Not so long ago, at the onset of COVID-19, I’m pretty sure most of us could remember how the Americans baffled the rest of the world by panic-buying and hoarding rolls and rolls of toilet papers and how some of those hoarders sold them a much higher price on the trunk of their cars. Apparently, this was not the first time that this happened during a crisis when Americans ran out of products that they deemed essential. The difference was that when the United States entered World War II, instead of rolls of toilet paper, the crisis was with meat.

Rationing

Right after the Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States immediately began rationing supplies. However, it wasn’t the year after that the rationing efforts began limiting consumer goods. For instance, the supply of meat had to be diverted to service members on the battlefield who needed those packs of protein compared to the Americans left at home.

In the spring of 1942, the process rationing system was established and implemented through a points system. The items were rationed with designated points based on their availability and demand, pretty much just like what the British did. It was a good idea. However, the system could be confusing. Ration stamps and the value of the papers changed around every four months, and products would be taken off the ration list as a new ration book was issued. This caused confusion on which stamps could be used and which were not valid anymore.

Meat cuts displayed with ceiling prices and point values per pound, March 1943. (Photo Credit: Anthony Potter Collection/ Getty Images)

The rationing system always included other protein sources like eggs, soy products, cheese, beans, peanut butter, and the likes to ensure that the Americans could still have their daily protein intake. They also had this “share the meat” campaign that asked all US citizens over the age of 12 to limit their consumption of meat to two and a half pounds of meat per week. At the same time, dieticians, national meat councils, and local authorities joined hand in hand to come up with protein-pack recipes that could replace meat. Regardless of all these, the public was unhappy about their inability to purchase meat, and soon, illegal meat operations followed.