WWII rationing ephemera

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This site has lots of photos and descriptions of rationing books, tokens, and coupons used in WWII. Aren't those little colored tokens cute!

During the Second World War, you couldn't just walk into a shop and buy as much sugar or butter or meat as you wanted, nor could you fill up your car with gasoline whenever you liked. All these things were rationed, which meant you were only allowed to buy a small amount (even if you could afford more). The government introduced rationing because certain things were in short supply during the war, and rationing was the only way to make sure everyone got their fair share. War ration books and tokens were issued to each American family, dictating how much gasoline, tires, sugar, meat, silk, shoes, nylon and other items any one person could buy.
World War II Rationing (Thanks, Sam!)


  1. Speaking of “dual currency” coupons / stamps / ration cards… and government-imposed rigidity of pricing signals. (c.f. Road to Serfdom in Cartoons)

    I wonder what the forthcoming Credit Crunch rationing tokens will look like?

    Exactly. Actually, the reality will probably be closer to the inflation from near-zero Fed interest rates causing increased scarcity (rather than the intended increased availability) of goods and services, which then leads to rationing.

    …which then leads to government eliminating anonymous cash currency altogether and replacing it with a people being RFID tagged in totalitarian mass-surveillance credit system. (cue all the “mark of the beast” eschatology, The Last Enemy, etc.)

  2. I was recently working on a characer-profile for a woman from this same era. I was trawling through all this kind of stuff from 1940’s England, looking for the perfect look for her – from what I’d imagined.

    I found it, it turned out to be a “1940s CC41 (Civilian Clothing 1941, WW2 government issue) woman’s overcoat.” Found it on ebay, exactly what I wanted.

    I love the design and feel of this kind of ephemera.

  3. The government introduced rationing because certain things were in short supply during the war, and rationing was the only way to make sure everyone got their fair share

    I think that rationing was more to ensure that the military had enough of the resources it needed than any attempt to ensure fairness among civilians.

  4. I wonder how they would ration supplies into todays consumer environment since so many supplies are of non-US origin.

  5. This is great–thank you Mark. I’ve been talking to my mother-in-law about her experiences with rationing, but seeing the actual coupons and tokens is invaluable.

  6. @wordtipping

    I am sure that when we go to war with China the Chinese will take care of the rationing problem for us at the source for many of our goods.

  7. If rationing existed now, people would be selling their excess tokens and coupons on Ebay. I bet in the old days, they were just traded with neighbors locally. After all, not everyone uses every item that was being rationed.

  8. Previously:
    * Underground economics in the USA
    * Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor
    * Tales from the underground economy

    black market
    economic secession

    Chapter 12: E-MONEY, “Crypto-anarchy: encryption always wins”, Out of Control by Kevin Kelly

    In Tim May’s eyes a digital tape is a weapon as potent and subversive as a shoulder-mounted Stinger missile. May (fortyish, trim beard, ex-physicist) holds up a $9.95 digital audio tape, or DAT. The cassette — just slightly fatter than an ordinary cassette — contains a copy of Mozart equivalent in fidelity to a conventional digital compact disc. DAT can hold text as easily as music. If the data is smartly compressed, one DAT purchased at K-Mart can hold about 10,000 books in digital form.

    One DAT can also completely cloak a smaller library of information interleaved within the music. Not only can the data be securely encrypted within a digital tape, but the library’s existence on the tape would be invisible even to powerful computers. In the scheme May promotes, a computer hard disk’s-worth of coded information could be made to disappear inside an ordinary digital tape of Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

    “What this means,” says May, “is that already it is totally hopeless to stop the flow of bits across borders. Because anyone carrying a single music cassette bought in a store could carry the entire computerized files of the stealth bomber, and it would be completely and totally imperceptible.” One tape contains disco music. The other tape contains disco and the essential blueprints of a key technology.

    The other thing May is into is wholly anonymous transactions. If one takes the encryption methods developed by military agencies and transplants them into the vast terrain of electronic networks, very powerful — and very unbreakable — technologies of anonymous dealing become possible. Two complete strangers could solicit or supply information to each other, and consummate the exchange with money, without the least chance of being traced. That’s something that cannot be securely done with phones and the post office now.

    It’s not just spies and organized crime who are paying attention. Efficient means of authentication and verification, such as smart cards, tamper-proof networks, and micro-size encryption chips, are driving the cost of ciphers down to the consumer level. Encryption is now affordable for the everyman.

    The upshot of all this, Tim believes, is the end of corporations in their current form and the beginning of more sophisticated, untaxed black markets. Tim calls this movement Crypto Anarchy. “I have to tell you I think there is a coming war between two forces,” Tim May confides to me. “One force wants full disclosure, an end to secret dealings. That’s the government going after pot smokers and controversial bulletin boards. The other force wants privacy and civil liberties. In this war, encryption wins. Unless the government is successful in banning encryption, which it won’t be, encryption always wins.”

  9. Am I the only one who saw the red and blue and had a sort of Matrix FPS cross genre flash?

    Like take the red one and get back to work or take the blue one and get inserted into a Call Of Duty reality.

  10. If rationing existed now, people would be selling their excess tokens and coupons on Ebay.

    I imagine that if government-enforced rationing were in effect, this would be illegal and eBay would comply or face losing its corporate charter. (eBay already complies with delisting many items, such as guns, OEM software licenses, and Nazi ephemera.)

    I bet in the old days, they were just traded with neighbors locally. After all, not everyone uses every item that was being rationed.

    Which is, you know, different than when people trade with each other using regular money. ::sarcasm::

  11. I have lots of old rationing stuff from my father’s family. Granddad was supposed to get extra gas and tire rations because he was a preacher and a volunteer firefighter, but he refused to take ’em; instead whenever he used his gas ration to perform ministerial functions he would ask the congregation to replace them from whatever extras people had on hand. He was sort of a one-man Jesus-driven redistribution agency, I guess, since he always was given more than he needed and he would then give them out to other people in need.

  12. We have rationing today, except they call it the “War on Drugs,” and the ration is set at zero. The ways people (rich and poor) got around rationing are the same ways we do it today.

  13. @7 “I wonder how they would ration supplies into todays consumer environment since so many supplies are of non-US origin.”

    Not well. It’s been argued that developed nations no longer have the strategic heavy industries to fight a war on such scale. Many of these strategic industries like steel-making, shipbuilding, chemicals and automotive have moved off shore as our economies become post-industrial service economies.

    The silver lining of this is that all the nations are so tied together through international supply chaining (they build, we buy), that no one has the economic self-sufficiency to wage a major war like in the past. It’s been sarcastically called “The Golden Arches Theory of Peace”, because no two countries with McDonalds franchises have ever fought one another.

  14. I found one of those red ones (in worse condition) on the ground when I was a kid in the 60s or 70s. I had a feeling it had something to do with rationing, but I wasn’t sure. Unfortunately, it’s probably long gone by now.

  15. I was just listening to “Burns & Allen” on Sirius Radio this morning and learned that I could earn extra red points by turning in my excess fats to my local butcher. On another Classic Radio show, I learned that yellow butter is now available, but you have to pay an extra government fee for the coloring.

    What a bizarre time that must have been.

  16. Interesting how quickly the U.S. government went from handing out ration tokens to going apeshit over anything that could be vaguely construed as “socialist.”

  17. #20: ” . . . earn extra red points by turning in my excess fats to my local butcher.”

    There’s a horror story in that.

    More fat Mister Bunderbruch? Why, you must have turned in five times as much fat as meat I sold you.”

    “Uh . . just doing my bit.”

    “And where is the Missus? Getta job at the ammo plant?”

    “Umm . . . yes. Just so. Say, would you care to come over tonight? We’d love to have your for dinner.”

  18. Interesting how quickly the U.S. government went from handing out ration tokens to going apeshit over anything that could be vaguely construed as “socialist.”

    Conveniently the military-industrial complex disguised itself as a mirror isomer of “anti-communism”, but the line of “war planning” becoming “peace planning” is relatively unbroken. Their Gosplan is our Federal Reserve (or respective central bank).

    (Not to mention the IMF, World Bank, WTO, and OECD.)

  19. Excuse me? “Aren’t those little colored tokens cute!” Frauenfelder, that is -epically- insensitive.

  20. @5 and 10.
    My mother, who grew up quite poor in wartime Britain, has stories about how her family often sold some of their ration coupons, since they didn’t have the money to buy their full rations anyway.
    The rich got more butter, and the poor got a bit more money to feed their families.

  21. What a bizarre time that must have been.

    Not at all, just a little different. There was a thriving black market for gas stamps. Kids stole, sold and traded them. There was an old neighborhood popcorn vendor with a hooded pushcart, “Popcorn Mike,” who was a buyer/seller of gas stamps. He never got busted.

    My father often had to stand in line to buy cigarettes, and even then they were occasionally weird brands: “Ramses,” “Wings,” ”Sunshine,” and other one-shot labels. Cigarettes weren’t rationed, I don’t think, there just wasn’t a lot available. Remember that every military K-ration and C-ration box contained cigarettes, so the explanation that the military came first was accepted.

    Two dinners a week at home were ”meatless.” We would never have noticed, I think, except for the patriotic publicity; thus we thought it was a great sacrifice and inconvenience, so we soldiered on with mac ‘n cheese and meatless spaghetti sauce. Being at war was a constant activity. Hoarding was considered a great sin. The government gave us much to do to feel a part of the war effort, however little of it was really necessary. Scrap drives, paper drives, metal junk drives, etc. Every family had somebody serving in uniform. We were all very enthusiastic and righteous.

    I have a couple of those red point discs somewhere; also a ration book that says I am eleven years old and 4′ 11” tall.

    (In the Hawkes/Bogart movie, “The Big Sleep,” Bogie has discovered a freshly-killed body and he calls his cop friend to report it. He says, “How you fixed for red points, Bernie?”)

  22. Having lived through the era I can expand on a few things. For kids it meant no balloons or toys made of metal. Plastic didn’t kick in big time until after the war.
    Synthetic rubber came along pretty late in the game. Edison had started trying to extract rubber from golden rod in the 1930s. Some of his experiments led to synthetic rubber.
    A pound of butter? Forget it. A cube of butter? Okay.
    My dad was big on eggs so to get around the limits we raised our own chickens.
    Everyone had their butcher at the top of their social circle.
    There were price controls on rents.
    Near military bases, shipyards, and factories folks rented out their spare bedrooms. My Aunt had such an arrangement in her house.
    If you owned a station wagon it and you were conscripted for the duration as ambulance and ambulance driver just in case.
    All kids had at least one dress military uniform for best wear that reflected the branch of service their father or another family member was in. Mine was Army. I later had Navy dress blues.

  23. I think if rationing happened now, counterfeiting would be a serious problem. Unless paper were rationed. and laser printers.

  24. Nixon and OPA

    “As a young man during World War II, prior to joining the navy, Nixon had worked as a junior attorney in the tire-rationing division of the Office of Price Administration, an experience that left him with a lasting distaste for price controls.”


    Some have speculated, or alleged, that Nixon was allied with organized crime as early as his OPA days:

    “During World War II, RICHARD NIXON was on the Tire Price Control Board. NIXON associate, B. B. Rebozo, a Cuban-American, made huge profits in the tire-recapping business during the War….
    Evidence suggested that B.B. and NIXON were acquainted during the war.”


  25. Greetings

    My father alsys maintained gas was rationed to control tire wear. They used the tires on war vehicles and no synthetic rubber

    But it was an odd time, he had a hight draft number, wife and one child and strangers would accost him on the street asking why he wan’t in uniform. This was common practice.

    He was drafted just before order exempting fathers…

  26. I remember reading in “All Quiet on the Western Front”, the American soldiers would collect the silk parachutes that carried the light-flares from the battlefield and send them home to their family since that was one of the rationed materials.

  27. Rationing is the reason behind the extraordinarily delicious chocolate cake recipe that my late grandmother used to make. It required one cup of mayonnaise. Eggs and oil were rationed during the war, but mayo wasn’t. The resulting cake was very moist and not mayo-tasting at all.

  28. All I gotta say is how proud I am that my local historical society owns this fantastic collection and has decided to post it for sharing on the rest of the web. One reason it is so large and comprehensive – other than very dedicated pack rats! – is that Ames was (and still is) a research university. Per capita, it was allowed more rationing than most communities.

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