How Coronavirus Shopping Helps Us Relate to WWII Rationing

By Amy Dee Stephens, Exec Dir

Why can’t I ever time my shopping to find Lysol spray on the shelf? I like Gala apples better than Red Delicious—but Red Delicious was my only choice. I have toilet paper preferences, people!

I’d grown accustomed to having all my personal shopping choices fulfilled instantly. Now, thanks to the pandemic, I have to eat food that isn’t my favorite, use certain things sparingly, and eat a lot more leftovers. Coronavirus has revealed how spoiled I am.

As a historian, I’ve researched and prepared World War II exhibits in the past with particular interest in how women managed everyday life. I’ve read and written about how women “cashed in” ration stamps at the grocery store to get limited amounts of meat or sugar (see How War Rationing Changed Grocery Shopping), and I’ve even tried cooking war-time substitution recipes (see WWII Food: The Tasteless Palate). Now, I feel like I’m living a modified version of rationing.

How does this “new” life compare with restricted shopping in the past?

Historic Rationing

Most people are familiar with the term “war rationing.” The government limited household purchases so that adequate quantities of food made it to the fighting front. At its height, a family in the mid-1940s was limited to one pound of meat and one egg per adult per week.

Edmond shoppers were not immune. All the grocery stores along Broadway–Snyder Brothers, P & L Grocery and Van’s Bakery—adjusted to the emergency requirement of accepting ration stamps and limiting food sales. Sacrificing for the common good was encouraged to create food fairness.

2020 Rationing

Although the government is not regulating food consumption today, supply-and-demand is. More Edmond residents are cooking at home and some staple foods are harder to get right now, such as eggs, milk, and bread. Just watch your online shopping cart fluctuate as these items sell-out.

It was a banana purchase that caused me to realize that I was experiencing modern-day rationing. I picked up my curbside groceries, and I laughed out loud when I pulled out a plastic bag with one banana inside. One. It was, however, the largest banana I’ve ever seen. When I looked at my receipt—they had calculated it as two bananas based on its weight. 

Historic Panic-Buying

Panic buying isn’t a new phenomenon. A rush on sugar and red meat was the European catalyst for food rationing during WWI. America adopted the successful model of rationing during WWII. But the 20th century saw other examples of panic-buying, from serious to silly. In 1962, people stock-piled canned foods and bottled water out of fear of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1985, consumers panic-purchased Coca-Cola when New Coke was introduced. Fear, selfishness, herd mentality?

2020 Panic-Buying

If you didn’t see empty aisles with your own eyes, then you saw them on the news. Toilet paper, disinfectant spray and hand sanitizer flew off the shelves in March. Although the fear of running out seems to have leveled off, we’ve all seen the “Out of Stock” and “Limit 1 Per Household” notifications.

In mid-march, the day that Oklahomans suddenly faced the reality of Coronavirus, blogs and videos about toilet paper alternatives exploded with views. Ideas ranged from coffee filters to romance novel pages. One site reminded readers that toilet paper is a new invention, and that leaves (and even ancient pottery shards!) have sufficed for centuries. Even so, I bought myself an extra package of cheap, thin toilet paper. It will be better than leaves, but I’m still on the lookout for my favorite soft, plushy brand.  

Our Temporary “Normal”

We all know that life will get back to normal eventually, but we will be forever changed. Even though we may go back to certain routines, others will be different. Every major historical event, like wars, terrorism and tornadoes, causes us to alter our behaviors to some degree.

For me, I predict that I will switch to at least one brand that was a substituted item on my shopping list (I rather liked the Knox beef bouillon cubes that I’d never heard of before!). I will personally keep one extra package of toilet paper stashed away from now on. And like the women of WWII before me, I will always remember that nothing on my grocery list is guaranteed. I was just spoiled.