Wartime rationing and making do

In today’s war against environmental degradation, there is an oft-repeated slogan: “Reduce, Re-use, Recycle.” Fifty years ago there was a very different kind of war going on, but there was a very similar slogan: “Use it Up, Wear it Out, Make it Do and Do Without.”

Every country involved in the Second World War had some kind of rationing program. Various items were in short supply because they were needed by the military, because of the disruption of trade or because the factories that made them had been turned to military production.

In Canada, the Wartime Prices and Trade Board introduced food rationing on January 24, 1942, and gasoline rationing in April of that year. Sugar was the first type of food rationed; tea, coffee, butter, preserves and fat were rationed later.

Rationing was enforced with coupons, which had to be turned in when supplies were purchased. In all, more than 11 million ration books–one per person–were issued. Innovative solutions were offered by the government to deal with shortages (as someone has said, “The only thing there was never any shortage of was advice.”). For example, housewives were urged to beat milk into their butter to make it go further.

In Great Britain, where rationing was far more strict, the Minister of Food, Lord Woolton, came up with even more innovative ideas: whale meat (which had to be soaked overnight in vinegar to be even halfway edible), “Woolton pie” (made of potatoes, parsnips and herbs), carrot fudge, and sausage and sultana casserole.

A greater hardship than the rationing of food in Canada was the rationing of gasoline. (A sign at one gas station read, “No smoking near gas pumps–maybe your life is not worth saving, but gasoline is!”) Car pools were encouraged, just as they are today to reduce pollution, and drivers fine-tuned their engines to get maximum mileage. Public transport was swamped, so office and plant hours were staggered, and seats in buses and streetcars were changed so they could hold more passengers. The number of bus stops was reduced to save gasoline. Those who had gasoline for their cars developed the dangerous habit of switching off the gas and coasting down hills (probably not a common practice here in Saskatchewan, where hills, although not rationed, have always been in short supply).

The shortage of gas sparked the creativity of inventors, who came up with gas-frugal contraptions such as bicycles powered by washing-machine engines and a plywood car with wheelbarrow tires, which, powered by a rear-mounted two-cylinder air-cooled engine, managed up to 45 miles to the gallon. Of course, its top speed was only 35 mph.

Power had to be conserved for war production, so in 1942 Toronto dimmed street lights, turned off store-window display lights, asked people to avoid turning on house lights as long as possible and banned outdoor Christmas lighting.

Even clothing was rationed. Regulations completely changed the look of fashion, banning certain design elements that took lots of cloth, such as French cuffs. “Frills and furbelows” were out, replaced by slim, spartan designs.

Today’s “blue boxes” have nothing on the sorting of trash that went on in the ’40s. Household bones were separated out of the garbage, as were rags and old clothing, metal scrap (everything from pots and pans to the brass ends of light bulbs), and paper.

Bones were used to make glue for airplanes and glycerin for explosives. Paper and cardboard cartons became food containers and rifle and shell cases. One old envelope could make a cartridge wad. An old aluminum pot could become part of a new Spitfire in short order and a rusty iron chain might become part of a new corvette. Old sweaters were unraveled and re-knitted as socks and scarves for the troops. (One Alberta woman even salvaged wool which sheep rubbed off on trees and fence posts; on one trip she collected enough to make a suit for an airman.)

“Use it Up, Wear it Out, Make it Do and Do Without” and “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” are different slogans for different wars, but they’re very similar in intent. Even though environmental concern had nothing to do with the nation-wide effort to conserve and recycle resources between 1939 and 1945, the zeal with which people pitched in shows what citizens are willing to do in a worthwhile cause.

If that kind of zeal can be harnessed in today’s battle for the environment, maybe in 50 years we’ll have another great victory to celebrate in a clean and healing world.

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/1995/05/wartime-rationing-and-making-do/

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