Saving food, saving lives: rationing in the Second World War

This week marks 80 years since food rationing was introduced in Britain, beginning with bacon, butter and sugar, during the Second World War. Feeding the nation during wartime was a serious business. Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska describes the women's war on the kitchen front

Women queue for potatoes in a greengrocer's shop in London, c1945. (Photo by Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer/IWM via Getty Images)

A report by the social research organisation Mass Observation on the food situation in 1941 noted the “difficulty of eking out rations with unrationed foodstuff, the high prices, particularly of perishable foods, shortages and the consequent queues, occupy the first place in the average working woman’s present-day life”. The point was made succinctly by a Mass Observation diarist who “invariably” asked his wife what her friends said about the war before writing his entry. She “always” replied, “‘Nothing, they don’t discuss it. They are more concerned about what to get for tea’ – which is, I suppose, after all a war topic”.

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In the Second World War the civilian population had to cope with extensive rationing of food and clothing as well as severe shortages of other consumer goods as economic resources were diverted towards the war effort. During this period of austerity, housewives acquired an increased status because the successful implementation of rationing and other domestic economy measures was vital in maintaining civilian health and morale. This pivotal female contribution was recognised by the government. For example a Ministry of Food leaflet declared: “The line of Food Defence runs through all our homes… The woman with the basket has a vital part to play in home defence. By saving food you may be saving lives”. The housewife’s daily battle on the kitchen front was as critical to victory as that of the soldier or the worker in essential industries.

Food was undoubtedly a major concern for women in wartime, but this did not mean that they were uninterested in the wider war effort. Clara Milburn, a middle-aged, middle-class housewife who lived in a village a few miles from Coventry, commented on the progress of the war in considerable detail in her diary. Anxious about her son who was a German prisoner of war, Milburn accepted wartime sacrifice. She considered the extension of food rationing in the summer of 1940 as “all to the good”. Nevertheless, Milburn lamented rising prices and growing shortages of unrationed foods and other goods. Following the introduction of clothes rationing in 1941, she commented that, “Life is certainly queer now, with coupons for clothes (margarine coupons at that) and very ordinary commodities like potatoes kept in the shops for regular customers only!”

Timeline: when did food rationing begin and end?

January 1940 Food rationing begins: butter, bacon, ham and sugar rationed

March 1940 Meat rationed

July 1940 Tea and margarine rationed

May 1941 Cheese rationed

June 1941 Clothes rationed

December 1941 Points rationing introduced for canned and processed foods

February 1942 Soap rationed

July 1942 Chocolate and sweets rationed

May 1949 Clothes rationing abolished

May 1950 Points rationing abolished

September 1950 Soap derationed

October 1952 Tea derationed

February 1953 Sweets rationing abolished

May 1954 Cheese and fats derationed

July 1954 Meat, bacon and ham derationed…

… end of food rationing

 

How to stop the grabbing

Nella Last, a middle-aged, working-class housewife, started writing her diary as a Mass Observation volunteer. She lived in Barrow-in-Furness, which like Coventry suffered severely from bombing raids. Last, who remembered the look of “beyond” in the faces of young men volunteering in 1914, responded to Chamberlain’s declaration of war with resignation and she worried about her two adult sons.

Last was rather more critical than Milburn and in 1942 she wrote that the “present rationing system has been a farce”. Last deplored the fact that there were many who “got more than their share”. She grudgingly endorsed strict rationing. “Much as I dislike coupons and chits, I think it’s the only fair way to stop overlapping and grabbing”. Wartime surveys show that housewives generally welcomed the introduction of a comprehensive food policy and nine out of ten supported rationing.

Food rationing and shortages made the housewife’s task more arduous and women’s time became an important national resource in the exceptional circumstances of war. Women’s tendency to spend their time caring for their families rather than indulging in personal leisure pursuits was utilised by the state as an indispensable aspect of the austerity policy. An avalanche of propaganda informed housewives on the details of food policy, advised them on how to make the most of scarce resources and suggested new recipes such as ‘mock’ dishes. With the introduction of clothes rationing, soap rationing and shortages of virtually all household goods, housewives learned how to “make do and mend” to maintain at least a semblance of customary standards and domestic rituals.

The introduction of clothes rationing affected women to a greater extent than men. The policy was not just a concern of the young and fashionable. Mothers worried about clothing children under rationing and surrendering coupons for household linen – part of the ration since 1942 – became a continuous source of grievance. Satisfaction with food increased as ration levels stabilised from 1942 onwards, but there was no shift towards contentment with regard to the clothing situation in Home Intelligence morale reports. Another problem was the shortage of soap and in 1943 Milburn wrote in her diary: “never in all my life have I been so short of soap – a nasty feeling”.

Shopping became increasingly difficult in the course of the war. Milburn lamented the “miserable” look of shops in 1942 as shelves were “getting emptier and emptier”. “Many things were not obtainable” any more “so one just had the weekly ration”. Likewise, Last wandered around a market with many stalls closed and few goods available with “sadness” in her heart. In contrast with the “joyous” prewar atmosphere of “meet-a-friend-and-have-a-chat” nowadays “grim-faced women queue and push – and hurry off to another queue when served”.

Grim-faced women queue and push – and hurry off to another queue when served

To purchase unrationed foods and other scarce items required queuing, and food queues were an unremitting problem. Home Intelligence morale reports described food queues as a “bigger menace to public morale than several serious German air raids” in February 1941. Housewives did most of the queuing, yet this was a task that working women and mothers of young children had real difficulty finding time to do. According to a Mass Observation report, to a “great extent queues have been the trial of the women rather than the men. Men have felt the lack of variety of food at the dinner table, but they have not gone through the tiring ordeal of queuing, for what there is in front of them”.

Used to economising, Last prided herself on being a “good cook and manager”. She did all her own baking and cooked stews stretching cheap cuts of meat into a filling meal. Her husband appreciated her abilities: “By Jove, when I hear some men talking about what they get to eat, I realise how lucky I am”.

Making sacrifices in war

The Milburns had a large garden and homegrown vegetables augmented the family’s rations considerably. However, digging for victory required not only access to a suitable plot of land, but also time and Clara Milburn’s diary reveals the effort and frustrations involved. By contrast, relatively little came of Nella Last’s plan to grow vegetables in her back garden. However, she kept hens and the family had plenty of eggs.

Housewives frequently shielded men and children from the full impact of the reduction in consumption that accompanied rationing, a sacrifice that extended across the social spectrum. Nevertheless, female morale was generally high during the war, the overwhelming majority of housewives considered themselves to be well fed and they accepted the necessity of sacrifice for the duration.

How wartime affected cosmetics and fashion

Stimulated by women’s magazines and the cinema, demand for fashionable clothes and beauty products was high on the eve of war. With unprecedented levels of female employment, demand for cosmetics increased further during hostilities. In the wake of clothes rationing, women focused on elaborate makeup, inventive hairstyles and coupon-free accessories to counterbalance the limitations of their wardrobe. As Doris White, a young engineering worker, put it: “Our aim in life seemed to concern our faces and hair”. A wartime survey shows that the overwhelming majority of working women and 90 per cent of the under-30s used cosmetics regularly.

Women’s right and duty to maintain a fashionable appearance was portrayed as critical to female morale. The magazine Woman proclaimed in December 1939: “Nowadays beauty is a duty, since it cheers and inspires both yourself and others”. The firm Yardley coined the slogan “Put your best face forward” and one advert declared, “Never should we forget that good looks and good morale go hand in hand”.

Cosmetics or toilet preparations were never rationed, but official production was cut by 75 per cent of prewar output to economise on labour and raw materials. According to the Board of Trade, which was in charge of controlling domestic consumer goods, the industry actually produced over half of prewar output in 1941. At the same time, the only cosmetics “normally” seen in shops were of “very obscure and, in most case, illegal origins”. The report concluded that new legislation would “deal with the most important abuses, but there is little doubt that the black market will merely move on to some other forms of evasion”.

The possibility of prohibiting the industry entirely was discussed in 1942. This proposal was rejected in view of the “uproar which prohibition would evoke” because in order to sustain morale “women must have lipstick and powder”. Instead, the Board introduced increasingly tight regulation, and legislation governing the control of cosmetics was changed eight times in six years. This policy dealt a “blow at the Black Market”, but new loopholes continued to be exploited.

One example was the appearance of a product called Laddastop following the prohibition of nail varnish, which required scarce solvent-based substances, in 1943. Marketed to stop ladders in silk stockings, Laddastop was pink and sold in small bottles with a brush for application. A Board of Trade official lamented that the “Black Market has defeated us”, because manufacturers claimed that they were not producing a toilet preparation at all. The predicament was resolved by a Ministry of Supply order which prohibited preparations containing the banned solvents in bottles less than half a pint in size.

Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska is an associate professor of modern British history at the University of Illinois, Chicago. She is author of Austerity in Britain: Rationing, Controls, and Consumption (Oxford University Press, 2000). 

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This article was first published in the March 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine