I have been interested in coins since I was a young age and enjoy collecting coins and writing about them.
World War II in America
The Second World War changed the lives of everyone living in the United States, no matter their political or social status. No one, rich or poor, was spared in the rationing program that was implemented a few months after the United States entered the theater of war in the Pacific. Even the wealthiest in America had a problem accessing basic goods, and as the war went on more and more products that used to be available on grocery store shelves became scarce.
When the United States entered the war in 1941 after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the American economy shifted from producing consumer goods to producing what was necessary for the war effort. War production became the highest priority. A cascade of changes ensued, which redefined the socio-economic structure of the country. Imports were reduced, and some of the products people were used to having became scarce. Soon, nationwide food rationing was instituted. Those were trying times, but Americans who experienced the years of scarcity realized it was possible to live with much less than they were accustomed to.
The Establishment of the Office of Price Administration
The Office of Price Administration (OPA) was formed in August 1941 by Executive Order 8875. It was created as an agency within the Office for Emergency Management of the US Government. The price control system initiated by the OPA covered almost all the existing civilian goods and services. The administration’s authority was fully backed by executive orders and legislation. This agency continued to operate until 1946, a year after the Second World War ended.
The prime directive of this office was to ensure that every citizen of the country receive their fair share of consumer items such as household appliances, shoes, coffee, and sugar, while still supplying the military with the equipment and raw materials they needed to combat the Axis Forces. In May 1942, the prices of these scarce commodities were frozen by the OPA. The rationale behind this move was to prevent runaway inflation and to avoid speculation.
The Office of Price Administration also accepted and processed applications for ration books and issued them to every citizen. The ration books served as a guide for citizens on how much of the products that were central to the war effort they could purchase for personal consumption. Rationing policies were in effect everywhere, and even the White House, the official residence of the president of the United States, was not immune. The food rationing helped to ensure that there was enough food for everyone, and it also allowed America to send food donations to Europe, specifically to the citizens of the areas that were devastated by the war.
Food Rationing During World War II
“Do with less—so they’ll have enough” and “Rationing gives you your fair share” were common phrases that could be found on the posters and flyers that were posted in public places in America. The posters were designed to encourage American citizens to cooperate fully in the rationing program. It was a huge change for Americans, especially since people were used to enjoying an abundance of food, raw materials, and consumer goods. America was, after all, the land of abundance. From the winter of 1941, a shortage of essentials was felt, and citizens were called upon to cut back on their own consumption in support of the US military forces. Rationing was necessary so that the men and women in uniform who were risking life and limb on the battlefront “will have enough.” Every individual was encouraged to make sacrifices so that there would be enough for everyone.
The advent of the Food Rationing Program in the spring of 1942 was one of the plans implemented by the American government to control supply and demand. Rationing became a necessity so that the civilians could still enjoy an adequate and healthy diet and the troops scattered about the globe could be well fed and have the proper equipment.
Rationing and American Society
Food rationing during the Second World War leveled class inequality in America. Mandatory food rationing was implemented by the United States government for better oversight of the allotment of food items to citizens during a time of scarcity. During wartime, it became important to implement measures that ensured the well-being and health of citizens. Despite restrictions, citizens still wanted to exercise the right to purchase the kind of food they desired. Rationing facilitated the equitable distribution of scarce resources.
In the United States, rationing was implemented together with price controls to prevent inflation in an environment characterized by inadequate supply and increased demand. However, there was one unseemly “side effect” of rationing—the black market. It became a profiteer’s haven as subversives sold gasoline and sugar, as well as other items, at higher prices than allowed by the OPA. Although many people did their best to make do with less and conserve resources, many went to the black market to fill the gaps in their daily requirements.
Types of Rationing in the United Sates During World War II
The coupon method was chosen to ration such necessities as sugar and coffee. Citizens were required to present the proper coupons to purchase items from the grocery store. Another system was introduced for goods such as canned goods, butter, and meat—the point system, which was instituted on March 28, 1943. Every cardholder had an allotment of 16 points for each week. If the individual was unable to use all the points, they were good for another week.
There were four different types of rationing instituted in the United States:
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- Point rationing: Equivalent shares were provided by coupons, which were issued for certain points. The points could then be spent on a combination of certain items. This rationing governed the distribution of meat, cheese, and processed foods.
- Uniform coupon rationing: Everyone was given an equal share of a single commodity. This was the type of rationing used for basic food items such as sugar.
- Certificate rationing: Products were given to individuals only if they demonstrated a clear and legitimate need for certain items, which included typewriters, stoves, and cars.
- Differential coupon rationing: Distribution of products in this group included oil and gas, which were allocated based on need.
Even when the Second World War ended, restrictions on consumer products persisted in America. For instance, Americans experienced rationing of sugar until 1947.
Ration Books for Citizens of America
While the Second World War was raging in Europe, the Western Pacific, and other parts of the world, every household in the United States was issued ration books. A variety of factors was considered in the issuance of ration books, including the ages and the number of people residing in the home. When the war ended, it was estimated that 100 million ration books were printed in total.
The books contained food stamps, which were necessary for procuring items from grocery stores. Items sold in grocery stores presented not just the regular price but the stamp requirements as well. The rationed items were consumer goods such as rubber shoes, bicycles, gasoline, typewriters, coffee, sugar, cheese, and other products the military deemed scarce. The stamps did not have a cash value.
There were four different types of ration books: Book One, Book Two, Book Three, and Book Four. The first series was issued in 1942, a few months after America entered the war, while the second series was issued a year after in January 1943. Later, Book Three was issued in October 1943, and the last was released to the public before the year ended.
The Use of OPA Tokens
In 1944, OPA points or tokens were issued to accommodate patrons who had no need for the entire ration. The tokens also became useful when the ration amount was not available for purchase. These tokens were issued to shopkeepers so that they could give “small change” to consumers using the stamps provided in the ration books.
The OPA tokens were in the form of red and blue coins a little smaller than a dime. The red tokens allowed purchase of goods such as meat, fish, dairy products, and cooking oils. Each red token was worth one point. The blue tokens were for the purchase of canned or processed foods.
It was estimated that as many as 0.9 billion blue tokens and 1.1 billion red tokens were produced. The ration tokens or OPA points were made from vulcanized fiber or celluloid and were 16 millimeters in diameter. The tokens were made by Osborne Register Company in Cincinnati, Ohio, a leading manufacturer and distributor of transit, gambling, amusement, and sales tax tokens since the 1920s. They were issued between the years 1942 and 1945.
The tokens issued by the Office of Price Administration had very specific marks. The blue ones were marked with “OPA Blue Point 1” and two different letters. The red tokens were marked with “OPA Red Point 1” with two different letters. Every token issued by the government was marked with a two-letter combination. Blue tokens have 24 possible letter combinations, while there are 30 combinations for red tokens. Some of the common letter combinations for red tokens are VC, XY, YC, UT, UV, MM, XU, HC, HT, and VX. Blue tokens were marked with combinations such as HX, HY, VV, UU, CX, HH, CT, and CV. The rarest of the tokens is a red MV. The letter pairs appearing on the tokens had no relationship to what could be purchased; they were used to identify and track the shipments. Each token, no matter what color, has a value of one point.
Today, many of the OPA tokens have survived and are in the hands of coin collectors or World War II memorabilia collectors. It has been estimated that only 40 percent of the tokens were redeemed, meaning there are still hundreds of millions of tokens in private hands. As a result, OPA tokens are considered common and can be purchased for $1.00 each or less. The red MV token is the rare one and can sell for up to $100.00.
Dealing With Trying Circumstances
During the war, when food rationing was in effect, various groups and organizations were formed for the purpose of helping people deal with the turbulent situation that everyone faced. Coming to terms with scarcity was not easy for many. These organizations also set out to implement campaigns directed to the masses, stressing the necessity of self-sacrifice in order for the American troops abroad to have an unbroken supply of food and other necessities. Those at the front were making the ultimate sacrifice, so those on the home front were encouraged to cooperate with the rationing program and realize the value of their cooperation.
The US government launched a comprehensive campaign to facilitate compliance from its citizens. The urgency was unmistakable in the radio and print ad campaigns that encouraged people to contribute to the war effort by following food rationing procedures and participating in other activities that were in effect. In 1943 alone, the OPA’s enforcement division conducted some 650,000 investigations into abuse of the rationing system, of which 280,000 violations were found.
Some people complained, but they were a minority. Most abided by the messages in the slogans that said, “Be patriotic; sign your country’s pledge to save the food.” During war and in making the common sacrifice of rationing, the American people found themselves united as one in support of the soldiers. The spirit of volunteerism was stronger than ever as people from all walks of life banded together to collect scrap iron and other necessary materials and implemented recycling programs.
When the Second World War finally ended with Japan’s unconditional surrender to the Allied Forces in the Western Pacific, the American people had been under rationing for three years. Despite the end of fighting and hostilities, rationing continued to be implemented up until 1946.
Collecting OPA tokens and rationing cards and booklets is an inexpensive way to enjoy and appreciate memorabilia from the stormy years of World War II.
- Haskew, Michael E. Warman’s World War II Collectibles. 2nd Edition. Iola: Krause Publications, Inc., 2010.
- Hines, William G. “Office of Price Administration” in Dictionary of American History, Third Edition. Volume 6, pages 165-166. Stanley I. Kutler (Editor in Chief). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003.
- Jaeger, Katherine and Q. David Bowers. 100 Greatest American Medals and Tokens: Complete With Market Values. Atlanta: Whitman Publishing, LLC, 2007.
- Ross, Stewart. Rationing (At Home in World War II). Evans Brothers LTD, 2001.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Doug West