The generation that fought the Second World War, both overseas and at home, has long mythologized those years as being representative of total American unity and dedication to winning the war. America created the world’s then-greatest industrial base during the war. It achieved total employment, fielded armies which were victorious across the globe, built the largest Navy in history, and created the technology of nuclear power and weapons. All true, and it was a herculean effort.
But the image of the home front marching in lockstep along with the troops is a false one. Americans resented rationing and took steps to alleviate its hardships using both legal and extralegal means. Thousands attempted to avoid the draft. Rationing, especially of gasoline, meat, and sugar, created large black markets across the country, as had Prohibition two decades earlier. Draft and rationing boards corrupted by political machines and organized crime appeared in cities across the country.
Depictions of the time in film and literature ignored the public grumbling over the wartime restrictions and focused on patriotism. Many still do. It’s simply the time-honored practice of one generation reminding succeeding generations how much better off they are, how much tougher things were in the old days. Make no mistake, millions of Americans sacrificed during the Second World War. But most weren’t happy about it and many took steps to make their sacrifices a little less stressful. Here are ten facts about the home front during World War II.
10. Gasoline was rationed, though not because of fuel shortages
The United States was never short of fuel during the Second World War, despite the massive consumption of the Allied war machine and the industries which supported it. On December 11, 1941, just four days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Office of Price Administration announced the creation of 7,500 ration boards across the nation. The boards, consisting of unpaid volunteers, were tasked with establishing rationing of items essential to the war effort. People with connections to the board members, professional or personal, had opportunities to cheat the system. Cheating became widespread in some areas.
The first items to be rationed were tires. Prior to the war the United States imported nearly all of the rubber it consumed, most of which came from the areas then being overrun by the Japanese. In order to preserve existing stocks of tires, the sales of new automobiles were suspended on January 1, 1942. Only members of certain professions were allowed to purchase cars out of the existing inventory. These included medical professionals, other professionals deemed essential to the war effort, and clergy.
Gasoline rationing was imposed to modify behavior, forcing consumers to change their driving habits and thus preserve rubber. It was almost universally disdained. Lettered stickers attached to cars announced to fuel retailers how much gasoline an owner was entitled to purchase per week. Besides the sticker, drivers carried ration cards which recorded the amounts purchased. “A stickers,” the lowest category, were allowed to buy up to four gallons per week. “X stickers,” the highest, allowed unlimited purchases of fuel. Unsurprisingly about 200 congressmen obtained X stickers, creating national outrage. Americans resisted gasoline rationing throughout the war, especially in the west, where greater travel distances required more fuel.
9. Americans had to be persuaded to purchase War Bonds
During the war over $250 million dollars of donated advertising beseeched Americans to buy War Bonds. War bonds were intended to remove cash from circulation, reducing inflation, as well as helping to fund the war. Americans were bombarded with ads, films, radio programs, Bond Drives, and posters urging them to buy bonds. About half of all Americans did, raising about $185 billion, though the bonds paid below market rates when they matured after 10 years.
The advertising appeared on radio programs, newsreels, animated film shorts, magazine advertisements, newspapers, posters, and in the closing credits of feature films. War Bond Drives, supported by celebrities and by decorated veterans of combat, urged Americans to buy bonds. Children were encouraged to save stamps until they could trade them for bonds. Eight separate War Bond sales drives took place during the war, heavily advertised with donated campaigns. All exceeded their announced goals.
Of the $185 billion raised through bond sales during the war, $156 billion entered the national coffers through the eight scheduled drives, the last of which occurred in the autumn of 1945, following the surrender of Japan. The government advertised the War Bonds (called Series E Bonds) as “the greatest investment on earth.” Their sales continued until 1980, when other government bonds replaced them.
8. Black markets in rationed goods thrived in the United States
As rationing expanded in the United States resistance to it grew among consumers. Sugar, coffee, cooking fats, some dairy products, meats, canned fish, jams and jellies, and numerous processed foods all came under rationing. To obtain rationed items, consumers needed the cash to pay for them as well as the necessary ration points, enumerated in ration books obtained from the local boards.
Black markets for rationed items appeared almost as quickly as the rationing itself. Meat became a popular item on the black market. In early 1945 a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter equipped himself with a truck and purchased more than a ton of black market beef, veal, and pork within a 30-mile radius of the city, all of it obtained illegally. Despite several other sources of protein being available without rationing, including some meats, Americans resisted the attempts to limit their consumption of the foods to which they were accustomed.
In the United States black marketeers found a large market of customers willing to flaunt the rationing system and purchase illegal goods, particularly meats, sugar, and gasoline. Another illegal market, counterfeit rationing cards, also thrived in many cities. Just as the populace resisted Prohibition during the 1920s, rationing led to a surge in another form of bootlegging, replacing alcohol with other consumer items people refused to give up despite government actions.
7. The modern practice of recycling began through scrap drives
During World War II organized scrap drives for metals, cooking fats (recycled into gelatin used in explosives), rubber, leather, and paper initiated the practice now called recycling in the United States. When the war began over 1 million tons of scrap metals could be found on American farms alone, enough to build over 100 battleships. Until the war there had been few options concerning what to do with the metal, other than to let it simply corrode in the fields.
The exponential expansion of government and military bureaucracies generated a vast demand for the leading material output of government. Paper shortages began almost immediately. Paper drives gathered newspapers, magazines, boxes, cartons and other items for recycling. World War II paper drives directly contributed to the scarcity of many pre-war magazines and comic books, increasing their value as collectibles for succeeding generations.
Scrap drives collected virtually everything which could be recycled. Tin cans, bicycle tires, broken tools, disused pots and pans, leather goods, nylons, old clothing, reclaimed cooking fats and oils. Scrap drives continued throughout the war, nearly all of them run by volunteer organizations such as the Boy Scouts or fraternal groups such as the Rotarians . How much they contributed to the war effort is debatable, but they were a unifying factor for the home front during World War II, widely praised in government propaganda drives.
6. America produced more steel than it needed for its war effort
Despite manufacturing thousands of ships, tanks, armored vehicles, trucks, and countless other items requiring steel, the United States manufactured or recycled enough steel to create surpluses. Steel was traded to allies and used to make pennies at home, to allow copper to be used for the war effort. Steel mills in the United States flourished during the war, unimpeded by supply shortages or labor strife.
Steel, both newly manufactured and recycled, shifted from the manufacture of automobiles and certain other consumer goods to the necessities of war beginning in January, 1942. By the end of the war the industry enjoyed full employment. Steel was delivered to shipyards, tank factories, truck factories, railroads, and overseas to feed the industries of America’s allies. By the end of the war the supply of steel was sufficient to allow the construction of an LST (Landing Ship/Tanks) in just 30 days. Before the war such a ship required more than a year on the builder’s ways.
When the war ended in 1945 the United States was the top producer of industrial products, including steel, in the world. Through the remainder of the 1940s and 1950s the demand for steel continued, as much of the world needed to rebuild and domestic production of consumer goods returned. By the end of the latter decade supply exceeded demand, and the steel industry waned in the United States, never to return to its peak production reached as a result of the war.
5. Hollywood entered the war with a bang
In the first year of the war alone, over 10% of Hollywood’s employees, actors, directors, photographers, writers, animators, technicians, and others, entered the war effort. They did so in the military, propaganda industry, Office of War Information, and other entities. Producers who continued to make movies were directed to consider whether the picture would help in the war before making it.
Movies made during the war included those intended to recruit into specialized branches of the military. Movies such as Bombardier (1943); Crash Drive (1943); and Wake Island (1942), were aimed at telling the audience of the duties of servicemen in the United States Army Air Forces, the Submarine Service, and the US Marine Corps, respectively. Each featured established Hollywood stars serving in heroic roles, hoping to entice young Americans to emulate them in entering the armed forces.
Other films warned of the threat to the home front and the overall war effort posed by espionage, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942) and Above Suspicion (1943). Hollywood produced training films for the military, morale boosting films for the entertainment of those on the home front and those deployed overseas, and propaganda films describing America’s enemies. Among the latter were the seven Why We Fight films, produced by the War Department with the cooperation of Hollywood to “inform” the public on the necessity of the war.
4. Americans did not cheerfully accept rationing, despite postwar claims they did
In later years Americans were told of the cheerful acceptance of sacrifice exhibited by their forebears during World War II. In truth, many sacrifices asked of the people on the home front were widely resented, and often resisted. As the war went on the resentment increased, especially as it became increasingly evident of abuses within the system. Ways around the hardships imposed by rationing emerged, and abuses of the system were often ignored. Americans often ate better than they had in the decade before the war.
Americans at home, long unable to purchase certain items because of the Depression and a lack of money, found themselves employed, with money to spend, and all too often without the goods to spend it on. At the same time, farm production boomed. Americans saw the bounty, and questioned the need for rationing, especially of foods and clothes. Restrictions on travel were an added irritant, since it was clear to all there was little in the way of fuel shortages. Citizens needed travel priorities, approved by the government, to travel by train, airplane, ship, or bus. Travel by car was limited by gasoline rationing and a national 35 mile per hour speed limit.
Ration books for food were intended for the sole use of those to whom they had been issued, and their immediate family. Within weeks of the system’s implementation, its intent was thwarted by Americans trading one form of ration stamp for another. Rationing was far from freely and cheerfully accepted by Americans, a myth which developed in the post-war years. The efforts expended by the federal government and law enforcement agencies to suppress abuses of the rationing system stand as evidence that it was resented and resisted by the Americans at home during the war.
3. Patrons of American restaurants were not subjected to rationing
If one desired a steak dinner at home during World War II, one needed the cash to pay for the steak, the corresponding number of ration points to allow its purchase, and a butcher who happened to have the desired cut of beef. However, if one went to have a steak at a restaurant, especially an established restaurant in a larger city, all one needed was the requisite cash and a reservation for a table. Rationing points were not needed when ordering food in restaurants, not even for coffee and sugar (though the government did impose price ceilings for many items).
The result was that Americans, especially in the cities, began to eat out more often. Restaurateurs could sell what they had on their menus, and they were not hampered by ration books when purchasing their foods. American workers, with disposable income they found difficult to spend at grocers, butcher shops, or haberdashers, found they could eat to their heart’s content at most restaurants, without the guilt of knowing they were scamming the system.
By late in the war whiskey, though not rationed via coupon books, had all but disappeared due to distillers shifting to the production of alcohol to support the war effort. What whiskey they did produce was mostly allocated to distributors to restaurants and clubs. Eating out offered the ability to get a drink along with a meal, and Americans enjoying cocktails before their dinners became a feature of dining out.
2. Eluding or evading the draft was present throughout World War II
About 60% of the men who served in the military in World War II were draftees. In the first year of the war some tried to avoid being drafted by enlisting in other services such as the Coast Guard or the Navy. Others cited religious beliefs as allowing them to remain out of the draft. After the government made going through the draft mandatory for all branches of service, conscientious objector status was conferred on some, but not all, objectors. About 6,000 men were denied CO status and incarcerated. Thousands more evaded the draft through corrupt draft boards.
The draft ensured that men did not flock to one service at the expense of the others, for example, enlisting in the Navy to avoid service in the combat infantry of the Army. It also ensured that all men of draft age were registered and known to local draft boards, which made the original determination of CO status, health status, and other issues which affected the draftees’ potential to enter or be passed up for military service.
When the draft began in 1940, exemptions were available for married men, or those with dependent children. By 1941 marriage rates for draft aged men had jumped 25%. The increase in men choosing marriage over military service caused Congress to amend the law in 1942, exempting only those who had married prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. As in every American war in which conscription was mandated, opposition to forced military service existed during the Second World War, Greatest Generation or not.
1. Sales of home pressure cookers increased almost five fold in 1943 thanks to Victory Gardens
Rationing led to an increase in home gardening encouraged by the government. In turn, the additional produce of the gardens led to an increase in home canning, for which pressure cookers were helpful. Home canning offered foods which otherwise would be subjected to rationing, and it allowed Americans to exchange foods which were outside the restrictions of the rationing system. It allowed Americans to grow and process their own foods, and use it to barter with their fellow citizens.
The home pressure cookers of the 1940s were a far cry from the program and forget electronic pressure cookers of today. They required close attention, careful maintenance, and yet still offered the potential for disastrous accidents in the kitchen. Few companies manufactured pressure cookers during the war, having converted to war production, and older, less reliable cookers were used. Canning jars could be reused over and over again, though their lids and seals could not, and they were in constant demand in hardware stores, general stores, and through catalog sales during the war.
Victory gardens emerged in backyards, on urban rooftops, in alleys, and in many communities in shared public parks and gardens. Home canning spiked during the war, largely faded in the postwar era, and only recently began a resurgence, sparked by renewed interest in less industrialized foods and more convenient and safe pressure cookers. People growing their own food has also enjoyed a resurgence, based on a desire for healthier diets, rather than a necessity caused by rationing of foods.