Ration books tell story of wartime life

In my collection of "old" things are several ration books from the 1940s. The small books fit into a 5-inch-by-7-inch brown envelope, and contain pages of stamps with pictures of howitzers, aircraft carriers, tanks and airplanes.

Some of the stamps have numbers on a colored background, while other stamps in the book are imprinted with letters and numbers.

Instructions on how to use the ration book are printed on the back of each book. Each stamp would allow the consumer to buy rationed goods in the quantities and at the time designated by the Office of Price Administration.

Also printed on the booklet was this admonition: “Rationing is a vital part of our country’s war effort. Any attempt to violate the rules is an effort to deny someone his share, and will create hardship and help the enemy. This book is your government’s assurance of your right to buy your fair share of certain goods made scarce by war. If you don’t need it, DON’T BUY IT.”

Although I talked to many older folks, their memories were faint as to what these various ration stamps were for. It was remembered that pictures of stamps would be published in local newspapers telling what item the consumer could buy with, for instance, the stamp picturing the howitzer. I later found that book numbers held as much importance as individual stamps.

Ration Book Two covered meat purchases, with other items added later. Meat was available on a point system, and one could buy more ground beef than steak using the same stamp.

Most of my questions about wartime rationing were answered in Charles Mills’ 2001 book, "War Stories." Charles wrote that the government instituted a rationing program one month after Pearl Harbor.

If you owned a car, you had to purchase a use stamp, which was good for six months. A second stamp would give you another six months, with proof of its purchase being sent to the Internal Revenue Service. Those with Ration Book A could drive 240 miles each month.

Tires were the first to be rationed, and inspection sites were set up. Holders of Ration Book A could have their tires inspected every six months. Those with B and C ration books were to have their inspection every four months.

Charles explained that the B, C and D books were for commercial and special occupations, or defense workers. The local War Price and Rationing Board decided who got tires or new cars, with first priority going to doctors, nurses, farm veterinarians and farmers.

Everyone had to register at local schools for the sugar ration. Charles placed this between May 4 and 7, 1942.

A total of 24,333 sugar ration books were issued in Fayette County. The housewife lost one ration stamp for each pound of sugar she was willing to admit having at home at the time rationing was put into effect.

The late Tillie Crawford once told me she remembered the beginning of sugar rationing. Her sons also took part, with Tillie putting each child’s ration in a teacup. She remembered with a smile that one of her sons invariably used up his sugar before the month was out, while another son always had a little sugar left in his cup when the next ration amount was allowed.

As the country geared up for war, demands of the growing military force began to cut into civilian food supplies.

An article from The Vandalia Leader newspaper, announcing the end of rationing, stated that ration stamps were required March 29, 1943, and red point rationing lasted two years and eight months.

Just about everything was rationed – tires, gas, sugar, canned goods, meat, clothing, shoes, butter, margarine and oil. Soon after the fighting ended overseas, rationing of vegetable products, especially canned goods, was lifted.

Gas rationing started July 22, 1942, on the East Coast, but the Midwest did not feel its effect until December of that year. Charles wrote that on July 21, the day before gas rationing was to begin, 15,000 gallons of gas were sold in Vandalia.

At 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 24, 1945, rationing, except for sugar and tires, ended.

Although everyone could breathe a little easier, it was estimated that it would be several months before manufacturers could catch up with the need for clothing, and because of the long "tire famine," it would be some time before production would meet demand.

The old ration books are fascinating. They provide us a small glimpse into the difficulties on the homefront during World War II.

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