NARA Coast to Coast: The Coupon Craze of the 1940s

Today’s post is written by Katie Dishman, of the National Archives at Chicago.

The economy has been at the top of the newscasts, not to mention peoples’ thoughts, for several years now with no end in sight.  Although there has been prosperity since World War II, during the difficult war years the government worked at keeping the economy under control.  At the forefront of its efforts was the Office of Price Administration (OPA), Record Group 188.  And coupons played a considerable role.

A continuation of the many agencies established during Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression-era tenure, the Office of Price Administration and Civilian Supply was established in April 1941, changing names to simply the Office of Price Administration in August 1941.  It was a division of the Office of Emergency Management (Executive Order 8875) and then became an independent agency from the Emergency Price Control Act in January 1942.

Its main functions were to stabilize prices and rents by setting maximum prices for commodities, except on agricultural products, and maximum rents in defense areas to prevent gouging and inflation.  The OPA used a variety of media to disseminate its messages including radio broadcasts, newsletters, window displays, exhibits, and other public programming.

Chart disseminated to aid consumers on when they could use their ration stamps

One of the most notable actions was the introduction of rationing, including a system of points and stamps.  Black market and stolen coupons and stamps were frequently a concern.  People were employed to check the authenticity of what was submitted.  Coupons and stamps were so valuable that vaults were used at local boards to house the reserves of “ration currency.”

Chicago OPA worker checking the authenticity of ration stamps under ultraviolet light
Chicago OPA worker checking the authenticity of ration stamps under ultraviolet light


Although many people have been forced to cut back on holiday purchases in recent years, at least they have not had to worry, for the most part, about the dearth of items to buy.  Nor have people had to make sure they have enough coupons to cover their purchases.  The point system included many food items.  Sugar and butter were especially missed by those wanting to bake holiday sweets.  Even stoves were rationed for a brief time in the early 1940s.  And children hoping to get bikes for Christmas during the war may have been disappointed to know those were rationed for a few years as well.

Shoes, too, were another item on the rationing list.  However, dispensations were made for special types of shoes; for instance people needing shoes for their jobs may have been granted shoe stamps for nursing or construction work.  Called a “Special Shoe Stamp,” people had to provide proof they were necessary for their war work.

According to a document from the Cleveland, Ohio, regional office from November 1944, the OPA administered prices and rent that were set by federal laws.  They covered “nearly everything the typical American family buys, eats, wears, and uses, and [applies] to some 8,000,000 different commodities and services to commodities at all levels from the producer to the consumer.”

In 1944, there were approximately ten rationing programs administered by the OPA.  This involved the printing and distribution of 128-131 million copies of each of four war ration books, millions of mileage rationing (gasoline) and fuel oil rationing books, and hundreds of thousands of purchase certificates for automobiles, tires, and other rationed goods.

Of course, administering this huge operation was onerous. The number of paid employees of the OPA at this time in the various offices was almost 60,000.  In addition, there were more than 195,000 volunteers. Part of the work entailed conducting compliance surveys of stores and retail establishments to ensure they were following guidelines.  Inspectors as well as the general public could launch complaints if they thought prices were exceeding what they should.

There were 13 main rationed commodities groups:

Tires (beginning 1/5/42)
Automobiles (beginning 2/25/42)
Typewriters (beginning 3/13/42, ending 4/27/44)
Sugar (beginning 5/5/42)
Gasoline (beginning in the East 5/15/42, and nationwide 7/22/42)
Bicycles (beginning 7/9/42, ending 9/23/44)
Men’s rubber boots and work shoes (beginning 10/5/42)
Fuel oil (beginning in the East 10/1/42, and nationwide 3/14/43)
Coffee (no beginning date given, ending 7/29/43)
Stoves (beginning in 30 states 12/19/42, and nationwide 8/24/43, coal and wood stoves rationing ending 10/15/44)
Shoes (beginning 2/9/43)
Processed foods (beginning 3/1/43)
Meats and fats (beginning 3/29/43)

Most Americans were willing to make sacrifices for the war effort, although it did take its toll on some people.  For instance, the Royal Oak, Michigan, branch compiled a year-end summary of happenings at its office in December 1946.  People would show up with various requests.  One mother came in with her barefoot child demanding a coupon for shoes so she could attend school.  One man hauled in his car tire that had blown out to prove he needed a “Certificate III” for a new one.

And it was recounted, in some detail, how an elderly woman came in demanding sugar, although she had used her Spare 9 and 10 stamps for canning sugar and stamps 49 and 51 for table use.  She ranted she had been a citizen for 72 years and “No one is going to tell me I can’t have it. This OPA stinks! What in hell do you think I am going to do with my two bushels of crab apples and one bushel of pears I have spoiling in my basement? By the Lord I’ll get the sugar, and no one like you is going to stop me.”  Unfortunately, there was no word on what happened after that rampage.

The OPA officially was abolished in May 1947 by the General Liquidation Order.  But it made a cameo appearance in the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life as George Bailey, in the wartime montage, reminded the rabble-roused crowd, “Don’t you know there’s a war on?”  Indeed, people should be thankful there have been so few restrictions placed on purchases since that time.  During the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas of the world, Americans have been fortunate to not have the hardships of rationing or the hassle of coupons.

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