American’s made strides in efficiency and recycling during war rations
By Julia Purdy
Seventy-five years ago, on Dec. 8, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt went to Congress to ask for a declaration of war. The previous day, Japanese military planes had bombarded the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Later that same day, Japan attacked other Pacific Rim targets, including Hong Kong and the Philippines. Congress overwhelmingly passed a resolution to declare war on Japan. Three days later, Adolf Hitler, the German Fuehrer, declared war on the United States. In less than a week, the U.S. was at war on two fronts, and the economic dry spell of the 1930s was over.
At the time, the U.S. armed forces were relatively small, although the draft had been approved by Congress in 1940 as war clouds over Europe thickened. Now personnel had to be mustered, housed, equipped and fed; planes, ships, vehicles, munitions and weaponry had to be built immediately. Roosevelt told Congress the U.S. had to “out-fight and out-produce” our enemies—but how to accomplish this gargantuan task?
Raw materials were urgently needed. U.S. production of tin was minuscule; most of it was imported from Malaya, which had been captured by the Japanese. A broadside explained the urgency, saying, “America has always imported rubber. Today, the Axis controls 97 percent of the world’s supply of this vitally needed material.” It continued, “to manufacture steel, America’s steel mills must have approximately 50 percent iron and steel scrap to combine with iron ore.” The War Production Board was established in January of 1942 to coordinate the effort, which included the rationing of commodities deemed essential to the war effort and prohibiting the production of nonessential goods. As peacetime manufacturing converted to war production, the WPB system saw that factories got needed materials on schedule, from silk stockings for parachutes to kitchen grease for munitions. In all, $183 billion worth of war supplies was achieved.
“Throw your scrap into the fight!”
Through its regional and field offices, the WPB mobilized the civilian population to contribute critical materials through drives and drop points. Scrap metal was at a premium; a national scrap metal drive in October 1942 alone brought in almost 5.5 million tons of scrap metal.
Local “victory committees for salvage” formed and distributed broadsides on cheap paper, explaining the need. “Throw your ‘scrap’ into the fight!” provided a complete checklist of desired materials and instructions to the housewife to look around the house and outbuildings, as well as fields and woods if on a farm, make a pile of unused or castoff items, and haul it to the nearest salvage depot. Anything with metal, rubber, cotton, wool, and hemp was listed, from bedsprings and old sewing machines to babies’ rubber pants and pencil erasers, hemp light cords and car-seat covers. Even cooking fat was collected, to be made into explosives.
Another broadside with “An Important Message From the War Production Board and Your Local Salvage Committee” asks: “What shall we do with TIN CANS?” Inside, the housewife is instructed how to wash and flatten cans and gather them in a box or barrel. “Tin-plated tobacco containers” were included but excluded were cans that had contained petroleum products or evaporated milk. Collection day was announced in the newspaper and on the radio.
Tin was especially important to make bushings and bearings, as an ingredient in solder and in gas mask canisters and field ration containers. The WPB asked for one pound of “fully prepared” tin cans per person per month.
A broadside reprinted by the Graphic Arts Victory Committee of New York City in 1942 detailed how rubber could be repurposed: “in the homes and factories of America, in the bathrooms and garages, are literally thousands of tons of slack rubber—scrap that should be helping to win the war but isn’t. … Who is going to overlook an old tire, when it might provide boots for 20 paratroopers? Or a leaky raincoat that might furnish rubber for a life-raft to save American sailors? Or beach toys that could be part of a pontoon bridge in an American offensive?”
Schoolchildren were enlisted with contests and games. In Minneapolis you could get into a movie for free if you brought an aluminum item to the theater on a scheduled day. Boy Scout troops collected masses of newspaper; Fred Taylor, 82, of Rutland remembered going to a man’s house as a Boy Scout and cleaning out a “whole room” of newspapers and magazines. He said kids saved tinfoil gum wrappers and gathered milkweed pods as a substitute for kapok—the silken fibers inside the seeds of the tropical ceiba tree—that had been used in lifejackets but which was now under Japanese control. The formula was, “two bags [of milkweed pods] saves one life.” The drop bin was located by the railroad depot in downtown Rutland.
“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without” was a slogan coined by the U.S. Office of Price Administration. Rationing was imposed to preserve critical supplies for war production, such as gasoline, tires, food staples.
Everyone—even babies—received a book of ration stamps for food. Adults were allowed 28 ounces of meat and 8-12 ounces of sugar per week, and one pound of coffee every five weeks. Jean Davies, a native of Pittsford, remembered that “it was very hard to get hold of” meat, butter, sugar and flour. “Sugar was almost unheard-of,” she said. “Us poor little kids didn’t get many lollipops,” even though “lollipops lasted longer than candy kisses.”
Substitutions could be had. Butter could be obtained for special functions but in general oleomargarine replaced butter and lard, which were used in making explosives. “Oleo” resembled lard and came with a package of yellow food coloring to mix into it. (Squeezing the coloring into the oleo was a fun chore for kids.) Cookbook recipes were adjusted to use what was available.
Here in Vermont it was still possible to live off the land. Davies recalled: “Those who could raise their own could have chicken, ham and eggs. … A lot of people gardened who had never gardened before.”
Tires were made entirely of rubber in those days and were severely rationed. “There were an awful lot of patched tires. … We had a pickup and a car and we looked to see which car had the good tires to go somewhere,” Davies said. Before traveling they checked the tires and pumped them by hand if necessary. She remembered seeing people pumping tires by the side of the road. “There were many reasons we didn’t travel very far,” she said.
Ridesharing was commonplace
Owners of automobiles were allocated three gallons of gasoline per week—the average family car fuel consumption was perhaps 10 miles per gallon. Davies continued, “You never went anywhere out of town without calling around to see if anyone wanted or needed to go to do errands.” That included going to the movies. There were a lot of people hitchhiking as well especially servicemen, she recalled. “If they were willing to ride on the running-board, we’d give them a ride—we looked like the clown car at the circus.”
People turned to the train to get around. Davies’ family frequently took the train into Rutland or to Bellows Falls to visit family. “The question was, were you going to find a seat because they were so full,” Davies commented.
But she and her friends didn’t feel deprived. “It was the war effort,” she said.
Households were introduced to heating efficiency
“Dad cut a lot of wood,” Davies said. Electricity was just becoming available for home use. The other solution was to bundle up indoors. “Can you imagine a teenager putting on those woolen union suits with the drop-seat in the back?” said Davies, who was 15 in 1942, laughing. “If you’re cold, close your book and do something active—like clean the house!”
Acknowledging the “serious oil shortage in the East and Midwestern States,” the federal Office of Price Administration printed a pamphlet, “How to keep warm and save fuel in wartime.” Citizens were reminded it was “your war job” to save oil, and the pamphlet advised switching to coal if possible, especially if the old coal grates were still kicking around.
The pamphlet then details all the efficiency measures we follow today: “work out a program that will make your limited fuel supply go farther—and stick to it.”
Six reminders were offered: keep the heating equipment in good condition; “Make your house heat-tight”; use fuel efficiently; keep the temperature set as low as possible; close off rooms you don’t use; dress warmly. “Don’t throw the bedroom windows wide open at night.”
Industry urged to join in salvage effort
Every industry was called upon to contribute. The Aug. 1, 1942 issue of The Billboard, the magazine of the merchandizing and amusement equipment industry, devoted several columns to the launch of the nationwide salvage drive. The magazine commended the Mills Novelty Company of Chicago for donating the “metal innards” of automated vending and amusement machines with a market value of $500,000, whose manufacture was halted during the conversion to wartime production.
In an editorial titled “Scrap” in the same issue, Fred L. Mills wrote: “No matter how valuable the stuff is, if we can’t use it, we have to look on it as just plain ordinary junk!” He went on to note the sentimental attachment of some people for things made of metal or rubber because of an imagined worth “someday,” and he urged businesses, manufacturers and industrialists to join the drive and “clear out every ounce of useless metal you have, no matter how new it is, no matter how expensive … It is good judgement and sound business.”
The speed with which the U.S. geared up for a war across two hemispheres astonished many observers. William Knudsen, an expert in mass production in the early U.S. auto industry and whom Roosevelt tapped to run the massive war production effort, said later, “We won because we smothered the enemy in an avalanche of production, the like of which he had never seen, nor dreamed possible.”