Wartime Rationing 1939-1945

Submitted by Devonna Edwards

Eat Hash and Like It!

A 1940s newspaper advertisement for War Saving Stamps depicts a housewife dishing up supper to her children. The youngsters smile with enthusiasm as the mother declares to the readers, “As long as Jack is at war, we’ll eat hash and like it. We are at war. It costs a lot to win. It costs everything to lose!” Leftovers were the order of the day on the home front.

Rationing was initiated in order to free up consumer goods for military use and distribution to allied countries overseas. It was also a vital way of limiting the consumption of those commodities that had to be imported into Canada, since merchant shipping cut into naval reserves as well as put lives at risk. While the rationing of certain foods such as coffee, tea, sugar, butter, and meat had a direct impact on what people cooked and ate on the home front, the demand for materials such as metals, fuels, plastics and rubber affected wartime kitchens both directly and indirectly. Gasoline was rationed, creating difficulties in transporting even non-rationed foods such as eggs, which caused shortages and high prices. Coal and wood were at a premium, which had implications for commercial food industries as well as home consumers. Rubber, plastics, fats and metals were desperately needed for wartime machinery and weapons.

“Re-use” and “recycle”, words that have come back into fashion in our consumer society, were the catchwords of the day. Canada’s furnaces, foundries and mills were thundering at top-speed to produce steel for ships, tanks, guns, planes and munitions. The war effort needed every available piece of scrap metal, from brass beds to heavy aluminum and iron pots, which patriotic housewives exchanged for lightweight aluminum cookware. People even saved their empty toothpaste and shaving-cream tubes, which in Nova Scotia alone added up to over 1,500 pounds of tin. newsprint and paper of all kinds were recycled and put to use in wrapping detonation charges, casing parachute flare charges and making cartridge wadding. Paperboard cartons made of waste paper were vital for packing materials shipped overseas. And fat and bones were needed to make glycerin and glue for weapons and airplanes.

While women were urged to serve their country in the kitchen by feeding their families Nutritious and economical meals, they were also warned against the dangers of hoarding. Certain rationed foods, such as sugar, were under strict regulations. It was illegal to have on hand more than two weeks-worth of sugar at any given time. The ration books were distributed by the Wartime Prices and Trade Board in Ottawa to over 600 local ration boards that served “every city, town and hamlet in Canada. The 75,000 Canadians who lived in remote areas such as the Yukon and the Northwest Territories were Exempt from rationing.

Guns Instead of Butter!

In one of its many campaigns to encourage women to economize in the kitchen and buy War Savings Stamps, the National War Finance Committee pointed out that Hitler chose “guns instead of butter” and so must the Canadian housewife. In fact, glycerin, used in high explosives, was made from fat, and so not only was butter rationed during the war but Canadians were urged to “get in the scrap” and save their fat dripping which they collected in recycled tin cans. The government called for 40 million pounds of fat for the war effort and children as well as adults participated in fat salvage drives. In March 1942, movie theatres in Halifax and Dartmouth offered students free admission in exchange for salvaged fats. During the early days of rationing, people often went “butter-less” for days on end. Not knowing when their next ration coupons would become valid, shoppers would stock up when butter became available. This caused occasional “rushes” on butter at grocery stores, despite official warnings against “panic buying” and hoarding. Ironically, margarine was not an option for wartime Canadians, because dairy farmers lobbied successfully to keep it banned until the late 1940s, when the Canadian Women’s Institute finally convinced the government to allow its sale and manufacture. (Even then it was bleached white to distinguish it from butter and sold with “colour buds” that could be kneaded in before using.) And although people were encouraged to substitute drippings from bacon and other fatty meats for butter or shortening, recipes such as “Wartime Butter” and “Butter Stretcher” also became very popular.

While the British women had to rely on powdered eggs during the war, fresh eggs were not rationed in the Maritimes. However, because of labour shortages and gasoline rationing, eggs were often in short supply in urban areas. Women soon learned how to stretch a few eggs to feed many mouths and pancakes were a popular dish at breakfast and other meals. Because butter and other fats were too precious to waste in the frying pan, wartime cooks often used the trick of rubbing a raw potato over the bottom of the pan.

The war also affected the availability of cheese. Prior to the war, Canadians were used to buying fine imported cheese from Europe. The outbreak of war put an abrupt halt to the European export market, and what stocks were in reserve became expensive and hard to find. The shortage of cheese, however, prompted the development of Quebec’s cheese industry and Canadian Cheddar in now considered one of the finest in the world.

Two Pounds per Week

In 1942 the Wartime Trade and Prices Board set weekly meat rations at two pounds per person. Even to a generation of “meat and two veg” cooks, meat rationing was more of a nuisance than a deprivation. But when every ounce of meat had its price in ration coupons, meal planning became an art for both butchers and customers. Restaurants featured “meatless” Tuesdays and Thursdays and housewives calculated how to make Sunday’s roast last well into the following week. Halifax newspaper advertisements from the period indicated that cheaper cuts of meat, including blade roast, short rib roasts and rump roasts, were more frequently available than prime cuts. Corned beef and “hamburg steak- freshly minced” were also commonly advertised. The latter was equivalent to what we know as ground beef (although housewives often minced their own) and promoted as “delicious in timbales, loaves, souffles, croquettes, or hash,” it became very popular in wartime kitchens. When supplements by breadcrumbs, cereal or pastry, ground meat, like eggs, could be stretched to feed many mouths. Variety meats such as liver and kidney were not rationed.

In the Spirit of Rationing

During the war years, alcohol was increasingly rationed- and scarce. Halifax liquor stores saw block-long queues of men “and an increasing number of women” as alcohol rations continued to decrease. When rationing reached one pint of hard spirits, one quart of wine, or twelve quarts of beer every two weeks, bootleggers’ profits soared. In Nova Scotia, professional bootleggers paid up to a dollar over the purchase price to buy spirits from individuals who chose to sell their personal rations rather than drink them. The bootleggers could then resell the liquor for as much as 15 dollars a quart, 10-15 times more than official Liquor Commission prices. The Wartime Prices and Trade Board informed consumers that serving tea or coffee at club meetings or garden parties was contrary to the spirit of ration regulations: “ships and sailors” lives must not be put at risk to bring in from abroad a single pound of supplies that we can do without.”
Individuals over the age of twelve were entitled to either one ounce of tea or four ounces of coffee per week. Parents must have looked forward to their children entering their teens, when they could finally claim caffeine rations. In the meantime, small quantities of coffee or tea could be stretched with milk or juice and perked up with spices and flavourings-the forerunners of our own favourite coffee-bar drinks.

Bread, Muffins and Biscuits

Although bread was delivered in urban areas by horse and buggy (due to gasoline rationing), many wartime housewives prided themselves on their bread-making skills. Flour was not rationed, and many recipes substituted molasses for sugar and bacon drippings for shortening. Because metal was at a premium during the war, many women baked round loaves in recycled coffee cans.

No More Lobster, Please!

The war had far-reaching consequences for the Maritime fishing industry. Some 500 fishing vessels were commandeered by the government and many fisherman left their jobs to join the services. Canned salmon and tuna virtually disappeared from the shelves of most grocery stores during the war years, as these were needed for the “boys overseas.” Housekeepers were urged instead to purchase mackerel or flounders, which prior to the war were considered undesirable. When fresh salmon was available, local grocery stores such as Sobey’s and Dominion gave it a prominent place in their newspaper and in-store advertisement. On the other hand, fresh lobster was frequently seen on local wartime menus. It was both cheap and widely available. In fact, it is not uncommon to hear elderly Maritimers complain that they ate so much lobster during the war years that they can’t bear to ever look at it today.

Victory is Sweeter than Sugar

In 1942 weekly sugar rations were reduced from twelve ounces per person to half a pound. Today, two pounds of sugar a week for a family of four might seem like a substantial, even excessive, amount, given both our awareness of nutritional values and our contemporary obsession with weight control. However, in the 1940s sugar was perceived not as an indulgence, but as an indispensable flavouring ingredient and a meaningful source of food energy. The term “empty calories” had yet to be invented and the full-figured women was admired rather than scorned. moreover, more households than not relied on home baking, particularly during the war years. Just think: if we were to stop purchasing store bought cookies, salad dressing, jams and even bread, our sugar jars would empty far more quickly than they do. Sugar rations were reduced due to increasing dangers in shipping and transportation. Canada did not produce enough sugar to meet its own needs. However, wartime housewives still managed to put all manner of sweet treats on the table. More than one family relied on the trick of keeping separate bowls for each member’s weekly sugar ration, which each would dip into for their morning coffee or breakfast cereal. At the end of the week mother would collect all the bowls and combine what sugar was left to make something special. Maple syrup, which was not subject to rationing, was commonly used in Atlantic Canada, as were molasses, honey and corn syrup as a substitute for sugar. Condensed milk was also used as a sweetener.

Victory Gardens

Although fresh vegetables were not rationed in the Maritimes, families were encouraged to plant victory gardens in order to produce enough vegetables for their own use. This wartime nitiative was driven both by the need to free up commercially grown produce for military consumption, as well as to advance the health-and thus the productivity – of the civilian labour force. Vegetables and fruits were near the top of the list in Canada’s “Eat Right to Fight” program. Staying healthy was promoted as a moral imperative during wartime. As always, the emphasis was on thrift. The Dominion Department of Agriculture developed a vigorous campaign promoting wartime gardens, and local horticultural societies and gardening clubs, sponsored victory garden programs. Civilians were encouraged to share gardening implements with neighbours and to plan their gardens carefully, because “a garden that is not a success is a waste of materials and manpower, and we cannot afford waste.” In addition to growing their own produce, women on the home front were advised to can surplus tomatoes, peas, and beans as well as to store potatoes and other root vegetables for winter use. The fewer vegetables and fruits a housewife had to buy at the supermarket, the greater was her contribution to the war effort.

Victory Food Canning

Pickles, Relishes, Chutneys, Jams, and Jellies.

Along with wartime gardening, every housewife was strongly urged to put up her own preserves in order to conserve as much commercially canned fruits and vegetables as possible for the brave boys at war. Home canning was promoted as yet another means by which women on the home front could participate in the country’s war efforts. A less altruistic incentive for home canning was the additional sugar allowances granted for this purpose. Canning sugar was allowed for all fresh fruits, including citron and wild berries. Marrow, tomatoes, and pumpkins were considered vegetables and excluded from canning sugar rations. Housewives had to estimate in advance the quantities of sugar they would need for their preserves and complete applications reviewed by the local ration board. Households were then sent special canning sugar coupons, which could be used at specified intervals throughout the harvest months. The Department of Agriculture recommended canning fruit in preference to making jams and jellies, as plain canning required less sugar and the results were nutritionally more valuable. Women were also instructed not to use canned fruits when fresh fruits were available, and to avoid wasting sugar by careless preparation or storage that resulted in spoilage. On a more sinister note, consumers were warned against the temptations of applying for canning sugar under false pretences. False statements were subject to the full penalty of the law. Note that many wartime canning recipes substituted molasses for sugar. Molasses adds a rich colour and extra piquancy, particularly to the sweet and sour flavour of relishes and chutneys. And because metal was at a premium during the war, women often sealed their jars with melted wax instead of lids.