1942 would have been a great Christmas, if it hadn’t been for the war.
Unemployment had dropped to 4%. Just nine years earlier it had been 25%, and the average annual income was $5,133. Now it was $9,900. And with the demand for workers in defense plants, many women had become breadwinners, supplying households with two paychecks for the first time.
Americans had never seen such prosperity. But of course, any pleasure they might have felt was dimmed by their worries about the war, and about relatives and friends whose lives were at risk every day.
Moreover, despite the economic boom, the holiday season was affected by new shortages. Ironically, a generation where many had grown up impoverished now had the money to buy the food and luxuries they wanted — but much of what they wanted was in short supply, rationed, or just not being sold.
Here were a few items people had to go without:
Butter was in short supply and sugar rationing limited consumers to a pound of sugar every other week, which cut into Christmas treats.
In 1942, the average American smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. But now a third of American cigarettes had been requisitioned by the armed forces. Smokers were often confronted with “No Cigarettes” signs in stores.
The Office of War Production began coffee rationing in November of 1942. Americans could only purchase one pound of coffee every five weeks. For some, this was a third of their normal intake. And this was in a time when average coffee consumption was twice what it is today.
Consumers could only buy 2.5 pounds of red meat per week. Turkey, being a white meat, wasn’t rationed, but could be hard to find since the military requisitioned most of the country’s supply to provide turkey dinners for Christmas. In fact, because of hoarding, stores had trouble keeping all sorts of food, even items that weren’t rationed, available. Some stores themselves began rationing canned goods to prevent hoarding.
Starting in December of 1942, most motorists could only buy four gallons of gas a week. That limited family travel to approximately 68 miles a week, which might not have gotten them to Grandma’s and back at Christmas. People could still travel by train, but seats were limited because the railroads gave priority to military personnel.
Store shelves weren’t exactly crowded that Christmas season. The big names in watches, radios, and other appliances were mostly producing military equipment. Other manufacturers could only get enough metal for limited production of gift items. Even simple items like bobby pins were hard to find. Consumers couldn’t even buy metallic tubes of toothpaste without first returning their old tube. Paper was also limited, which meant fewer books and magazines. Even clothing was in short supply. To conserve fabric, the War Production Board prohibited the sale of pleated skirts for women and double-breasted suits and vests for men.
Toymakers couldn’t obtain the metal and rubber they normally used, so they improvised. They made dolls, trucks, airplanes, and construction sets from cardboard, or experimented with the new plastics. The Treasury Department acknowledged the toy shortage, but recommended that parents buy their kids War Bonds, which were, of course, in plentiful supply. Many parents made toys out of household materials, or cleaned up recycled toys shared by other parents.
But Americans adapted to shortages. They found renewed pleasure in crossword puzzles, cooking, and parlor games. Women revived their sewing and dressmaking skills. As one historian wrote, Americans of 1942 “got to know their neighbors better. Social life improved noticeably. Pleasures became simpler and less frantic.”
The cloak and dagger dangles,
madams light the candles.
In ceremonies of the horsemen
even a pawn can hold a grudge.
To tell the truth about those years, you’d have to begin with the observation that truth was, like all precious commodities, in very short supply. Like LSD from Sandoz or pharmaceutical cocaine, truth was rumored to be everywhere but became scarce when you attempted to score.
If your ambition was to make a market in Truth Futures, you were in business. No problem and plenty of willing buyers and sellers. But if you just wanted some truth of your own, to get you through the night, your head was straightened on that score in no time. After a few attempts to lay your hands on some actual truth, you came to understand that such a quest was against the secret rules. Scoring pure, uncut truth was not even a part of the game. It wasn’t what was “happening, man.”
What was happening wasn’t, to be sure, the only game in the big BeHereNow Casino out on Sunset Strip, but it was the most fun and everyone, well, almost everyone, wanted to play at its table hoping that their new and improved revolutionary system for revolution would beat the dealer. After all, not to be part of what was happening in those years was, in a sense, not to be.
So you learned that as long as you confined yourself to speculation of what the Revolution might be like and what the world after the Revolution would be like, there was no end to truth. But if this made you nervous and you asked any of the fellow players for a little hard truth, a little coin of the realm to cover your margin and theirs, they were quite content to drop a brick of Acapulco Gold on your head and call it The Philosopher’s Stone. And because stone was a state of mind, you were left with a headache, a heartache, and overdrawn at the First National Bank of Angst.
Man, you weren’t happening.
What was happening was all that mattered. It was the predominant concern of the decade. “What’s happening?” was a greeting and a secret sign that would determine if you were one of the elect and the saved. It was later compressed, as was most of our secret language, into a statement: “Happening, bro.” Hard to translate now, but it made sense at the time.
Like the ancient and biblical phrase “What is truth?”, “What’s happening?” did not demand any response more specific than a shrug and a suitably stoned smile. A verbal response would be offered only as long as it began in and returned, at regular intervals, to a rippling fog that covered all our shared mental landscapes like the mist in a Japanese samurai movie.
The decade was burnt as crisp and dark as a napalmed child; was as grotesque as a president dangling beagles by the ears or lifting his shirt to display a scar the shape of Southeast Asia on his paunch. But although the grotesque darkness was visible from a distance, it was nearly impossible to discern in close-up. Only perspective makes proportion visible and perspective was, like truth in those years, something always in very short supply.
The world beyond our sheltered enclaves was etched in high relief and we despised it. Our own little hamlets and personal universes were said to exist somewhere beyond the linear-verbal, over the rainbow, on another bardo, and boasted sweeping views of the Twilight Zone. It was a housing development constructed in the ether and, as such, it contained no firm place to stand. It had lots of golden levers of great length and a host of theories that would serve as crystal fulcrums. In conversations fueled late into the nights by espresso, tobacco, jug wine and gage, hashish, and Tijuana Gold, the levers and fulcrums were manipulated without pause and with great skill. But with the elimination of the ether and the sphere of the fixed stars there was, at the end of those long nights and their dreams, no way of using these ornate tools — no matter how long, no matter how precise — to alter the orbit of the Earth.
So it was that we spent most of those years polishing the levers and fulcrums while blithely ignoring the absence of foundations. This didn’t faze us. We were the Cosmic Commandos. To us, truth and lies, granite and quicksand, were mere illusions, shabby manifestations of the material plane, that old rusty reality that everyone on Earth would junk as soon as they saw what we saw, and we saw The Light.
Read more of Gerard Van der Leun’s “Ceremonies of the Horsemen” at American Digest.
By the time Americans entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they had already been feeling the effects of shortages.
Gas was still available in the fall of 1941, but gas stations were reducing their hours of operation to help conserve energy.
New cars weren’t in short supply yet, but automakers were reducing their production of passenger cars to build more airplanes and tanks. Businesses were warning Americans to take better care of their cars because it might be a long time before they could be replaced.
Of all the industries affected by the war, though, none brought the effect of war closer to Americans than the glamour business.
As J. C. Furnas points out in his November 29, 1941, article, “Glamour Goes to War,” American women were coping with shortages of cosmetics and stockings well before 1941. Embargoes and blockades halted the export of essential perfume oils from France, Bulgaria, Tibet, and Zanzibar. Necessary ingredients for lipstick and hair dye were no longer available from warring nations. Chemical solvents in nail polish were being requisitioned for military purposes. Even the brass used for lipstick containers was in short supply.
Almost all available silk had been purchased by the Defense Department to make parachutes and tents. Nylon stockings should have been the economical alternative. They had been introduced in May 1940, and 64 million pairs had been sold within the first year. But the raw materials of nylon were being used in the war effort, and women who wanted to avoid a bare-legged look were painting seams up their calves.
When the military began buying up the market supply of textiles, the fashion industry responded to the shortages by using less fabric in dresses. Hemlines went up and unnecessary detailing was dropped.
When cosmetics began to disappear, there was no matching movement to cut back on lipstick and powder. European perfume ingredients were replaced with synthetics, and whale spermaceti used in lipstick was swapped for more domestic lubricants.
Women continued to pursue the conventionally feminine image, even when operating heavy machinery in a B-17 plant. Advertisers encouraged this attitude, telling women it was their patriotic duty to maintain their looks for their men in uniform. The author himself warns that “many women, deprived of the usual makings of charm, would lose the personal self-confidence that helps bolster them through the ills of life.” The thought of 40 million women “reverting to Nature” made everyone jittery.
Much of the article is addressed to the “man of the house,” suggesting that his wife shouldn’t panic over the shortage. She may not have heard his reassurances, having already left for work at the munitions plant.
Featured image: Photos by Constance Bannister for “Glamour Goes to War,” from the November 29, 1941, issue of the Post.