views updated May 08 2018


RATIONING. Food rationing is a program by which governments or private organizations oversee the allotment of food to citizens, usually during times of war or scarcity. By ensuring that all people get enough to eat or at least have a chance to purchase highly desired foods, mandatory rationing of food helps maintain citizens' physical health and psychic well-being. In doing so, it helps secure public allegiance and compliance, factors critical to institutional welfare during wartime or in the midst of a food crisis. In addition to ensuring an equitable distribution of scarce resources, rationing accompanied by price controls is designed to combat fierce inflation that often occurs with heightened demand and inadequate supply. Items distributed through such systems are often referred to as rations. Goods bought and sold illicitly outside of rationing and price control programs are said to be on the black market. Rationing is arguably a more democratic system of distributing food and other scarce resources. Theoretically, its most distinct function may be that of leveling economic and class inequality. Those on the lower end of the economic spectrum, for example, and those without the luxury of time to wait in long lines or to scout out caches of available goods, are allowed an equal chance to purchase high-status foods.

Rationing has also been used for more complicated or nefarious reasons. At one point, food allowances given to indigenous peoples in Australia and the United States, among other places, functioned as a form of social control. For Australian Aborigines, food rations were used as a tool to draw people to certain areas; their removal was intended as a form of punishment. Adolf Hitler, convinced that the German public had turned against the Weimar Republic because of food shortages, employed rationing in the 1930s to avoid domestic food emergencies. Occasionally, rationing has been implemented to ensure the unequal distribution of food, as when World War II concentration camp inmates voluntarily rationed food according to age and physical state (in the hope that this would allow the most able-bodied to survive). In early-twentieth-century China, rationing was controlled by elite "team leaders" who were allowed to distribute food and other goods according to personal discretion, which in turn afforded them power and control over local peasants. Most often, however, rationing has been employed to allow a relatively equal dispersal of food among citizens (with some reduction in allotment to infants and young children, and occasionally the very elderly). In Great Britain, World War II rationing is credited with improving the health of many by allowing the economically disadvantaged access to a stable, nutritious food supply. Currently, food rationing is most frequently implemented in countries that are the targets of international sanctions, including Cuba and Iraq.

Food rationing has been practiced in virtually every society of record, from antiquity to the present, in countries all over the globe, including Argentina, Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Chile, China, Cuba, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States. Rationing was practically universal during World War II, and continued for several years afterward in many parts of the world, including industrialized countries, which traditionally have had a more stable food supply than developing countries, whose governments have tended to implement food rationing more frequently out of necessity.

Foods deemed critical to ration can be either staples or luxuries. Staple foodsthose vital to basic survival and the central elements in a cuisineoften vary according to culture, region, and tradition, and may include rice, flour, bread, milk, meat, cooking oil, canned goods, and salt. Highly desirable, psychologically important items such as cheese, butter, sugar, coffee, tea, and tobacco are arguably as important as staples to ensuring public contentment and cooperation, and thus are regarded as essential to ration. Such nonfood items as shoes, clothing, gasoline, heating oil, and tires are typically rationed in times of scarcity as well.

Food rationing tends to be implemented through two methods, the coupon system or the point system. During World War II, for example, sugar and coffee were rationed in the United States according to the coupon method, under which consumers would relinquish a coupon to purchase an allotted amount every few weeks. For rationing meat, butter, and canned goods, the government introduced the more complicated point system. Each month the federal Office of Price Administration (OPA) issued each person five blue and six red stamps worth ten points each, a total of fifty blue points for processed foods and sixty red points for meat, fats, and some dairy products. Each itemcanned pineapple or pork chops, for instancewas assigned a point value determined by both availability and consumer demand. The point values were periodically reevaluated; for instance, the OPA lowered the point value of canned peaches to encourage increased consumption following a 1943 bumper crop of the fruit. The point system maintained government control over rationing but at the same time allowed the consumer a reasonable amount of control over the family's diet. With such a system, a consumer could choose to spend some of the family's points on more highly desired and scarcer items with high point values, such as beefsteak, knowing that fewer points would be left that month to buy other meats and fats. The system had its flaws, but consumers in general consistently supported it, and some even campaigned to continue rationing through the postwar years in order to allow more food to be distributed to war-ravaged and famine-stricken countries overseas.

The success of rationing in any country is highly dependent on efficient and effective administration and on unyielding honesty of and cooperation among government officials, farmers and food processors, wholesalers, grocers, and consumers. Rationing can break down at any level and through a variety of means: theft of ration books and favoritism in their distribution; lowering or misrepresenting the quality of products produced (shrinking the size of bread loaves; adding inferior grain); selling goods for higher prices or without collecting ration points; hoarding food; or bribery. While rationing has been deemed ineffective in many places, as in the Soviet Union during its early period, it is remarkable that, given its potential to break down at any point, the system has succeeded so much of the time. For the city of Lyons, France, in the Great Winter of 1709, food rationing along with other forms of public relief successfully averted widespread famine. Israel in its early years of statehood relied heavily on rationing to equitably apportion meager supplies of food.

Politics of Rationing

Because voluntary compliance is crucial to the success of rationing, concerted propaganda campaigns, even in openly democratic countries, are designed to urge people to feel personally invested in complying with rationing. Food is politicized, whether consumed in public or in private spaces. With wartime rationing, the grocery store, the kitchen, and the family mealwhere food is purchased, prepared, and consumedbecome public spheres as rhetorically important as the battlefield. Farmers with pitchforks and gardeners with trowels are likened to soldiers bearing rifles. Women, as traditional food procurers and preparers, become akin to soldiers at the battlefront. Wasting or hoarding food is characterized as aiding the enemy. Sacrificing food in order to send more to the military, or growing one's own food so that commercially prepared food is more available to distribute to citizens under enemy rule, is seen as performing one's patriotic duty.

Food rationing can become a positive site for communal expression of democratic obligation. Preventing waste, avoiding black markets, producing food, and abiding by rationing, however trivial they may have seemed, allowed American citizens during World War II to contribute to, and feel a part of, the war effort daily and communally. By sacrificing some of their abundant food supply to send more to the military and to those in desperate need, people could exhibit their patriotism and support of the war. Rationing not only ensured a sufficient, if at times unexciting, diet but also helped instill a sense of public commitment to the war, community involvement, and patriotism. These same sentiments have prevailed in other countries and times as well.

Despite its potential for positive meanings and uses, the implementation and eventual dismantling of rationing can be highly political. Food producers and processors may exert extreme pressure to lift rationing, arguing that consumer demand for goods should be unfettered. Those opposed to centralized food distribution see rationing as placing too much power in hands of government. Government officials benefiting from the program in any number of ways may be reluctant to disassemble the system. While some consumers have regarded food rationing as too restrictive and anticapitalistic, most, in times of crisis, have considered it as the (albeit imperfect) guarantor of their entitlement to a stable food supply.

See also Food as a Weapon of War ; Food Pantries ; Food Riots ; Food Security ; Food Supply, Food Shortages ; Government Agencies, U.S. ; International Agencies ; Military Rations ; Political Economy .


Benjamin, Medea, and Joseph Collins. "Is Rationing Socialist? Cuba' Food Distribution System." Food Policy 10 (Nov. 1985): 327336.

Bentley, Amy. Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

Chowdhury, Nuimuddin. "Where the Poor Come Last: The Case of Modified Rationing in Bangladesh." Bangladesh Development Studies 16 (1988): 2754.

Osokina, H. A. "Soviet Workers and Rationing Norms, 19281935: Real or Illusory Privilege?" Soviet and Post-Soviet Review 19, no. 13 (1992): 5369.

Rowse, Tim. White Flour, White Power: From Rations to Citizenship in Central Australia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Zweiniger-Bargielowska, Ina. "Bread Rationing in Britain, July 1946July 1948." Twentieth Century British History 4, no. 1 (1993): 5785.

Amy Bentley


views updated May 11 2018


WORLD WAR I, 1914–1918
WORLD WAR II, 1939–1945

Assisted by the development of state bureaucracies and technologies of mass communication, rationing enabled governments to plan, control, and restrict the allocation of scarce resources. It was commonly used during periods of war, famine, and other emergencies to ensure equitable distribution of food, fuel, and consumer goods. In order to keep prices affordable for the lowest paid, rationing was usually accompanied by price fixing and compulsory savings schemes. All the major European combatant nations implemented some form of rationing during World Wars I and II, as normal peacetime production of essentials declined and each side attempted to strangle the other's supplies of food and raw materials. Rationing was also continued by some nations after 1918 and 1945 to cope with postwar shortages. As well as being a familiar part of military life, rationing was central to governments' attempts to maintain wartime civilian morale, persuading their public that hardships were being shared equally across class and other boundaries.

WORLD WAR I, 1914–1918

The scope and allocation of rationed items during World War I depended on the phase of the conflict and the state of supplies in a particular country at a given time. Germany, for example, introduced clothes rationing and restrictions on the use of soap. France put limits on the number of lightbulbs that could be used to illuminate people's homes. But food was the principal focus of rationing. In Germany, where food shortages threatened widespread starvation, bread rationing began in 1915 and was followed by a general scheme in 1916, coordinated by the newly created War Food Office. A combination of Allied blockade and the diversion of resources away from agriculture meant that food rations in Germany fell below subsistence levels. Consumption of cereals, meat, and fats dropped sharply and a black market flourished; perhaps as much as 50 percent of all food in Germany was bought illegally after general rationing began. As elsewhere in Europe, food shortages were most acute in urban areas; the rural population could supplement rations with their own "self supplies," and governments found it difficult to monitor rations in the countryside. When a poor harvest in 1917 brought a food crisis to German cities such as Berlin and Leipzig, the resulting strikes and massive "bread and peace" demonstrations undermined the German war effort. There were similar problems in Austria, where more than six hundred thousand workers went on strike in January 1918 after the flour ration was cut.

In contrast, Britain's food supplies were largely undisturbed before 1917, despite the fact that the country was more dependent on imported food than any of its European neighbors. Britain experimented with "voluntary rationing" in February 1917, by which the authorities issued guidelines on what people should eat and hoped that individuals would adjust their diets accordingly. When the success of the U-boat blockade produced a food crisis in late 1917, the government issued ration cards as part of a general scheme the following January. As was the case in France, where ration cards were made compulsory in June 1918, the controlled distribution of food and accompanying price controls were aimed more at defusing worker discontent than at preventing starvation. Britain and France had both seen how food shortages in the cities had contributed to military collapse and revolution in their wartime ally Russia. In Italy, where prewar living standards were relatively low, the wartime drop of 10 percent in agricultural production meant real hardship for millions, particularly in the northern cities. Both Turin and Milan saw unrest in 1917 after a poor harvest. Ration cards were made obligatory in Italy in 1917, first for bread and later for other foodstuffs. Along with Britain, where sugar, fats, and meat were rationed until 1920, Italy continued to use ration cards until 1921.

WORLD WAR II, 1939–1945

Lessons learned about rationing in 1914–1918 guided state policies during World War II. Again, however, black markets thrived. Most countries, including neutrals such as Switzerland, introduced general rationing schemes at an early stage of this conflict. In Germany, where the Nazis were determined to avoid the starvation diets that broke popular support for the Kaiser's war effort, rationing was introduced in August 1939. By plundering supplies in occupied territories, German food rations remained among the highest in Europe until the latter part of the war. At the other end of the scale, rationing in the Soviet Union did little more than ensure that malnutrition was spread equitably across the population. Millions of Soviet citizens had relied on food rations during the 1930s. After the German invasion of 1941, the average Soviet worker's diet consisted of one pound of bread per day plus a few scraps of fat and meat. Miners and metalworkers were entitled to a greater allowance because they did heavy physical work, but such was the shortage of food that the full ration was not always met. Only by growing vegetables in every patch of garden available did the Soviet people avoid starvation. In France, the Vichy government administered a system of ration cards from September 1940 onward. Food allocation was dependent on age—each consumer was placed into one of six age bands—and there were extra allowances for heavy laborers and pregnant women. By 1941 virtually everything that could be bought in French shops was rationed. Britain rationed butter, bacon, and sugar from January 1940; in March, meat and other items were added to this list. In 1941 the government introduced a "points" system of rationing for clothes; this was extended to tinned foods and then other foodstuffs in 1942. Under this scheme, consumers received points in the form of coupons and could choose how to spend their allocation. The point value of particular items was adjusted in line with domestic production, shipping losses, and seasonal preferences.


Wartime rationing was relatively popular in Britain, where it was regarded as an egalitarian feature of the "people's war." By forcing people to eat a more nutritious diet, it also produced health benefits. It was much less popular in the postwar years, not least because food rations in 1947 fell below their wartime level. Most countries phased out rationing in the late 1940s, including the Soviet Union, which scrapped restrictions in December 1947. Britain maintained rationing in some form until 1954, and briefly reintroduced petrol rationing during the 1956 Suez crisis. The Netherlands rationed fuel in the oil crisis of 1973. In Nicolae Ceausescu's Romania, where food exports were increased to meet the country's crippling foreign debt, strict rationing of food was maintained from 1982 until the regime's downfall in 1989.

See alsoAgriculture; Marshall Plan; Reconstruction.


Hardach, Gerd. The First World War, 1914–1918. Translated by Peter and Betty Ross. London, 1977.

Kroener, Bernhard. Germany and the Second World War. Vol. 5: Organisation and Mobilisation of the German Sphere of Power. Part 2: Wartime Administration, Economy, and Manpower Resources, 1942–1944/5. Translated by Derry Cook-Radmore. Oxford, U.K., 2003.

Milward, Alan S. War, Economy, and Society: 1939–1945. London, 1977.

Osokina, Elina. Our Daily Bread: Socialist Distribution and the Art of Survival in Stalin's Russia, 1927–1941. Translated by Kate Transchel and Greta Bucher. London, 2000.

Williams, John. The Home Fronts: Britain, France, and Germany, 1914–1918. London, 1972.

Zweiniger-Bargielowska, Ina. Austerity in Britain: Rationing, Controls and Consumption, 1939–1955. Oxford, U.K., 2000.

Mark Donnelly


views updated May 14 2018


In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, warfare changed from seasonal campaigns and battlefield conflicts that involved only military personnel to what has been term "total war." Total wars not only make civilians targets of warfare, as they were during the bombing of cities in World War II, but engage the entire population in sacrificing for the war effort. The purpose of imposing civilian sacrifices, such as rationing food and consumer goods, is not only to increase war production but also to forge unity between soldiers and civilians in winning the war. In this way modern warfare has both material and psychological effects on the home front that have long-term effects on society and culture.

world war i

During the First and Second World Wars, the United States sent millions of men into battle overseas. They left the farms for the front lines. Many factories switched to making munitions rather than consumer goods. Exotic foods (such as pineapple) that required shipment over the ocean were in short supply. Fats found in popular foods were needed to make glycerin, a key component in wartime explosives. The metal used to can food was more urgently needed for the war effort. Rubber was needed to make jeep tires and tank tracks for vehicles that rolled through hundreds of miles of terrain in Africa and Europe. Massive quantities of gasoline were needed to fuel these vehicles.

For all of these reasons, the United States government found it necessary to limit the consumption of these and other critical items in order to prevent hoarding and severe shortages. During World War I, a voluntary policy of food conservation was devised by the United States Food Administration, headed by Herbert Hoover. Rationing of foods such as sugar, meat and flour were suggested, not mandated. "Meatless Mondays" and "Wheatless Wednesdays" were recommended. Americans were also encouraged to grow their own food and eat less to ensure a steady food supply.

world war ii

The more intense and longer American involvement during World War II meant stricter rationing policies. President Roosevelt created the Office of Price Administration (OPA) in early 1942 to oversee rationing and the rules of wartime product pricing. A system was established under which all families were given ration books filled with coupons that they could use for certain foods such as sugar, butter, meat, and canned goods. Each food had a certain point value per unit. Different cuts of meat were valued according to their rarity; ground beef was seven points while steak was twelve points. There were also ration coupons for shoes.

Once the coupons for the month were used up, the family was not entitled to buy any more rationed goods until the next month. Cookbooks of the time responded to rationing with suggestions for "extending" rationed items such as butter and meat and for substituting similar non-rationed foods. One 1943 pamphlet was titled "Your Share" and focused on telling housewives how to use their share of America's food to best advantage. The booklet explained how to make the most of meat by knowing point values and by storing and cooking meat properly. Many American households were already used to limiting their food intake due to the decade of the Depression that preceded the war.

Gasoline and tires were rationed according to a four-tiered government system of classification that rated a consumer's need to drive. The wartime speed limit was set at thirty-five miles per hour to keep tires from wearing out too quickly and to maximize fuel efficiency. In a way, automobiles were also rationed; new cars were not produced at all between early 1942 and 1945—only warrelated vehicles were made.

Coupled with rationing was a system of price ceilings set up by the government to ensure that prices of rare items remained stable. Of course, this system led to a black market for some rationed goods. There were two

forms of black market transactions—selling rationed items to people without ration coupons, and selling items at more than the ceiling price. It is estimated that as much as twenty-five percent of the supply of some rationed goods was sold through the black market. The OPA received thousands of complaints about price violations during the course of the war.

Public response to rationing was mostly favorable. Despite complaints, rationing was seen as a way to help the United States defeat the enemy. Wartime posters issued by the government played on the public's sentiment. "Be patriotic, sign your country's pledge to save the food," a World War I posted explained, while another told the public to "Eat less and let us be thankful that we have enough to share with those who fight for freedom." World War II posters were similar in sentiment; "Do with less—so they'll have enough," a 1943 poster exclaimed, depicting a smiling GI holding a cup of coffee.

Rationing was also closely connected with scrap drives. Americans were encouraged to save fat drippings, and to collect and turn in metal items for use in the war effort. Another response to wartime rationing was the creation of millions of backyard "Victory Gardens." These gardens were a good source of fruit and vegetables that helped ease the hardship of rationing, especially by reducing the need for canned foods and taking some pressure off of farmers.

Whereas many of these activities, such as scrap drives, may not have contributed much of material value to the war effort, they were very effective in sustaining morale on the home front by allowing citizens to make their own contribution to winning the war. The effect was profound, as civilians and soldiers during World War II have been celebrated by their descendents as "The Greatest Generation," marking an iconic period in American culture and identity as a society.


Auerbach, Alfred. OPA and Its Pricing Policies. New York: Fairchild Publishing, 1945.

The Home Front: America During World War II. Compiled by Mark Jonathan Harris, Franklin D. Mitchell and Steven J. Schechter. New York: Putnam, 1984.

Lawson, Don. An Album of World War II Home Fronts. New York: Franklin Watts, 1980.

Panchyk, Richard. World War II for Kids: A History with 21 Activities. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2002.

Your Share. (pamphlet) Minneapolis: General Mills, 1943.

Internet Resources

"America from the Great Depression to World War Two." American Memory Website of the Library of Congress. Available from <http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsahtml/fahome.html>.

"Herbert Hoover Biography: U.S. Food Administrator." U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Available from <http://www.ecommcode.com/hoover/hooveronline/hoover_bio/food.htm>.

Richard Panchyk


views updated May 09 2018


Rationing refers to the equitable allocation of scarce or valuable resources among competing consumers who have varying degrees of demand or need. Resources can be rationed informally at the local level on a merchant-by-merchant basis, as was done by many U.S. businesses during the Great Depression. Resources can also be rationed systematically by the government. During World War II (19391945), President Franklin D. Roosevelt (19331945) and Congress, in an effort to eliminate from the economy every ounce of excess and waste, enacted legislation (1942) authorizing the president to establish the War Production Board (WPB) and the Office of Price Administration (OPA).

WPB was assigned the task of dividing scarce resources between the military and civilian production sectors, while the OPA was responsible for administering rationing plans. Both agencies had regional and state branches of enforcement. More than 100 million Americans were issued ration cards, coupons, and certificates, which restricted the quantity of goods that could be purchased and the uses to which they could be put. Windshields were stamped to indicate how much gasoline car owners could buy during a given week. Civilians working outside the defense industry, for example, could buy no more than three gallons per week. Horses, trolley cars, and walking quickly became popular modes of transportation. Rubber, gasoline, and sugar were rationed in 1942, meat and shoes in 1943. By the end of the war the list of items rationed in the United States included typewriters, bicycles, stoves, tea, coffee, canned and processed foods, fats, coal, and an assortment of leather items. Manufacturing stopped altogether for other items deemed unnecessary to the war effort and daily subsistence, such as curlers, electric toasters, waffle irons, cocktail shakers, and lobster forks.

Most Americans understood that it was their patriotic duty to make ends meet within the rationing system, but violations did occur and black markets sprang up around the country. Some amusing blunders befell the system as well: a Pennsylvania rationing office had to close because it failed to ration enough fuel for itself. Nonetheless, domestic rationing played a significant role in increasing the resources available to Allied cause.

See also: Black Market, Office of Price Administration, War Production Board, World War II


views updated May 18 2018

ra·tion / ˈrashən; ˈrā-/ • n. a fixed amount of a commodity officially allowed to each person during a time of shortage, as in wartime: 1918 saw the bread ration reduced on two occasions. ∎  (usu. rations) an amount of food supplied on a regular basis, esp. to members of the armed forces during a war. ∎  (rations) food; provisions: their emergency rations ran out. ∎ fig. a fixed amount of a particular thing: their daily ration of fresh air.• v. [tr.] (usu. be rationed) allow each person to have only a fixed amount of (a particular commodity): shoes were rationed from 1943. ∎  (ration someone to) allow someone to have only (a fixed amount of a certain commodity): they were requested to ration themselves to one glass of wine each.


views updated May 17 2018


During World War II (1939–45), the U.S. government began a policy of rationing for the American public. Rationing meant that certain products were available only in limited quantities so that the extra resources could be used for military efforts. Rationing was a challenging way for those remaining at home to do their patriotic duty to support the war effort.

In 1942, Congress passed the Emergency Price Control Act, which established the Office of Price Administration (OPA). The OPA was charged with controlling prices on goods and overseeing a rationing system. Rubber had already been rationed in 1941, but soon many other items were added to the list. Coupon books were issued for sugar and coffee in 1942. Gasoline purchases were limited by stamping windshields to indicate the amount allowed each week. In 1943, meat, fats and oils, cheese, processed foods, and shoes were rationed through a point system. Ration books contained sheets of points that could be spent on these items, all assigned point values. To replenish their stock, retailers had to turn in the coupons and stamps.

More than 100 million Americans received ration cards, coupons, and certificates that restricted purchases during the war. By the end of the war, the list of items rationed included typewriters, bicycles, stoves, tea, coffee, canned and processed foods, fats, coal, and an assortment of leather items. Other items defined as unnecessary, such as curlers, electric toasters, waffle irons, cocktail shakers, and lobster forks, were not even manufactured throughout the war.

The war ended in August 1945, and by the end of the year rationing had stopped on everything except sugar. Due to unreliable foreign supplies, sugar rationing continued until June 1947.


views updated May 23 2018

ration allowance of victuals or provisions. XVII. In naval and military use — F. — It. razione or Sp. ración — L. ratiō, -ōn- reckoning, computation, sum or number (for other senses see REASON).