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  • Sally Jameson Bond

Could you survive rationing?



It was just about a year ago when the bizarre national panic commenced. “There’s no toilet paper at Kroger—or Food Lion—or Walmart!” Weeks went by and we began to think about “alternatives” (not a pretty picture). One morning (late April, maybe) Joe returned from a trip to Kroger and surprised me with a package of Quilted Northern. (He went at 7:00 when only the old fogies could enter the store—masked, of course.) I was so excited! I took a picture and texted it to a bunch of people. Truthfully, we were never close to running out of t.p. at our house at any point last year, but knowing we could have did increase the stress level, at least a little bit.


I was somewhat surprised by the disappearance of a variety of products from the grocery shelves last year—pickled beets, for instance. We like pickled beets. They’re a staple in the big salads Joe makes for our lunches almost every Sunday. For a while, there were no cans or jars of beets at all, then plain beets showed up (whole or sliced), and eventually, weeks and weeks later, the pickled variety returned at last. Halleluiah! Of course, many cleaning/ sanitizing products either couldn’t be found at all or were “rationed”—one per customer, for instance. We still see signs in the cleaning aisle at Kroger informing us we can only buy one of this or that.


Current AWOL food item at Kroger: White Cheddar Rice Cakes. Go figure.

During World War II, a rationing system was put in place by the U.S. Office of Price Administration. Beginning in May 1942, books containing ration stamps were issued by local ration boards and everyone got them, even small children and babies. Some stamps were valid for two weeks, some for four, some longer. It was quite a complex system.


Sugar was the first commodity to be rationed. Each person in America was allowed to purchase a half a pound of sugar per week. To me, that seems like plenty—a family of four could buy two pounds every week—but apparently it was half the normal consumption. Over the next two years, other rationed products were added to the list including coffee, cheese, butter, margarine, meat, lard, shortening, canned milk, silk, nylon, kerosene, typewriters, bicycles, and shoes.


In 1942, most large manufacturing companies converted their factories to war production. Automobile manufacturers eventually churned out massive numbers of bombers, Jeeps, amphibious vehicles, and more. Other companies completely shut down the manufacturing (for civilian consumption) of metal office furniture, radios, phonographs, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, washing and sewing machines. Dog food could no longer be sold in tin cans, and if you wanted a new (tin) tube of toothpaste, you had to turn in an empty one.


I’ve tried to imagine what it might have been like to go shopping for a week’s supply of groceries with all those ration stamp books. (A little like using coupons nowadays, perhaps, but a lot more complicated.) Maybe shopping several times a week for fewer items made more sense if you could walk or ride a bike or take public transportation to the store.


Gasoline and tires were rationed too, and if you had an A sticker on your windshield, as most of the general public did, you were limited to three to four gallons of gas per week. (In 1944, a gallon of gas cost 21 cents.) The weekly allotment for those with B stickers, primarily business owners, was eight gallons. A variety of occupations was covered by C stickers, including physicians and veterinarians, clergy, embalmers, and essential war workers. During the war, the speed limit on most highways and byways was 35 mph. Gas rationing certainly put the kibosh on all forms of automobile racing and road trips to the Grand Canyon (unless you lived in Northern Arizona).


Here’s my dad in September 1943 at home on leave from the U.S. Navy’s Pre-flight school at St. Mary’s College in California. It’s hard to see, but I’m pretty sure there’s an A sticker in the upper right corner of the windshield.


Most rationing restrictions ended in August 1945, but sugar rationing remained in place well into 1947. (For some reason, the Brits had to wait until 1953 to buy all the sugar they craved.) Everyone sacrificed for the common good, and in my view, we won the war, at least in part, because they did.


Finding empty shelves at the grocery store last year wasn’t the same as living with rationing during World War II, but maybe we did get a tiny taste of it.

April the 7th was Good Friday in 1944. In the early morning hours of the preceding day, a train arrived in Algona from Camp Indianola, Nebraska with 501 German POWs aboard. Most were combat veterans who had been captured in North Africa. Heavily guarded, they marched through town from the station to the camp which was about a mile west of the city limits. They were the first group of German prisoners to be incarcerated at Camp Algona. And so, it began.


Blessings to all.

Sally Jameson Bond is retired and lives in Southwest Virginia with her husband and two dogs. My Mother’s Friend is her first novel. You can find her web site here: www.sallyjamesonbond.com.



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