Since President Biden took office, he’s likened the fight against COVID to a “wartime undertaking.” He’s suggested that wearing facemasks and following other guidelines is “patriotic,” and asked us to “Do it for your country.”
I wonder how many of us – including me – would whine a little less about pandemic restrictions if we knew a little more about what Americans began experiencing 80 years ago?
Biden’s words harken back to language Americans were hearing during World War II, when American civilians were asked to make sacrifices we can’t begin to imagine.
To better educate myself – and pull the plug on my whining – I started researching what our civilian parents or grandparents or great-grandparents were asked to do back then in the name of patriotism.
A quick reminder: The U.S. entered World War II in December 1941. The war ended in September 1945. We’ve dealt with the pandemic for about 14 months. Americans experienced what I describe below for almost four years.
The word “blackouts” doesn’t sound like much – until you live with them on a regular basis.
Blackouts began on the West Coast even before the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, with the goal of keeping the public from being a war target. The idea was that enemy planes couldn’t target what they couldn’t see, and that any light visible from above could attract bombs and gunfire.
When the air-raid alarm sounded, not only were lights turned off; families were also required to shut off appliances, disconnect electricity, and turn off water and gas lines.
People were told to install blackout curtains on every window, always tightly closed at night, and closed when the alarm sounded. An alternative? Paint your windows black.
To make sure everyone was following the rules, the Office of Civilian Defense was set up and wardens drove the streets, shouting “Put that light out!” if you transgressed.
In addition, there were drills that required residents to practice their response to an air-raid alarm and could include moving to a public shelter, bomb shelter, or one’s basement until the blackout ended.
By 1943, about six million wardens were out all across the country, checking to ensure no light was visible, and there were legal penalties for noncompliance.
And it wasn’t just at home – streetlights were off or dimmed. When the air-raid alarm sounded, anyone outside had to take cover inside. People in cars were to pull over and find shelter in the nearest building.
And that car you were in? Here are just some of the restrictions:
- Use only one headlight fitted with a slit covering.
- No inside light.
- Reduced brake lights.
- To be seen more easily from the ground but not from above, the back bumpers and running boards were painted with white matt paint.
Think for a moment how dangerous this was. The streetlights are off. Instead of two bright headlights, you have one headlight and that’s almost totally covered. Predictably, blackouts increased the danger of night driving, and consequently, fatalities increased. The increased darkness also increased crime and murder in some locales.
But – you probably weren’t spending much time in your car, because gasoline was limited, for many to just three gallons per week. Due to…
After we entered WW2, the government created a system of rationing, limiting the amount of certain goods that a person could purchase because those items were diverted to the war effort.
The government created the Office of Price Administration (OPA), and one of OPA’s responsibilities was to manage the rationing process.
OPA created ration books that went into use in May 1942, and every American was issued a series of ration books:
The books contained removable stamps for rationed items, and you couldn’t buy a rationed item without giving the grocer the right ration stamp. Once your ration stamps were used up for a month, you couldn’t buy any more of that item.
This is assuming the store had the item you wanted which it often didn’t, given the local and national shortages.
Housewives were encouraged to have “Meatless Mondays” and “Wheatless Tuesdays,” and to do more with less. One example is Chicken Croquettes from The Modern Hostess Cookbook – Patriotic Edition, published in 1942. This, like many recipes, supplemented rationed meat with filler – in this case, one cup of breadcrumbs or rice for each cup of chicken.
And don’t Chicken Croquettes look appetizing?
People over 12 were allotted 2½ pounds of meat a week. In today’s terms, if you cruised into Wendy’s and ordered a couple of Pretzel Bacon Pub Triples, you’ve pretty much eaten your entire week’s meat ration in one sitting.
And it wasn’t just meat and gasoline that were rationed – here’s a partial list of additional rationed items:
Butter, sugar, canned milk, canned fish, dairy, cheese, coffee, dried fruits, jams, jellies, lard, shortening, and oils.
Let’s talk about coffee for a moment.
Coffee rationing meant a meager one pound for five weeks for everyone over 15. One pound isn’t much, and five weeks is a long time – you don’t want to get to the bottom of the coffee can and still have two weeks left to go.
So you limited your daily consumption of coffee at home – anathema to serious coffee drinkers. Lots of people resorted to reusing coffee grounds.
Used coffee grounds make a good plant fertilizer. Used coffee grounds for another pot of coffee?
The list of rationed items, continued:
Typewriters, stoves, bicycles, automobiles, tires, fuel oil, coal, firewood, silk, nylon, and shoes.
The military had a high need for leather, for shoes and combat boots and leather flight jackets. Once leather rationing began in February 1943, each man, woman and child was allowed to purchase up to three pairs of leather shoes a year. A year later that was decreased to two pair, and that continued through the end of the war.
You’re thinking, “I could get by with two pairs of shoes a year,” and yes, you could. But what about kids, and their ever-growing feet?
Families pooled their ration stamps, and adults made do with fewer shoes to provide shoes for the kids. If you could find the shoes – shipments were limited, and people often stood in line for hours, only to find the supply had sold out before they reached the store door.
And how about rationing nylon?
For centuries, women – and in some eras, men, as well – wore silk stockings. Silk was expensive, hard to clean and ripped easily, and silk stockings were an item only the wealthy could afford.
Then in 1939, nylon stockings made their debut. They were sheer, light brown, and had a dark seam running up the back of the leg. Nylons were durable, washable and affordable, and became an instant success, the must-have for women in all levels of society.
But then the war started – and nylon was permitted only in the manufacturing of parachutes and other military items.
So women started applying liquid makeup (above, right) to their legs to give the illusion they were wearing stockings, and even drew a line up the backs of their legs – with an eyebrow pencil – to simulate the stocking’s seam.
Can you imagine the time it took to apply liquid makeup to both legs, from your feet up to above your hemline? And then drawing a straight dark line up the backs of both legs? What if you sneezed while you were drawing the line? Would you have to clean off your leg and start all over again?
Yes, it seems bizarre now, but back then many women considered it a viable workaround, and they did it until nylon rationing ended when the war ended.
Throughout World War II, civilians were impacted by what the government was taking away – rationing – and also impacted by what the government was asking for.
The government asked Americans for donations – products made from rubber and most types of metal, clothing and rags, nylon stockings, kitchen fat, and paper, among other items. The collection of these items was called “scrap drives,” and many Americans considered it patriotic to collect and donate these items.
For metal, housewives threw in their aluminum pots and pans, farmers sacrificed their old tractors, cities and towns ripped up wrought iron fences and trolley tracks, and melted down historic Civil War cannons. Children sacrificed metal toys, and people even removed bumpers and fenders from their cars. Americans were encouraged to imagine these items being transformed into armor and weaponry for their soldiers and sailors in harm’s way.
Donated rubber, said the government, could be used to make jeep tires, clothing to make cleaning rags, and please give up your only pair of nylon stockings to make parachutes.
Salvaged paper could be used by the military for blood plasma containers, K-ration cartons, shell casings, vaccine boxes and bullet cartons. People were asked to sort and bundle brown paper, brown paper bags, corrugated boxes, wastebasket scraps, old newspapers and magazines, and paperback books to help support the war effort.
Perhaps the greatest item collected in scrap drives was kitchen fat, an item necessary to produce glycerin – glycerin was a vital component of bombs and other types of explosives. Conscientious housewives would keep a can on the top of the stove, and every time they cooked bacon or other fatty meat (IF they were lucky enough to find meat at the store and IF they had the right amount of meat coupons), they’d pour the leftover grease into the can. When the can was full, it went to the scrap drive.
And through it all, everywhere Americans turned they saw posters exhorting them to do their part in this “wartime undertaking” to help America and the Allies win the war:
This has been a long-winded post, yet it doesn’t begin to cover the sacrifices Americans were asked for to support the war effort.
And I haven’t touched on the sacrifices made by 16 million Americans in military service, and the loved ones they left at home to wonder, and worry – and wait.
So, what’s it all mean?
It means that for most of four years, Americans were asked to make do, do without, and give, give, give.
Almost four years. That’s a helluva lot longer than the pandemic has lasted.
The catalyst for this post was a recent headline in a pandemic-related story:
“People are pretty depressed and fed up.”
And it’s true – people are pretty depressed and fed up with the pandemic restrictions.
I know I am.
So this is a reminder for me – and for any who care to take it as such – that Americans have been through very tough times before, and come out the other side, better for it.
Here’s hoping that someday, the same will be true for us.