Rationing During World War II

I’ve been doing lots of research on the subject of rationing during World War II for my upcoming talk at the Wright Museum of World War II history. (For those who are in the area, my talk is on February 16th at 2:00).

The more I learn about rationing, shortages and price ceilings, the more respect I have for the housewives of the period. Actually, I’m in awe of them. From May of 1942 until August 1945 various foods, as well as tires, shoes, nylons and silk were subject to rationing. Even gas was rationed. Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong. Rationing was about as complicated for housewives, as well as grocers and butchers, as you could get.

  Certainly the premise of rationing was a good one. The goal was to make sure everyone got the same amount of food. Food was in short supply because it was needed to be sent overseas to the troops and to feed our allies where it was desperately needed.

Rolling out the rationing program was an amazing story in and of itself. It involved distributing ration books to every man, woman and child. To do this an “army” of volunteers were mobilized. Local schools were the distribution centers. The first ration book was introduced in May of 1942. Called the “sugar” book it was first used to ration sugar and then in November of 1942 coffee was added. 

Every six months a new ration book was introduced – four in all. Rules on how to use the ration book were ever changing, as was the foods that were rationed. The first book had ration stamps that limited sugar to 12 oz. per person a week (1 1/2 cups). The second book was when rationing was in full swing with certain processed food, as well as meats, canned goods, cheese, and canned milk being rationed.

The second book used the ration point system and stamps. Its here where things got difficult for housewives. Stamps were issued in 8, 5, 2 and 1 points. When you went shopping you not only had to figure the cost of an item, but also the points. Since you had only so many ration stamps allotted you had to shop very wisely to not get caught short before the next stamps were issued!

Newspapers, magazines, radio shows and talks given to local women’s clubs all gave tips on how to shop, cook, and deal with rationing. Click on the image below and you will see just how complex it could be!

Suggested shopping list and menus


To make matters worse, even if you had the money and points to buy an item, it didn’t mean you would find it on the grocer’s shelves. Women learned to shop competitively, as well as wait in long lines when word spread that a cherished item was at a local store. In some cases, fights broke out as frazzled women attempted to get that last bit of meat or sugar.

To add to all of this, since gas was rationed, women could not drive all over shopping at different stores. And, since many women worked in the war industries, their time for shopping was severely limited.

Having a butcher who really liked you was a plus, and some women shopped the Black Market. But for most families, they did without items they were used to having.

But it’s always important to remember, unlike our allies overseas, Americans always had food and were never starving.

I’m eager to interview women who remember rationing. Do you have a mother or grandmother who I could speak with? If so, let me know!



8 Responses to “Rationing During World War II”

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  1. Vicki says:

    I think Aunt Lil’s Kitchen is great, Lisa!

  2. Bev says:

    It took a lot of thought into meals at that time. I bet there was a lot of experiments, too!
    My cousin had some ration books that belonged to her parents. She showed them to us when we up there. (Don’t know where they are now.)

  3. I remember my mother canned everything and everything took sugar. There was a single msn in town who lived on canned food from the store. one day he was in the grocery store WANTED TO TRADE his sugar coupons for can coupons, My mother took him up on the trade. We needed sugar to can wild berries & rhubarb etc and the poor man was starving.

    I remember my father walking to work for a month to save the gasoline coupons so we could drive to Lake Placid on July 4 to go to the Horse Show. While we were at the horse show a rumor came through the crowd that they were checking who were there & how far they drove to get there using precious gasoline. Several people took it serious and left the horse shoe. We had few pleasures during my childhood,
    I have vivid memories of the Air raids

  4. Elizabeth says:

    It’s also interesting to consider just how different the rationing experience was for people in different parts of the country. Substitutions for various items — sugar, for instance — seemed to be more available in certain regions than in others. My grandparents never really talked about rationing; my one remaining grandmother’s family was very poor anyway, and didn’t have free and unrestricted use of things even before rationing began, for financial reasons. I do have my other grandmother’s cookbook from 1943, however, and it’s interesting to see what ingredients were called for — and considered available enough to put in a “Victory Edition” cookbook — in California during the period. Apart from a lengthy section on proper nutrition and food science at the front, and ads for various soldiers’ aid groups throughout, rationing is mentioned only in the short sections for “meatless days”, “sugar-saving recipes”, and recipes for using leftovers. The sugar-saving recipes are really only suggestions for using various white sugar substitutes like molasses, brown sugar, honey, and maple syrup — most of which still had to be brought into the state.

    The only other story I heard was when my mom’s dad — who was exempted from military service because he was a food grower and they provided some of the canned food sent overseas — needed a car or truck for the farm. He wrote to every car dealership in California and they had all closed because they had sold all their vehicles and no more were being sent out west. The nearest place he could find any car available to buy was in Chicago, at the factory! So he (and a few friends, I think), took the train out to Chicago, bought the car, and drove it back to California. We have some photos of my grandpa and a friend or two camping out on the side of the road and we think they must have been taken on this road trip.

  5. Melinda says:

    Lisa, your research is terrific and the post fascinating. I never knew how complicated it was. No wonder people had Victory Gardens! My Mom lived through rationing while my Dad was overseas–it’s too bad she never wrote about it in her diary. I’ll have to ask Gary if his Mom talked about it. I love people’s comments too. Will have to check my Mom’s cookbook, which has a few handwritten recipes from the early 40s, to see if anything reflects or mentions rationing substitutes.
    Unrelated to food, but I do remember my grandmother talking about the blackout curtains they had to use b/c they lived near the shore.

  6. Jody says:

    I find rationing fascinating. I don’t see how anyone lived off the meager portions they were allowed to have. The points given each person weekly were entirely too low when you think about one can of tomatoes being 16 points, and you were only given 48 points per week. How can anyone live on that? I can definitely see why so many people were pretty much forced to grow gardens.


  1. [...] others) palettes were strongly influenced by WWII rations and people simply had to make do with the available food. The US exported dried milk, eggs and SPAM to Britain. In Britain each person received one packet [...]

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