Column – Wartime rationing hit home in Smithfield

Published 6:59 pm Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Smithfield Foods’ decision to discard the town’s namesake ham isn’t the first time that legendary gastronomic delight has been threatened, but a corporate whim wasn’t the cause more than 80 years ago. It took a world war back then that made the ham scarce.

More specifically, it was rationing that denied Easter and Christmas dinner tables of the ham that was the traditional centerpiece of so many local homes in times now gone.

Rationing was the system by which the United States ensured that commodities critical to the war effort in Europe and the Pacific were available. Families were issued ration books, depending on family size, that controlled everything from meats to motor oil. If you didn’t have a ration coupon for it, you couldn’t buy it. It was a necessary, but undoubtedly unpopular, system that dictated life “back home” across the United States.

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Meat rationing didn’t become effective until the end of March 1943, and it was that regulation that affected Smithfield Ham.

An article in the March 18, 1943, Smithfield Times was devoted to the sad truth.

“If you have planned to send a Smithfield ham as a gesture from Old Virginia to a friend in some other part of the Union, you might as well call off this gesture and decide upon a token of good will which has not been affected by the sound and fury of global war,” the paper intoned.

The paper then turned to J.W. Luter, president of the Smithfield Packing Company, to explain. The problem, Luter said, was one of weight.

“The raw Smithfield ham, in the old familiar bag, is a casualty of war. It is out for the duration. You will be able to buy boneless cooked Smithfield ham. You can do that without using up all your ration coupons. But with meat rations around 2 pounds a week per person, you would hardly want to buy a whole 12 to 14-pound ham.”

The plight of Smithfield ham was actually a lead-in to more information about the region’s pork supply and the effect of the war on that supply.

One of the large Norfolk meat markets, according to the Times story, described Hampton Roads as something of a “porkshed,” with an abundance of hogs. Beef, veal and lamb, on the other hand, were scarce locally.

Despite that, Luter forecast a tightening of the belt with respect to pork. The government apportioned meat on a quarterly basis. At the time of the story, the first quarter of the year was ending and pork was actually running low.

Interestingly, even back then, packing plants in Smithfield and Suffolk supplied about 75% of the meat that moved through the Norfolk port hub.

Rationing wouldn’t just end the tradition of buying a whole ham. According to meat market men interviewed by the paper, any bulk meat would become less desirable and quickly become scarce. Instead of beef steaks and leg of lamb, rationing would send people to the store for bacon, hamburger and sausage.

While rationing adversely affected families across the country, the national need for meat to support the war effort had a generally beneficial impact on local farmers, most of whom raised hogs.

In November 1942, Secretary of Agriculture Claude Wickard said in published remarks that “the great demand for hogs will keep hog prices on a comparatively high level.” He said Lend Lease and the U.S. military were planning to make “heavy purchases of pork.”

The flow of hogs into the market was controlled, and that helped keep a ceiling on prices, thus preventing price gouging. The government in October 1943 was forced to deny a rumor that the ceiling on hog purchases was about to be lifted. Not so, the Office of Price Administration said. That denial was considered necessary to keep farmers from holding hogs in anticipation of a possible price leap.

Rationing, in short, was a complicated, if necessary system in a time of national crisis.

(Next week, a closer look at what you could and could not buy during the war, and the inevitable question: Would today’s Americans be able to tolerate what our parents and grandparents had to live with during World War II?)


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is