Column – If you think life during COVID was inconvenient …

Published 6:10 pm Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Last in a series

Shortages related to the COVID pandemic led us to do things that should have been embarrassing — but probably weren’t. 

We hoarded toilet paper and paper towels, grabbed more than we needed whenever we could and railed against price increases that were the inevitable result of disrupted trade worldwide.

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And yet, as inconvenient as those shortages were, they were nothing compared with what our recent ancestors experienced as the United States took on the German dictatorship and Japanese imperialism in World War II.

The country mobilized in ways that would likely cause riots in the streets today. The Roosevelt Administration, realizing the demands that would be placed on this emerging industrialized nation, put in place a system of rationing that would impact every household in America. Nobody seems to have liked it, but most everybody accepted it — except the relative few who figured a way to beat it and, without getting caught, make a small fortune.

Rationing started with the automotive industry. From 1941 forward, tires were strictly rationed. Local tire rationing boards were established in each county. They determined the need for a set of tires — or even one tire — and issued certificates to those who qualified. They even published the names of people who received tires each month, apparently finding transparency an aid to honesty.

A January 1941 story in The Smithfield Times announced the creation of the local rationing board, with the following warning:

“All motorists are urged to save tires now. Remember, when your present tires are worn out, there will be no others. Learn to walk, double up when it is necessary to ride, use bicycles, buses and other modes of travel.”

In August of that year, the government asked for a voluntary cut of one-third in the amount of motor fuel used along the Atlantic corridor in order to avoid rationing. Despite such appeals, gasoline became another heavily rationed commodity, with need over convenience carefully weighed by local rationing boards.

To conserve gasoline, a national 45 mph speed limit was enacted and, in December 1942, the Isle of Wight Rationing Board announced that anyone convicted of speeding would have their gasoline ration card revoked.

“Pleasure driving” was banned for the duration of the war.

Americans had become accustomed to abundance even in those days, and the paper made that point in its weekly war update in January 1942:

“To think of rationing, has been almost beyond our imaginations. The American way of life includes an abundance of food, and usually the kind of food most suited to the individual taste. We are now faced with a great crisis, probably the greatest we have ever faced and, with this crisis the possibility of shortages in many articles heretofore available in abundance.”

Sugar was one of the first and most heavily rationed food items. It was not only widely used in cooking but a mainstay in canning, which was critical to food preservation. Alternatives to sugar were published and encouraged for use in canning during the war beginning in 1942.

By March 1943, most all food commodities were being rationed on a point basis. Individuals were allowed a total of 16 “points” worth of food per week and could use those points to buy what they wished as long as they didn’t exceed the total points allowed. Foods considered the most popular were also the most valued in points. For example:

  • Eight-points-per-pound meat included a rib roast, porterhouse and bacon (rind off, that is.)
  • Seven points per pound included pork sausage, wieners and bacon (with rind on).
  • Six points per pound included beef livers and tongues, veal shoulder chops and bone-in sirloin roasts.
  • Five-point items included hamburger, pork jowls, pork livers, lard and other shortening.
  • By the time you got to three-point, you were eating low on the hog or cow. Included were beef brains, oxtails and tripe. 
  • Two-point meat included pork kidneys and snouts, and using only one point, you could buy pigs feet (bone in) and pig ears.

And it was hard to bypass the system. Farmers had to obtain a permit to sell meat, with exact places and dates to be announced.

When the war ended in 1945, the need for rationing slowly came to an end as well. In January 1946, The Smithfield Times carried a congratulatory note from Gen. J. Fulmer Bright, district director of the Office of Price Administration. 

“Throughout rationing, farmers in Virginia did a magnificent job of production. It is because they did this job so well that supplies have now reached the point where rationing can end.”

There were many things to celebrate with the end of World War II. Among them, no more pig snouts for Sunday dinner.


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