When I was a kid, in the drawer of Gram’s library table there were a couple of little red circles smaller than dimes made of something like really compressed cardboard. They had a couple of numbers or letters impressed into them, but whatever they were, no one ever used them nor threw them away. “What’s this?” I finally asked.
“That’s a red cent,” I was told. “If you hear of something that is not worth a red cent, that is what they are talking about.” “Oh. It’s a penny?” “No it isn’t even worth a penny.” I was told it was left over from The War when things were rationed and you had to hand over stamps for things like sugar, coffee or gasoline. If you didn’t need your whole stamp, change was given back in the from of these pressed cardboard tokens.
I am remembering this because last night in going through some things, my brother and Dad gave me, I found a handful of ration books. They are about the size of thin passports and are pretty interesting, although a little confusing. Being government issue, they are printed with as many rules as a mattress tag, including threats of what happens if you don’t turn in your old book when it is time to get a new one or break any of the other rules (up to a $10,000 fine and possibly imprisonment). You are not to pay more that the official price for anything. Stores must post the legal maximum prices. Apparently people didn’t pay a lot of attention, because I have two or three copies of four different editions, and there are a few stamps left in each.
The first ones include physical descriptions of the owners – height, eye color and so on – like a driver’s license. These were all issued in Jeffersonville where no doubt the “issuing officer” knew everyone by sight anyway, but that information was no doubt useful in urban areas. If you found a lost book, you were required to turn it in (or face $10,000 fine, etc.), but if you were going to try to use it, you’d better resemble the person described on the front. If you died, they’d better get your book back.
The stamps are small – less that the size of a postage stamp – and are mostly pretty cryptic, with a number and maybe a letter. Toward the end of the war, there are a couple remaining labeled “coffee” and “sugar,” and larger number inscribed “spare.” Things that were rationed were food items (including meat, butter, sugar), gasoline, rubber, clothes and shoes. The amounts of gas and tires you were allowed depended on how far you had to drive to work (at a maximum legal speed of 35 mph). Aunt Mattie was on the road a lot, visiting clients, and she told about having to squabble with the board in her town to keep tires on her car. I have heard of neighbors pooling their sugar rations to make a wedding cake for one of the daughters.
Many of the rationed goods were to enable feeding and outfitting the armed forces. Some were limited because the countries of origin were ravaged by war. Transport and shipping also used fuel. So it evolved that the way to save, say rubber (a tropical product not made here), was to just do without it as much as possible. Millions of victory gardens sprang up. Everything that could be recycled was recycled, including tiny things like rubber bands and paperclips. Some of these little books remind us to recycle the tin cans and any waste fat after you had bought your food.
These little coupon books just remind me how when push comes to shove, we have managed to come together, one tin of vegetables, one more rubber band at a time. I think that if the need arose (Tropical Storm Irene, for instance) we would still team up and get the job done.