Why are these people waiting in line? An artist named Norman Rockwell sketched these folks as they waited to appeal to a group of volunteers known as a ration board.
Everything from meat to gasoline was in short supply during World War II. And heaven help you if you were in dire need of a pair of nylons! The government introduced rationing, which meant you could only buy what your ration coupons allowed, no matter how much money you had. What you thought was an urgent need (for gasoline, as an example) and what the government thought was necessary were often at odds. And who regulated everyone’s fair share? Your local ration board, of course, like the one Rockwell visited (and painted) in 1944.
“Spring was on the land, and the benignant Vermont sun, having penetrated every other nook and cranny in the town of Manchester, presently made its way into a certain quiet room where six men and one woman sat around a long, plain table. Then, in the following order, came: The song of birds, the fragrance of flowers, and—-Norman Rockwell.
“The last of these three, it developed, wanted something. The ration board, having never had a visitor who didn’t, evinced no surprise. In Rockwell’s case, however, the desideratum was none of the things the rest of us try to wheedle out of our ration boards.
“’What I would like,’ said America’s favorite artist, ‘is the privilege of painting pictures of all you board members.'” – From The Saturday Evening Post, July 15, 1944
The board agreed to the painting as long as the artist made them look good.
“If I do,” he bargained, “will you give me a B card?” (A sticker deeming your car essential to the war effort and thereby entitled to a whopping eight gallons of gasoline a week.)
“No, but if you don’t, they said, “we’ll take away you’re A card.” (Allowing you four gallons of fuel.)
As it happened, the artist painted himself into the scene. At left you see a man standing before the board to plead his case, and sitting, observing, is the artist.
How did citizens take to having to appeal to a local board for the right to purchase necessities? “We are about as popular as tax collectors,” wrote Joe M. Dawson in 1943. Dawson served on a Manhattan ration board and described one rather hefty lady who, “despite her coquettish hat and giddy perfume, was quite angry. She had made four trips to the ration board demanding extra gasoline, and each time we decided she was not entitled to it. “I’m an American citizen,” she exploded, waving a scarlet-tipped finger under my nose,” Dawson wrote in “Life on A Ration Board” in The Saturday Evening Post, “You can’t do this to me. I’ve written to that man Henderson; I’ve written to the President. If you don’t give me my gasoline, I’ll write to Uncle Sam!”
“Most people understand it isn’t our fault, and that we give our time and energy without pay, but it is human nature to personalize the irritations and troubles; so we get cussed out anyway,” Dawson wrote in the 1943 Post story. But the good people of the boards felt it was a way to serve the war efforts. “Despite the headaches, it has paid me ample dividends, not only in the satisfaction of doing a necessary job but also in humor, and a fascinating insight into my fellow man which I would not have got any other way. Everybody likes to watch and know about his neighbors, and a job on the board is a front-row seat.”
These words reflect what Norman Rockwell was doing at a Vermont ration board a few months later. He knew he was sketching a unique spectacle, not seen before in America. No one knew how long this experience would last or if it would happen again. But it was a part of American history he knew he should capture.
For more on this subject see the Post‘s articles by Jeff Nilsson:
To learn more about ration coupons, we also recommend The Ames (Iowa) Historical Society.