World War II began in 1939 when Britain and France declared war on Germany following the Nazi invasion of Poland, but it wasn’t until the 1941 Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor that Americans entered the fight.
Based on our president’s recollections of the First World War, Franklin Roosevelt fervently believed that this new conflict would become a “Total War,” requiring all of society’s resources to become mobilized. For 16 million Americans, that meant military service. For millions of others, it entailed working in factories producing tanks and torpedoes. For all other American, regardless of their wealth or status, personal sacrifice came in the form of rations, imposed on everything from meat and sugar to firewood and penicillin.
Americans received their first book of ration stamps in May 1942, and it soon became known as the “Sugar Book,” representing one of the treasured commodities that Americans would soon be required to purchase with ration stamps. Other household staples including meat, dairy, coffee, dried fruits, and cooking oils soon followed, and as the war progressed, gasoline, fuel oil, coal, firewood, nylon, silk, and shoes were also rationed.
Not surprisingly, our government was forced to ration tires early in 1942 because 90 percent of Asia’s rubber plants were under Japanese control. This meant that most Americans could no longer buy new tires, with doctors, police, and farmers being the only notable exceptions. And a national “Victory Speed” was established at 35 mph, in an effort to further conserve our critical supply of rubber.
Also in 1942, recycling was initiated to preserve aluminum cans for munitions and new car production was banned, allowing auto plants to morph into producers of military vehicles, exclusively. At the same time, local communities joined together in “scrap drives” to salvage metal from basements and backyards, generously offering their old cars, bed frames and radiators as contributions to the war effort. Copper was in short supply, and because it was used for both assault wire and critical battlefield communications, the US Mint began making pennies out of steel.
In 1943, the Roosevelt administration launched a “Food for Victory” campaign encouraging Americans to can more foods and consult with “Victory Cookbooks” for tips on making the most of rationed goods. Because civilians were urged to grow their own fruits and vegetables, millions of “Victory Gardens,” planted and maintained by ordinary citizens, appeared in backyards, vacant lots, and public parks. By 1945, an estimated 20 million victory gardens produced 40 percent of America’s produce.
It was understood that the war effort on the home front required sacrifice by all Americans, so “Do With Less, So They’ll Have More” became the rallying cry employed to support our troops. As rationing became a part of everyday life, Americans learned to conserve vital resources while living with shortages and price controls. Americans had become good at safeguarding resources during the Great Depression, so sacrificing during WWII came naturally, but never easily. It was at the height of the war effort that my parents experienced the human capacity for selflessness, evident even during times of turmoil.
Subscribe: Get unlimited access to our local coverage
Having met in Petoskey during one of my father’s brief military leaves from the Royal Canadian Air Force, their courtship was accomplished through daily written correspondence, a common occurrence during times of war. When their eventual wedding plans were announced, friends and family sacrificed their rationing stamps to provide my mother with nylon stockings to wear during the ceremony, celebratory foods to serve at the reception, and the fuel necessary to return the young marrieds to my father’s base in Halifax, Nova Scotia. To further honor their unlikely union, pooled ration stamps were used to acquire a rare set of sterling silver flatware. Eventually, the silver would be gifted to their fourth child, and I’m tearfully polishing it now.
Very few of the 330 million Americans living through the COVID-19 pandemic can still remember a time when our country was asked to make a collective sacrifice for the greater good. So today, in this nation that so prides itself on its individualism and free enterprise, could we still mobilize an army of factory workers or legions of volunteers like we had to in 1942? Will our leaders ever gain the courage to go against their own violent mob and swim upstream against its torrents? Can our great nation survive this period of intensifying partisanship, political manipulation and a media ecosystem that preys on outrage?
Although the questions are important, the answers for me, remain elusive. But, as for the silver … the polishing will continue.
— Community Columnist Lynn Smith is a retired wealth management executive who resides in Holland. Contact her at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on The Holland Sentinel: Lynn Smith: Remembering the ‘Sugar Book’ and lessons from the past