civilian models by early February 1942 and converted to producing tanks, aircraft, weapons, and other military products, with the United States government as the only customer. By June 1942 companies also stopped manufacturing for civilians' metal office furniture, radios, phonographs, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, and sewing machines.

Rationing poster, circa 1943 (Image courtesy of http://www.intheirwords.org)
Rationing poster, circa 1943
(Image courtesy of http://www.intheirwords.org)

Civilians first received ration books – War Ration Book Number One, or the "Sugar Book" – on May 4, 1942, 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. Later that month volunteers again helped distribute gasoline cards in 17 Atlantic and Pacific Northwest states. To get a classification and rationing stamps, one had to appear before a local War Price and Rationing Board which reported to the OPA. 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 for gasoline and ownership of no more than five tires. All tires in excess of five per driver were confiscated by the government, because of rubber shortages.

An A sticker on a car was the lowest priority of gasoline rationing and entitled the car owner to 3 to 4 gallons of gasoline per week. B stickers were issued to workers in the military industry, entitling their holder up to 8 gallons of gasoline per week. C stickers were granted to persons deemed very essential to the war effort, such as ministers, doctors, mail carriers, and railroad workers. 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. Police, firemen, and civil defense workers were in this category.

Class A gasoline rationing sticker, circa 1943 (Image courtesy of http://www.ameshistoricalsociety.org)
Class A gasoline rationing sticker, circa 1943
(Image courtesy of http://www.ameshistoricalsociety.org)

As of April 1, 1942, anyone wishing to purchase a new tube of toothpaste had to turn in an empty one. Sugar was the first consumer commodity rationed, with all sales ended on April 27, 1942 and resumed eight days later with a ration of one half pound per person per week, half of normal consumption. Bakeries, ice cream makers, and other commercial users received rations of about 70% of normal usage.

"Uncle Sam last week assumed the role of fashion designer. Sweeping restrictions aim to save 15 percent of the yardage now used on women's and girls' apparel through such measures as restricting hems and belts to two inches, [and] eliminating cuffs on sleeves. Exempt categories include bridal gowns, maternity dresses, [and] vestments for religious orders."
  --- Life Magazine, April 20, 1942

The next commodity to be nationally rationed was coffee, beginning November 29, 1942 to one pound every five weeks, about half of normal consumption. This rationing was traceable to German U-boat attacks on shipping from Brazil. Some of the items subject to rationing were typewriters, bicycles, footwear, silk, nylon, fuel oil, stoves, meat, lard, shortenings and oils, cheese, butter, margarine, processed foods (canned, bottled, and frozen), dried fruits, canned milk, firewood and coal, jams, jellies, and fruit butter were rationed by November 1943. Many retailers welcomed rationing because they were already running short of many items due to rumors and panics, such as flashlights and batteries after Pearl Harbor.

War Ration Book No. 3, tank stamp, circa 1943
War Ration Book No. 3, tank stamp, circa 1943

Many levels of rationing went into effect. Some items, such as sugar, were distributed evenly based on the number of people in a household. Other items, like gasoline or fuel oil, were rationed only to those who could justify a need. Restaurant owners and other merchants were accorded more availability, but had to collect ration stamps to restock their supplies. In exchange for used ration stamps, ration boards delivered certificates to restaurants and merchants to authorize procurement of more products.

The work of issuing ration books and exchanging used stamps for certificates was handled by some 5,500 local ration boards of mostly volunteer workers selected by local officials. Each ration stamp had a generic drawing of an airplane, gun, tank, aircraft carrier, ear of wheat, fruit, etc. and a serial number. Some stamps also had alphabetic lettering. The kind and amount of rationed commodities were not specified on most of the stamps and were not defined until later when local newspapers published, for example, that beginning on a specified date, one airplane stamp was required (in addition to cash) to buy one pair of shoes and one stamp number 30 from ration book four was required to buy five pounds of sugar. The commodity amounts changed from time to time depending on availability. Red stamps were used to ration meat and butter, and blue stamps were used to ration processed foods.

To enable making change for ration stamps, the government issued "red point" tokens to be given in change for red stamps, and "blue point" tokens in change for blue stamps. The red and blue tokens were about the size of dimes (16 mm) and were made of thin compressed wood fiber material, because metals were in short supply

Ration coins, circa 1944, used as change for ration stamps (Image courtesy of http://www.ameshistoricalsociety.org)
Ration coins, circa 1944, used as change for ration stamps
(Image courtesy of http://www.ameshistoricalsociety.org)

As a result of the rationing, all forms of automobile racing, including the Indianapolis 500, were banned, as was sightseeing driving.

All rationing was ended in 1946. The Office of Price Administration was terminated in 1947, with its various functions reassigned to other federal agencies.

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What month did the rationing end on in 1946? January?

I was married September 1946 and my friends gave me their sugar coupons for bakery that made my Wedding Cake. I have been unsuccessful in finding a reference of month in 1946 that rationing ended.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.