Friday, September 3, 2010

What Did Your Family Eat During World War II?

World War II ushered in an era of necessity that changed the way Americans, and those in other nations, ate. This era included such experiences as food rationing, victory gardens and introductions to different types of food. All families would have been affected as their choices at the grocery store were diminished and women were encouraged to make substitutions for well known favorites and to make what they did have last longer.


Not just food was rationed during the war years. I remember a story from my own family history about a great-great grandmother who passed away; no family members went to her funeral because gas was rationed and they lived too far away. Rationing affected more than just what food you could buy and how much gas you could purchase it affected your access to some durable goods.

So what food was rationed? Sugar, meat, coffee, processed foods, cheese, canned milk and fats. To see a list of rationed items and the dates they were rationed, check out this website on World War II rationing.

Families were issued ration books with coupons that were used to purchase food. Ration book covers include the name of the person who it was issued to and their address. These books often are a home source that may be archived by a family member and can be used by the genealogist to add interest to your family history. I have also seen these books at antique stores and on eBay. GenealogyToday’s databases include one with 9,800 names from War Ration books. This unique database provides another way to find family members. While these books provide little information, it does place your ancestor in a specific place in time.

We’re Eating What For Dinner???

In some cases, Americans were encouraged to substitute different food stuffs for what was familiar due to rationing or limited quantities. One of my older relatives lived with my family for a time and refused to eat any ground beef. This refusal stemmed from World War II when horse meat was provided as a substitute for beef. Even after more than 45 years, she was convinced the government was slipping horse meat into packages of ground beef.

Other meat substitutes both animal and plant based were also suggested. Tricks to making food last longer were encouraged. Your family may have changed their diet considerably in order to comply with shortages. Patriotic propaganda that came in the form of posters and cookbooks that told women how to shop and what to cook.

Victory Gardens

When you think about it, it makes sense to encourage the masses to plant gardens when food is at a premium. A little self sufficiency makes it possible to spread the wealth so to speak. One way our families were encouraged to help with the war effort was to plant a victory garden. The May 3, 1943 issue of Life magazine (p. 29) includes a pictorial of gardens in all kinds of places in the United States including at a prison. The caption to that picture notes that prisoners aren’t allowed to plant corn, lest it be used to hide from the guards.

So Now What?

What may seem like everyday, ordinary life to older family members can add interest to your family history narrative. Interview older family members about what they ate, how they sacrificed and did without during the war years. If you are that older family member, write down your experiences. History is made up of the experiences of individuals and history is lost when we neglect to tell our stories and our experiences.

Want to learn more about eating during World War II? The book Manly Meals and Mom's Home Cooking: Cookbooks and Gender in Modern America by Jessamyn Neuhaus includes a few chapters on the subject.   Portions of the book are available as a preview on Google Books.

So what did your family eat during World War II?