Home / History / Post Perspective / Living With Less In America

Living With Less In America

Published: November 27, 2010

The spirit of Thanksgiving for many was dimmed this year. For them, the warm sense of abundance, gratitude, and well-being associated with the holiday was dampened by the prospects of job loss, wage reductions, and falling property values.

But Americans’ sense of prosperity is relative, as is their sense of being deprived. Americans of the 1930s and ‘40s spent years lowering their expectations and adjusting to life with less. During World War II, for instance, they were forced to live for years with rationed sugar, meat, coffee, shoes, nylon, tires, and gasoline — not to mention the risk of national defeat or the death of relatives in service.

America’s war effort consumed so much of our nation’s food and fuel, the government began a system to limit civilian consumption. Americans on the home front were required to appear before their local rationing boards to obtain books of coupons for essential items.

These ration coupons only allowed them to purchase 2.5 pounds of meat a week — roughly half of what Americans consume today. Each family was entitled just a half pound of sugar each week. But it was gas rationing that affected Americans most deeply. While it inconvenienced everyone to some degree, gas rationing meant inability to travel for others, and even the loss of a job.

A book of ‘B’ coupons allowed drivers to buy 8 gallons of gas each week, but only because they performed essential war work. There were also ‘C’ coupons for mail carriers, doctors, and ministers, and ‘T’ coupons for truck drivers, but everyone else got ‘A’ coupons that entitled them to buy four (4!) gallons of gas per week. Since the average mileage of 1940 automobiles was about 17 mpg, this effectively restricted their travel to 68 miles a week.

All four of these weekly gallons were intended for necessary travel only; the government prohibited pleasure driving for the duration of the war. It also lowered the national speed limit to 35 mph to reduce oil consumption and consumption of tires.

Americans who felt they were entitled to more than four gallons a week could appeal to their local rationing board, where they pleaded with local volunteers like Joe M. Dawson in New York. In 1943, he wrote “Life On A Ration Board” for the Post, and described his experiences — and his education about his fellow countrymen.

Like thousands of others, I became a member of a ration board because it seemed to me the best way, under the circumstances, to serve the war effort the best I could.

I thought I knew a lot about people and what made them tick, because I am in the advertising business, which requires an understanding of people, but I suspect I have learned more about human nature in the past few months than I did in thirty years in business.

My job has to do only with gasoline and tire rationing, but in shop talk with other ration-board members I find that my experiences are quite typical. Sugar, coffee, shoes, meat and canned-goods rationing are pretty much standardized. It is in the gasoline and fuel-oil rationing that there is the most discretion, and much depends upon the judgment of the board members. It is in those divisions, therefore, that we run into the extreme examples.

I have heard more alibis and tall stories than I dreamed the human mind could conceive.

There was, for instance, the young doctor who applied for a C book. Doctors are entitled to this, but his application showed that he was attached to a central-city clinic and made no calls on patients. We questioned him, gently at first, as to why he thought he ought to have precious extra gasoline. For a while he was evasive, replying only, “As a doctor, I’m entitled to it.” But finally he blurted out, ” I must have that C sticker to maintain my social standing. If my neighbors don’t see it on my car, they won’t believe I’m a doctor.”

There was the undertaker who demanded extra gasoline on the premise that he had to make periodic calls upon prospective clients.

And there was the wealthy manufacturer who thumped the desk with his fist and swore that he had been driven between his swank Westchester County home and his Manhattan office every weekday for fifteen years and wasn’t going to put up with this New Deal nonsense now.

One man tendered us a most imposing statement from his doctor to back up his claim that his health made it imperative that he drive up to, and around in, Canada for a while. It was filled with such awe-inspiring medical terms that the three of us serving on this board—a wealthy importer, a prominent corporation lawyer, and the head of a sizable advertising agency—felt we might have the man’s life on our consciences if we rejected the application. On a hunch, however, the importer showed the report to his own doctor. “Hell,” said the physician, “this merely means the man has a hernia. The trip would do him more harm than good.”

And then there was the case of the expectant mother who wanted gasoline to make regular visits for prenatal care to a hospital some distance from her home. The board pointed out that there were quite a number of hospitals and clinics much nearer to her home, and refused her application. This made her angry. “How,” she demanded, “do you gentlemen expect a woman to have a baby on three gallons of gas?”

Americans don’t like living with less. They work hard and expect the rewards of their labor.

A line at a New Orleans rationing board, March 1943.Photo by John Vachon. Library of Congress.

My job has to do only with gasoline and tire rationing, but in shop talk with other ration-board members I find that my experiences are quite typical. Sugar, coffee, shoes, meat and canned-goods rationing are pretty much standardized. It is in the gasoline and fuel-oil rationing that there is the most discretion, and much depends upon the judgment of the board members. It is in those division, therefore, that we run into the extreme examples.

There was, for instance, the young doctor who applied for a C book. Doctors are entitled to this, but his application showed that he was attached to a central-city clinic and made no calls on patients. We questioned him, gently at first, as to why he thought he ought to have precious extra gasoline. For a while he was evasive, replying only, “As a doctor, I’m entitled to it.” But finally he blurted out: ” I must have that C sticker to maintain my social standing. If my neighbors don’t see it on my car, they won’t believe I’m a doctor.”

There was the undertaker who demanded extra gasoline on the premise that he had to make periodic calls upon prospective clients.

And there was the wealthy manufacturer who thumped the desk with his fist and swore that he had been driven between his swank Westchester County home and his Manhattan office every weekday for fifteen years and wasn’t going to put up with this New Deal nonsense now.

One man tendered us a most imposing statement from his doctor to back up his claim that his health made it imperative that he drive up to and around in Canada for a while. It was filled with such awe-inspiring medical terms that the three of us serving on this hoard—a wealthy importer, a prominent corporation lawyer and the head of a sizable advertising agency—felt we might have the man’s life on our consciences if we rejected the application. On a hunch, however, the importer showed the report to his own doctor. “Hell,” said the physician, “this merely means the man has a hernia. The trip would do him more harm than good.”

And then there was the case of the expectant mother who wanted gasoline to make regular visits for prenatal care to a hospital some distance from her home. The board pointed out that there were quite a number of hospitals and clinics much nearer to her home, and refused her application. This made her angry. “How,” she demanded, “do you gentlemen expect a woman to have a baby on three gallons of gas?”

But for all his neighbors’ anger and self-righteous protests against war rationing, Dawson didn’t grow cynical. He still found plenty of evidence of the largeness of spirit we expect in Americans; or, as he put it—

I have seen practical proof that the average American is honest, and can take it like a man—if you explain to him why it is necessary.

I have heard of a clergyman who merely bowed his head in acceptance and would not permit himself even a — it seems to me — justifiable deviation to avoid an unfair technicality. This man of God used a bicycle for his nearer calls and an automobile only for the more distant ones. There was no doubt that he required extra gasoline, or that he was morally entitled to it. But under the rules a preferred mileage certificate could be issued only if the automobile was his “prime” means of transportation. He had been using the bicycle more than the automobile, so technically the bicycle was his prime means of transportation. The board which sat in his case gave him broad hints that if he used his automobile more and his bicycle less, the extra gasoline could be arranged; and also told him that he had a good chance to win on an appeal. “No,” he said. “It would not be right.”

And there was the hardware salesman who had to cover a wide territory with samples weighing a couple of hundred pounds. It was the only job he ever had, and he knew nothing else. He needed to drive at least 2,000 miles a month, and we could allow him only the maximum B ration, which, since the value of coupons has been cut, allowed him only 378 miles. But when we showed him that the regulations were inflexible on that point, he shrugged his shoulders and said: ‘Well, we all got to take it nowadays. I guess I can find some other way of making a living — I hope.”

Read More:


  • Robert C. Conner

    I , too, have a poem I wrote about my life in the mid- 40s. I would like to know where to submit it and how.
    Sincerely Yours,

    Robert Clifton Conner

  • Ima Ryma

    Life was tough during World War II
    For a gal trying to get by.
    Gas was rationed so what to do?
    Well, to the ration board to cry.
    My lashes batted as tears welled.
    The board was made up of all men.
    My feminine charms got them spelled.
    Using males – handy now and then.
    I told them that my job required
    Lots of driving and lots of gas.
    My tale of woe was so admired,
    The board gassed up this lying lass.

    The extra gas did get my thanks.
    Now I could rob some extra banks.