Joan V. Cusimano Lindquist
We’re all feeling the effects of inflation these days, and I’m sure that old saying “We’ll have to tighten our belts” to make ends meet has, to be sure, crossed our minds. But there was a time in this country’s history that that very idea became a reality and helped us win a war, WWII to be exact.
By President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8875 issued on August 28, 1941, the Office of Price Administration and Civilian Supply, also known as the OPA, was created. The responsibility of this agency was to place a ceiling on prices of most goods and limit their consumption by rationing. Why did the OPA set up this system? With war raging in Europe and America’s part in it still unsure, Roosevelt (and I’m sure some of his advisors) felt that if factories had to convert to military production for supplying critical foodstuffs to our military that rationing would become necessary for civilians if the United States entered the war. And it came to pass. The OPA established a rationing system after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
The first ration cards were issued in May of 1942, and these were followed by a series of War Ration Books that dictated, among other items, what foods in what quantity per week or per month housewives could purchase for their families. Basic foodstuffs such as meats, fats, bacon, cheese, and coffee were rationed by an allowance of coupons or ration stamps that could be detached from the pages in ration books. The most rationed item? Sugar, which became rationed starting in 1942 and ending in June of 1947.
Jamestonians felt the pinch like all of the other citizens of the USA whether they were shopping at corner groceries or, in many cases, at the City Public Market located in Brooklyn Square. One article in the Post-Journal carried the heading “Rationing to Hit Half of Larder” with the caveat that about one-half of the American housewife’s weekly food budget would be rationed by point-rationing of certain items. Listed were the approximate amounts which each civilian could get: sugar, 8 ounces weekly; coffee, one pound every 5 weeks; canned foods, 4 cans monthly; meat, 2 pounds weekly; butter, 4 ounces weekly; cooking fats, 8 ounces weekly; cheese, 2 ounces weekly. Foods not rationed were fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh and dried fish, bread, and milk. But the crunch of rationed foods and even a total lack of some staples in the diet of most Americans, such as the stand-by meal of meat and potatoes, were still felt acutely after the war.
While perusing some 1940s issues of the Post-Journal, I found several amusing anecdotes regarding the meat shortage in this country: an Instructor of Agriculture told a timely story about a friend who telephoned his butcher and inquired about getting a dollar’s worth of sirloin steak. The clerk said “We have some very nice steak. Shall we deliver it?” The friend’s reply was “Yes, I wish you would, and if we aren’t home, just push it through the keyhole.” And another went this way: “Meat rationing is here and the only thing available is free air. We walked into one meat market…and couldn’t figure out why it was open. The cupboard was bare and the proprietor, two salesmen, and a grocer were having a game of cards in the back room!” And in 1943 more than half of Buffalo’s 429 retail butcher shops were closed because of little or no meat.
J. Henry Carlson, who was the president of the Jamestown Meat Dealers’ Association and owner of meat stalls 11-12 in the City Market, was among many butchers in 1946, a year after the war had ended, who had to close their businesses for a week because of an acute shortage of meat. And that other staple on Americans plates, the lowly but extremely palatable potato, was also scarce during the war years. The reason, according to a Post-Journal article headed “Potatoes Scarce in Jamestown,” was that the supply of table potatoes would be available only after the army and navy needs were taken care of. Seed potatoes were also in short supply and could only be sold for seed purposes for people who had turned to making Victory Gardens. Farm horses plowing Victory Gardens almost became another career for Roy Hoaglund whose farm was on North Main Street Extension. After “hanging up” their snowplow harnesses from a long winter of plowing city sidewalks, on went his horses’ summer plowing harnesses for turned plots that were available to Victory Gardeners or as Hoaglund called them “city slickers”!
“Sorry, Lady, no butter this week.” A freeze on butter was in place in the city following an OPA order. In its place? Oleo, a kind if look-alike but hardly taste-alike used in place of butter. Mrs. M.V. Sturm of Falconer wrote to the Post-Journal asking why her son who was in army camp was eating oleo instead of butter because she thought American civilians were using oleo so that our soldiers could have butter. She was informed that some enlisted men had voluntarily “agreed to go without butter on certain days in order to improve the nationwide butter situation.” Indeed, even service men were tightening their belts another notch and more was to come.
So, think on this as we face today’s market place. Things can always be worse.