This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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Rationing and The Radio
How Radio Helped Win the War
by John C. Abbott. © 2015
(From Radio Recall, June 2015)
During a recent assemblage of the MWOTRC, there was a rambling discussion among the club's intelligentsia concerning the travails of tracing our genealogical origins, which transmuted itself into a discussion of World War II rationing coupons and then, finally to the question, "How did radio deal with the issue of rationing?"
This question could not be settled before dessert, so the author decided to look into the question to see what could be found. But first:
What was rationing all about anyway?
When war broke out in Europe in 1939, the US government realized that it needed to have a plan, so in 1940 it created the Office for Emergency Management (OEM). When America entered the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the OEM created the Office of Price Administration (OPA) to control prices and rents.
The OPA had the power to place ceilings on all prices except agricultural commodities, and to ration scarce supplies of other items, including tires, automobiles, shoes, nylon, sugar, gasoline, fuel oil, coffee, meats and processed foods. At the peak of the program, almost 90% of retail food prices were frozen. The OPA could also authorize subsidies for production of some of those commodities.
As an aid in controlling the supply of critical items in addition to controlling prices, the OPA issued books of ration stamps and OPA tokens, which were coin-like ration stamps used to make change for full-sized ration stamps. Every citizen was issued a series of ration books during the war. The ration books contained removable stamps good for certain rationed items, like sugar, meat, cooking oil, and canned goods.
A person could not buy a rationed item without also giving the grocer the correct ration stamp. Once a person's ration stamps were used up for a given month, they could not buy any more of that type of food. Rationing meant households had to plan meals carefully, be creative with menus, and not waste food.
There were more than 8,000 ration boards across the country to administer the program. Not only did rationing create challenges for families, but the merchants who collected the stamps and points had to account for what they sold. Our editor, Jack French, relates the following story from his childhood:
"In 1942, my father's Cash Way store was bought out by a larger Midwest grocery chain, Red Owls Stores of MN, and my dad got a transfer to a store of theirs in Kaukauna, WI, located in the Fox River Valley. The year 1942 also brought a new layer of regulations over all grocery stores: rationing.
The scarcity of many products, caused by military needs of WW II, resulted in the creation of Office of Price Administration (OPA). This agency first rationed tires (in January 1942), then gasoline (in May 1942) and later, shoes and rubber footwear. The grocery store had many more items for which customers had to surrender rationing stamps from their issued booklets. Sugar was the first rationed, followed by coffee, and not much later, butter, margarine, fresh and canned meats, plus cheese and other dairy products. OPA even created a way of 'making change' regarding ration stamps. For example if a customer tendered a ration stamp for one pound of meat, but bought only a half pound, the butcher gave back ration token(s). These tokens, or coins, were made of pressed paper, red ones for meat and dairy, with blue for any other items. The store manager had to inventory all stamps and tokens at the end of a certain period and submit a report to OPA. Dad would have our whole family around the dining room table on those nights, helping him count these items.
Certain things that weren't rationed were still in short supply. Toothpaste came in metal tubes during WW II so in order to buy a new tube of tooth paste a customer had to turn in an old, empty one to the grocer or druggist. Laundry detergents were scarce in every grocery store, as the big soap companies had switched to producing war materials. When an infrequent case of detergent did arrive in the store, dad and his clerks got the first 'dibs' and the rest of the boxes went on the shelves where they were quickly snatched up by lucky customers."
Rationing and Radio
With the outbreak of the war, the government needed a public relations firm to encourage the general public to support the war effort. Hollywood quickly jumped into action. There were war bond drives where everyone from Abbott and Costello to the Quiz Kids participated in traveling shows aimed at the sale of war bonds. There was also a slightly different means used to deal with the ration coupons - radio programs.
Like any system that tries to limit consumption, there will always be an element of society that tries to side-step the government, whether it was black market activities or grumbling about their allotted supply of ration stamps. Radio stepped up and provided support to the government. In searching my OTR collection, I was able to find several programs which addressed the problems that rationing brought about. The programs ranged from abuses with gasoline rationing, counterfeit gas rationing stamps, the black market and ration stamps.
As an example of programs that addressed gasoline rationing, the Counterspy program of 11/2/1942 addressed the underworld selling counterfeit gas coupons, as does The Green Hornet program of 5/30/1944 - "Racketeers in Gas Coupons". These two programs stressed that those who were proffering the bogus coupons were not only undermining the war effort. but were using violence to support their efforts.
On the humor front, there was probably no more patriotic program than Fibber McGee and Molly. Their program supported the various war bond drives, supported taking in factory workers to help with the housing shortages brought about by increased in factory production, and supported rationing in Fibber's typical fashion - by grousing about it.
There were two programs that addressed the gasoline shortages from slightly different angles. In the 10/13/1942-program, Fibber acknowledges the criticality of petroleum, so he decides to convert his furnace from oil back to coal - after all there was more coal than oil. Needless to say, the conversion project was completed, but not by Fibber - Molly got the job done.
The 12/01/1942 program has Fibber grousing about not being able to live on an "A" coupon - good for four gallons a week. After all, Fibber is a very important person who might have to go someplace. This program highlights the real reason for gasoline rationing - if you have less gas; you will drive less and you will conserve another vital product in the war effort - rubber. The rationing of rubber was brought about because the Japanese had captured the rubber plantations in the Dutch East Indies that provided an estimated 90% of US rubber supplies. With no rubber, there can be no truck tires, various aircraft parts or other items dependent on rubber and synthetic rubber was still not quite ready to replace natural rubber. Fortunately, Mayor La Trivia is able to change Fibber's somewhat addled mind by pointing out the reasons behind the need for gas rationing. This program is also notable in that it announces that Mayor La Trivia, played by Gale Gordon, is leaving to join the US Coast Guard.
One final program aired on 4/27/1943 talks about another important issue, the black market. In this story Fibber is able to buy a somewhat questionable porterhouse steak from a man in a back alley. Even in good times buying meat in a back alley would be suspect, but Fibber is ready to relish in his ability to find a good steak. Fortunately Doc Gamble is able to convince Fibber that he is risking his life with tainted meat. Fibber relents and throws the steak out to the local dog - who turns up his nose at it.
One additional program needs our attention, as it deals with the collection of scrap metals. The US War Production Board set a goal of raising US steel production capability to 90 million tons - but that would require acquiring 6 million tons of scrap metal. One program drives this point home in a most dramatic fashion. On the 10/18/1942 Jack Benny program, which was broadcast from Williams Field in Phoenix, Jack makes the ultimate sacrifice: he donates his beloved vintage Maxwell to the scrap drive for which he gets a whopping $7.50 in War Stamps. Later that night Jack has a dream in which he is a bombardier and his Maxwell is a bomber headed for Tokyo.
I am sure that there are many other programs, but the ones mentioned above are not only specific to the subject of rationing, but they are very listenable as well. For the benefit of our readers who are too young to have memories of the rationing programs, there are several websites that discuss the OPA and the various programs:
The National WWII Museum: www.nationalww2museum.org/education/for-students/primary-sources/ration-books.html
The Ames History Project: www.ameshistory.org/exhibits/events/rationing.htm
But there is another resource not to be overlooked while you have the time - talk to your parents or grandparents who lived during World War II.