During World War I, rationing was a voluntary movement, and the United States government relied on Americans to voluntarily restrict their consumption of goods and commodities as a part of the war effort. After the United States entered World War II, the government approached this conservation differently. Instead of relying on voluntary conservation by citizens, government entities placed official restrictions on some essential consumables.
The United States at war during the 1940s experienced a number of shortages of commodities such as clothing, metal, and rubber. Food shortages were another issue that impacted virtually every American citizen regularly. A number of circumstances affected the amount of food and the kinds of food that became scarce. For example, canned foods were diverted and shipped overseas to feed the troops. Tire and gasoline rationing affected the country’s ability to transport fresh foods, so Americans were unable to buy these items as they were accustomed to buying them. Restrictions on imported foods led to shortages of items such as sugar and coffee, so rationing was instituted to ensure that these commodities were evenly distributed.
The Emergency Price Control Act was passed in 1942. This act gave the government the authority to institute price limits and to ration food and other items. The purpose of the act was to make it impossible for citizens to hoard commodities and ensure that everyone had equal access to scarce items. Soon after passing the act, the government instituted a coupon system that Americans had to use to buy items such as sugar and coffee. Eventually, the rationed food items extended to canned fish and milk, meat, cheese, and other processed foods.
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Americans had to register to receive a war ration book filled with special stamps they could use to buy these specific items. Food items were assigned points, and consumers could use a specific number of blue and red points to buy these items if they were in stock in stores. Supply and demand necessitated periodic adjustments to point values, which made it crucial for families to plan carefully to ensure that they would have access to the items they needed and wanted. Americans who had medical needs that necessitated specific commodities could apply to the rationing board to receive extra ration points.
Americans also coped with rationing and coupon books by engaging in a widespread system of bartering. Ration books were exceedingly valuable to American consumers during the war, and people even carried them in special holders to keep them safe. Consumers actively traded stamps with each other so they could get the items they wanted. When the war ended, many restrictions were ended immediately. However, sugar wasn’t available for unrestricted purchase until 1947 in some regions of the country.
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Gasoline and tire rationing were also instituted. The Japanese maintained control of much of the world’s rubber supply, so it was important to manage the number of tires people could buy. To help reduce both gasoline and tire consumption, states lowered speed limits. In many regions, it became unpatriotic to exceed these lower speed limits because this would be a waste of gas and rubber. Consumers received coupon books for gasoline, too, though some people who had to drive for their jobs got extra coupons for more gas.
The American government also engaged in a home-front conservation effort designed to encourage consumers to do their part in the war effort by saving and doing without whenever possible. This was presented to the Americans at home as the way for them to do their patriotic duty and contribute to the war effort. Everyone was encouraged to use their resources wisely. Americans also held salvage drives to collect metal, rags, and even fats that were donated to the war effort.
It’s common for rationing to be a prevalent memory for people who lived in America during World War II. With the necessity of cooking foods from scratch because of canned and processed foods being diverted to troops, housewives had huge challenges making rationed food stretch to feed their families each week. Americans responded with a strong entrepreneurial spirit, working to succeed and thrive even in difficult times. With a desire to serve their country and overcome hardship, morale flourished even in the face of adversity.
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