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Ration Books and Victory Gardens: Coping with Shortages
Article first published in Vol. 12, 1994.
By Leigh Smith and Jennette Nervais
Ever wonder why grandma's pantry and freezer are always full, sometimes overflowing with stockpiled food? Why she buys 8 or 10 pounds of coffee, 10 or 15 pounds of sugar when they are on special? Why she tops off the gas tank of her car every few days?
Ration books and stamps used during the 1940s. Photo by Leigh Smith
Chances are she remembers World War II when many luxuries as well as necessities became scarce, and the federal government instituted a complex system of rationing, based on the number of people in a household.
President Roosevelt created the Office of Price Administration (OPA) in August 1941 in order to control prices and regulate the consumption of goods necessary to the war effort. In April 1942, prices and rents were frozen across the board. In May 1942, sugar became the first commodity to be rationed.
The OPA distributed and maintained records of ration stamps, sometimes numbering up to three billion monthly. Stamps were issued in books which were identified by name, physical description and occupation of family member. Stamps were color coded and worth various "points." For instance, red and blue stamps might be worth 10 points each, green and brown stamps, less. Red and blue tokens were used to make change for red and blue stamps and were worth one point each.
Shoppers use red stamps for meat, butter and fats, and blue stamps were ones for canned foods such as beans and peas. White stamps helped buy flour, bread and sugar. Other items under the rationing system including milk, coffee and shoes. Families developed systems of trading products when one household had an abundance of one kind of stamp and desired another kind.
All of a sudden, housewives had to budget not only money but also points and stamps in order to feed and clothe their families. To prevent hoarding of stamps, the OPA placed date codes on the stamps which made them redeemable only for specific period, usually one month.
A pound of steak might cost 12 points while the same amount of hamburger or ham cost only 7; one pound of butter cost 16 points while a pound of margarine cost only 4. Canned sardines cost 12 points, canned milk 1 point, a pound of cheddar cheese went for 8 points. Each jar of baby food cost 1 point and a 14-ounce bottle of catsup was worth a whopping 15 points. The number of points and stamps required per item fluctuated, depending on the supply of the item.
Being a border town helped El Paso struggle through this period of scarcity. Residents shopped in Mexico for necessities where they were not limited to certain amounts. Coffee was scarce for Americans because ships that carried coffee beans from South America had been pressed into military service, and much of the rest had been reserved for the military. However, coffee was available in Mexico, as were sugar and other commodities. Some retailers accepted American ration stamps and managed to redeem them.
Another source of food helped El Pasoans and other Americans cope with scarce quantities of food. Secretary of Agriculture Claude R. Wickard originated the idea of individuals planting and growing their own food and named these small plots "victory gardens." Detailed booklets taught city dwellers how to grow tomatoes in pots on their window sills and made gardeners out of people who heretofore had depended on farms to produce the fresh vegetables they consumed.
In 1943, Americans planted 20.5 million victory gardens in backyards and some unlikely places like the zoo in Portland, Oregon, Arlington racetrack near Chicago and even parking lots. The 1943 harvest from victory gardens accounted for at least one-third of all vegetables consumed in the United States that year and made permanent gardeners out many Americans.
The planting of vegetable gardens helped boost morale during the war and produced practical results. Housewives became more nutrition-conscious and canning and vegetables became more and more popular. By such activities, the home front helped to contribute to one of the government's many wartime goals: a healthy citizenry.
Americans could not produce another rationed commodity they had become used to, however. Gasoline rationing seemed to be more difficult than food rationing for many. Motorists received windshield stickers with a letter of priority. A through E. An A sticker went to motorists who drove for pleasure only and limited them to three to five gallons of gas per week.
Commuters received B stickers worth varying amounts of fuel depending on the distance they traveled to and from work. The highest priority E sticker went to policemen, clergymen and sometimes to politicians, and it bought as many gallons of gasoline as they needed.
Gasoline rationing angered many Americans. In addition to gas rationing, motorists were asked to obey speed limits which were reduced to 35 mph from 45 mph. Nevertheless, car pools got people to work and children to school.
Americans who grew up during World War II learned what sacrifice meant. Although rationing was a daily irritant, it was also a reminder that the country was at war. Gas rationing and blackouts, meatless Tuesdays and all the other daily deprivations represented and essential contribution of the average American to the war effort.