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Food rationing during World War two: a special case of sustainable consumption?

Rationnement alimentaire pendant la seconde guerre mondiale : Un cas particulier de consommation durable ?
Iselin Theien

Abstracts

This article explores some of the strategies applied by consumers for making-do during the Second World War in Norway. By reducing waste, using various substitutes and exploiting underused natural resources such as wild plants, birds, and alternative marine sources of nutrition, Norwegian consumers adapted their diet to a situation of food scarcity. However, their everyday consumption was primarily governed by the regulatory framework installed for dealing with the crisis, namely the rationing system. By 1942, almost all common foods had been placed under rationing. Despite of the many bureaucratic inconveniences of this system, it was largely supported by consumers, who accepted it as a socially just mechanism for distributing scarce resources. The article brings up the question of how far the willingness of consumers to accept rationing was a unique experience of the war, or whether one might imagine a similar design for purposes of sustainable consumption.

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Introduction

  • 1  More recent examples of food rationing could also be cited, most famously on Cuba, where this syst (...)
  • 2  An often-cited starting point for the dawning of the green consciousness is set as the publication (...)

1In the affluent societies of Europe and the USA, World War II is arguably the only experience within living memory of a regime resembling sustainable consumption.1The dawning of a large-scale environmental consciousness is of course a much more recent development, so ‘sustainable’ in this context should be understood as consumption within the limits imposed by the exceptional circumstances created by the war rather than the limits discovered after the 1960s for what the natural environment allows us to consume.2

  • 3  Tukker A. et al. (eds.), 2008.

2One definition of what a contemporary regime of sustainability may look like points to the optimisation of consumption according to certain defined levels of appropriate standards.3  The saving of resources during World War II was done for a different purpose than the contemporary concern for climate change, but the aim of optimising consumption could serve as a heading for these efforts, too: By reducing waste and using ‘everything’ (the particularities of which will be further discussed in this article) within the levels imposed by the authorities through the rationing system, consumers were taking part in the national efforts to control the use of common resources.

3During the war, the principal concern dictating the heavily regulated consumption regimes across Europe and the USA was to sustain acceptable levels of consumption in an emergency situation of dwindling supplies of food, textiles, fuel and other necessities. A paramount concern was to avoid that the precarious food situation should provoke social unrest. In addition, the countries actively participating in the war had a strong interest in controlling domestic consumption in order to divert resources to the battle front.

  • 4 Taylor L., 2000.

4The key instrument to regulating the war-time consumption was rationing. This system has been described as a contract between the government and the consuming public by which the former “promised to supply a certain amount of foodstuffs to individuals at certain rates of supply and the latter accepted those foodstuffs and the rates of supply in return for the security of delivery implicit in the promise”.4 In order words, rationing exchanged the notion of free choice limited only by private financial capacity with a notion of secure and equitable deliveries. It was a detailed yet flexible system which prescribed specific quantities of various goods to each consumer, based on individual criteria such as age, gender, type of work and medical circumstances (illnesses or pregnancy).

  • 5  Christensen, C. B., 2003.

5Typically, a consumer would receive a booklet of coupons stating his or her rations of a whole range of goods each month, and then he (or more often she) would have to present the relevant coupons to make each purchase. The rationing coupons were not intended as any substitute for money, but rather served as an additional, tightly controlled currency which was required to make most purchases. There are thus several examples of consumers who were unable to use their rations in full due to restricted financial means: In Denmark, for instance, working-class consumers found it difficult to take full advantage of their butter and sugar rations up until 1942, when general salaries improved.5 In order to avoid that the rationing system was overruled by the old market mechanisms in this way, governments imposed maximum prices to enable all consumers to buy their rations in full.

  • 6  This issue has been confronted by, among others, Stø E. et al, 2008, , pp. 235-254; Jacobsen E. an (...)

6Rationing thus meant than consumption transcended the private arena of the household, and entered into the field of national politics. Any policies toward promoting sustainable consumption has yet to make this important transition. Much of the academic and political debate surrounding sustainable consumption focuses on the attitudes and behaviour (looking, for instance, for ways to link the two) of individual consumers, ignoring the political and economic frameworks for consumption.6

  • 7 Cohen L., 2003p.
  • 8  See Jacobs M., 1997.

7By contrast, the historical literature dealing with consumption during the Second World War highlights the political role of consumers. In her comprehensive book about the changing nature of the American consumer in the twentieth century, Lizabeth Cohen points out how the war-time consumer was above all a citizen, putting social responsibilities first.7 Patriotism was an important source of inspiration for these citizen consumers, who were recognised as valuable participants in the national war effort by their many contributions to making the rationing system work.8

  • 9  See Cohen L, A Consumers Republic, pp. 62 ff. and Zweiniger-Bargielowska, I., 2000, Austerity in B (...)

8Rationing unavoidably involved much administration, both for the authorities but also for the individual consumer. The war-time housewife had a demanding job doing the book-keeping for the family, getting hold of the actual rations and making the most of the rationed food and other essentials, catering for the needs of each family member. Nevertheless, the rationing schemes enjoyed the public’s support throughout the war years, especially in the countries in which policy-makers were able to convince consumers that rationing was essential to the war effort.9

  • 10 For studies of rationing in occupied Europe, see for instance Trienekens G., 2000 in Smith D. F. an (...)
  • 11  The rationing system of the Second World War has received surprisingly little attention in Norwegi (...)

9More surprisingly perhaps, consumers on the whole supported the rationing system even in occupied Europe, where the housewives obviously lacked the added motivation of saving resources in the kitchen for the benefit of the men abroad.10 Among these countries, Norway will be used as a case study for this article in looking further into how consumers managed their everyday affairs under such circumstances, with a focus on the plights of the housewives who bore the principal responsibility for making the rationing system work.11

Everyday life under rationing

  • 12  The Oslo City Archives: Forsyningsnemnda Series Dd, Pk 4 F, Report on the Rationing of consumer go (...)

10If we look at how the rationing system worked in Norway during the war, we will find that there were actually three types of rationing at work.12 Firstly, many foodstuffs were rationed in specific quantities: in order to buy goods such as bread, sugar, potatoes and coffee consumers had to stamp rationing cards which were issued to each individual specifying the amount of each good they were entitled to buy during the month in question.

11Secondly, for goods such as meats, milk and most vegetables, of which deliveries were more difficult to predict, the local shops functioned as distributive centres. The system was such that consumers had to register with their local shop, which was allotted goods according to the number of customers registered. The shop was then responsible for selling the food in fair shares to its registered customers, applying more or less developed distribution schemes.

12Thirdly, consumers were given extra, unspecified rationing cards, which could be used for irregular deliveries of for instance canned goods or sweets. The rationing authorities would announce that such deliveries had taken place, and that consumers could use a certain number of their extra coupons to buy the relevant product in the stores. By mid 1942, virtually all goods had been placed under rationing in occupied Norway, using these three forms of regulation.

The labour of shopping

  • 13  Kjeldstadli K., 1990, p.443.
  • 14  The Archives and library of the Norwegian labour movement (Arbark), archive no. 1579: LO Stockholm (...)
  • 15  The Oslo City Archives: Forsyningsnemnda Series Dd, Pk 4, file 13: Letter from NSK kretsleder to N (...)

13A weak point of the rationing system had to do with the extra burdens placed on consumers in getting hold of their allotted goods. The reports of how housewives queued half day in the hope of getting hold of their rations were numerous, and the most glaring example was perhaps when consumers in Oslo reportedly had queued for a full 14 hours in order to buy butter in the spring of 1943.13 A report to the trade union in exile spelled out the burdens of consumption under these conditions: “Being a housewife in Norway today is a demanding and almost impossible task. Half the day is spent queuing. First she must get out early in the morning to get a queue number for the fish, then later in the day when the fish comes in she has to get back and stand in the queue to pick it up. This happens every day. It often happens that there is no fish left in the shop where you are registered, and then there is no other option than to travel to the city centre and go from shop to shop in the hope of getting something to mix with the potatoes for dinner”.14 Even the domestic Nazi Women’s Organisation complained about the difficulties of getting hold of food in the capital: “Is one supposed to line up in a queue at seven o’clock in the evening to get hold of some butter in the morning?”15

  • 16  The Oslo City Archives: Forsyningsnemnda Series Dd, Box ”Rasj.saker Fi-Mi”, folder ’Complaints fro (...)

14The complex organisation of the rationing system as sketched out above made the shopping extra time-consuming. The system of using local shops as distribution centres meant that consumers had to start queuing early in the morning to get their rations, as shops would often sell out quickly of whatever goods they had delivered that day. There were many complaints to the local rationing authorities concerning the social implications of this system, for instance by consumers who were ill or of old age, or consider the impossibility of the situation described by a single, working women in Oslo: Borghild E. worked at the telegraph office, starting at eight o’clock, before her local shop opened. She therefore tried leaving an empty milk bottle with a written order outside the shop, plus telephoned during her lunch break, but every afternoon when she returned from work the message from the shop was that all was sold out. During the month of January 1943, Borghild complained that she had received little more than a litre of milk in total.16

The labour of cooking

15Seldom has knowledge about all aspects of housekeeping and nutrition been in greater demand than during the war. Housewives needed to know how to make the most of the restricted resources available, both in terms of food preparation but also for instance of kitchen equipment. How could one preserve fruits and make jam on sugar rations restricted to 3 kilos per household per year, and with dwindling supplies of small but important items such as rubber bands for making the jars airtight? One solution was to innovate with different substitutes, which required a thorough understanding of the many technical aspects of food preservation. One of the great Norwegian popularizers of the science of making do with the food rations, Juliane Solbraa-Bay, published a book with the optimistic title “We’re making jam after all – without sugar” in 1942. Here, she guided the housewife reader through a wide range of rather advanced techniques for preserving fruits and berries through the long winter months, which would serve as an essential source of vitamins for the family. Among the tips for sealing the jars or bottles was a recipe for cleaning and reusing old paraffin wax, alternatively if no such wax was to be found the housewife could melt down candle ends and mix with a teaspoon of salicylic acid.    

  • 17  Solbraa-Bay J., 1942, p.29.
  • 18  Letter collection in SIFO’s in-house archives; Stack 1 – loose files, folder “Krisekrem”.  

16As for the contents of the home-made jars and bottles, Solbraa-Bay offered many recipes based on the hope that “we have gotten used to liking things that are less sweet”.17 In other words, the author was hopeful that taste should adjust to the realities of the food situation. And perhaps it did. In 1967, Ingjerd Johnson on the Norwegian national radio NRK asked her listeners to send in their war-time recipes for “crisis whipped cream” (krisekrem) and other dishes, and received hundreds of mostly handwritten instructions from women all over the country.18 Their memories of the war-time food were more often positive than negative, and the recipes were sprinkled with comments concerning the taste.

  • 19  Ibid. Letter from Lisa Hallberg to NRK (undated).
  • 20  Ibid., Letter from Sigrid Coll Hansen to NRK, 02.01.1968.

17Lisa H. from Trondheim shared a recipe for “crisis spread” curiously consisting of boiled crisp bread, yeast and spices, which “we thought tasted delicious at the time”.19 Sigrid C-H., a housewife from Fredrikstad, wrote how she was forever grateful to her home economics teacher, who had taught her how to make the national dish of fårikål – lamb and cabbage stew – without the lamb. “Here is a recipe for fårikål we all thought was lovely. It consisted of fresh or dried salt herring. It was made exactly as you would do with meat. … Just try it yourself, it was very good.” She also offered a recipe for a dish which has become something of a national representation of unappetising war-time food, namely the common root vegetable swede (kålrabi) fried in cod liver oil. However, Sigrid C-H. wrote that her family had happy memories of this dish: “To remove the taste of cod-liver oil I sloshed a little vinegar into the saucepan, it created a wonderful smell of fried steak all over the house to the delight of my husband and children.”20

  • 21  Ibid. Letter from Kaia Holst to NRK, 29.12.1967.
  • 22  Ibid. Letter from Gerd Spinnangr to NRK, 05.01.1968.

18When it came to the desserts and ersatz whipped cream requested on the radio programme, many similar recipes were sent in for cakes using boiled, crushed potatoes as a central ingredient. For instance, it was suggested that an almond cake could be made without the almonds, simply by adding a few drops of almond essence to the crushed potatoes, then mixing with some oatmeal, sugar and margarine. According to the letter-writer, this cake had a superb taste “which reminded us of ‘the good old days’ every time it was served”.21 As for the whipped cream, several suggestion were sent in, all of them prescribing rather time-consuming procedures. Gerd S. from Farsund explained how one should boil milk with a touch of butter, flour and sugar, and then whip it “until you can feel it in your right arm”.22 Other recipes suggested that one should let a mixture of boiled milk with some flour, fat and sweetener set until the next day, before whipping it for twenty minutes or so.

  • 23  Ibid. Letter from Astrid Sivertsen, Stavanger to the NRK, undated.
  • 24  Ibid. Letter from Signe Andersen to the NRK, 02.01.[1968].

19The similarities between many of the recipes would of course suggest that the housewives received their information from the same sources. As the woman with the herring fårikål stated, home economics teachers were an important source of information for many. Mrs Astrid S. from Stavanger also drew attention to the value of the social networks of exchange: “We soon had one recipe from one and another from a second friend. Yes, we had to make do with whatever was at hand and we had to be inventive in every way we could.”23 Traditional knowledge came back in demand, as one housewife from the remote Western region of Sogn told about in her letter: “For the first weeks of the war the regular transport [from the regional centre in Bergen] was cut off, and there we stood without yeast. Then an old housewife came to our aid, in her childhood they had used the attached recipe in a squeeze.”24 The recipe gave directions for how one could boil potatoes with salt and sugar, and then add a tiny amount of yeast before leaving to ferment for 24 hours. A small amount of the mass thus created could in turn be used as the basis for more “yeast” simply by repeating the process.

  • 25  SIFO archives, shelf 1, box 1 marked ”Statens opplysningskontor i husstell’, file 1. Report on ”St (...)

20Many of the popular recipes and innovative techniques for the house and kitchen management of the crisis years originated from two public institutions established just before the war. Early in 1939, the State Research Institute of Home Economics (formally established in 1936) had started its scientific work, and only weeks after the outbreak of the war on the Continent this was supplemented by a State Information Office of Home Economics, which was assigned with the expressed task of guiding the housewives through the approaching time of crisis with sound advice.25 Both institutions used several channels to reach out to the housewives with their advice on all aspects of household management, including for instance on the considerable task of washing and mending clothes in a time of strict rationing on soap and textiles. However, their main focus was on all aspects of nutrition, and in addition to creating a variety of crisis recipes, in particular the State Research Institute of Home Economics devoted much attention to exploring new sources of nutrition.

Using “everything”

  • 26  Wansink B., 2002, pp. 90-99.
  • 27  Ibid., p.94.

21Government agencies everywhere were busy finding new ways of reducing the waste of food resources to a minimum during the war. In the USA, the Department of Defence created a Committee on Food Habits under the direction of Margaret Mead, who used her insights from anthropology to design methods for, among other tasks, reducing resistance to eating “variety meats”.26 To this category belonged most parts of the slaughtered animal which were not commonly used in the diet, such as various organs, intestines and the heads. Among the findings of the Committee was the observation that consumers found the novel meats easier to accept if they were presented as more familiar dishes, for instance by using it as filler in ground beef or sausages.27

22In a similar attempt to reduce the waste of food resources in Norway, the home economics institutes focused on how to exploit the local resources from the sea and from wild plants in a more efficient manner. This involved exploring the boundaries for what was commonly perceived as food, by experimenting with uncommon ingredients such as wild sea birds (including sea gull) and wild plants including moss. Nevertheless, the cultural boundaries for what was accepted as human nutrition only needed be gently expanded, as Norway never experienced any mass famine. Much of the effort of the home economics institutes was devoted to exploiting common food resources as efficiently as possible, reducing waste on the one hand and finding replacements for scarce resources on the other.

  • 28  SIFO archives, shelf 1, box 1 marked ”Statens opplysningskontor i husstell’, file 1. Report on ”St (...)
  • 29  SIFO archives, shelf 1, unmarked box, file of recipes “Mat med saltet rogn”, (Statens opplysningsk (...)
  • 30  SIFO archives, shelf 1, box 1 marked ”Statens opplysningskontor i husstell’, file 4 (Recipes).
  • 31  SIFO archives, shelf 1, unmarked box, file of recipes “Mat med saltet rogn”, (Statens opplysningsk (...)
  • 32  Food tasting at The National Institute for Consumer Research (SIFO) 26.02.2009, conducted by Tone (...)

23For instance, the food labs tried to find new uses for the nutritious and plentiful fish roe.28 They experimented with watering down the roe to lose some of the salty taste of fish, while carefully measuring the nutritional levels. After reaching an acceptable result on both scales (of taste and nutritional value), the institutes created a number of recipes using fish roe as a substitute for flour, with acceptable results according to their own notes on taste judgement.29 The most basic recipe simply recommended using equal amounts of roe and flour, then mix with water and some yeast to bake bread or rolls.30 But there was nothing wrong with using roe in finer foods either; for instance in waffles mixed with milk, sugar, some regular flour and essence of vanilla and cardamom.31 In a 2009 tasting at the National Institute for Consumer Research in Oslo, this recipe was tested along with several other crisis recipes, and it went down surprisingly well: Most of the fish smell evaporated during the cooking, and left a fairly anonymous taste which most of the participants on the food panel found acceptable. Furthermore, the waffles were filling and had a delicate, conventional look, so this could easily be imagined as a popular war-time dish.32

24A third recipe from the war-time State Information Office of Home Economics could be worth recalling in full, namely a herring roe bread pudding:

350 g. herring roe; 1 tbs potato flour; 1 tbs bread flour; 5 tbs breadcrumbs; 4 boiled potatoes; 4 dl. milk; 1 tsp currants (made of dried blueberries); 2-3 tbs sugar; essence of almond; Served with sweet red sauce (saftsaus).

  • 33  SIFO archives, shelf 1, unmarked box, file of recipes “Silderetter III”.

25“This sounds bad”, the information office wrote in an unusually frank admission, “however it tastes almost like good bread pudding”.33 The recipe also displayed an impressive ingenuity in the use of local ingredients. Herring and potatoes represented the mainstay of the Norwegian crisis diet, and this recipe even used the herring roe. The use of the dried blueberries (a separate recipe was included for this procedure) was also a particular priority for the home economics institutes, in a campaign to promote the use of wild plants and berries.

26In the spring of 1943, the information office issued a list of valuable wild plant supplements that the housewives were recommended to include in their cooking. Many plants, such as nettles, goutweed and dandelions were recommended as excellent sources of iron and vitamin C. They could be used in soups, potato mash and sauces for fish or vegetable dishes. Berries were of course a much cherished ingredient in jam and desserts, and the home economics institutions took part in a larger effort to promote the use of this natural resource.

  • 34 The Oslo City Archives: Forsyningsnemnda Series Dd, Pk.‘Korrespondanse A-B’, File ‘Bærplukking’: Le (...)
  • 35  Hjeltnes G, 1995, Hverdagsliv (Oslo), p.133.

27Already in August 1940, the public provisions office in Oslo [Forsyningsutvalget] launched a publicity campaign to get the city dwellers out in the forests surrounding the capital picking berries. The simple slogan “Pick berries! There is plenty in the forests!” printed on a poster of a girl carrying a big basket of berries was meant to tempt the city consumers to supplement their own supplies of food.34 As the war progressed, berries became an increasingly treasured resource. By 1943, the authorities had introduced a limit for when one was allowed to start picking different sorts of berries, and there are accounts of masses of consumers spending the night in the forests waiting for the official start date for when the berries were ripe.35

Conclusions

The social aspects of rationing

  • 36  For a parallel in France, see Taylor L., 2000.

28The communal trips to the forests to pick berries became a happy memory for many in the bleak context of the war, and all the queuing and the widespread market for informal exchange of goods made the social aspects of consumption during the war highly visible. But also the rationing system was experienced as an essentially social form of consumption, by which the scarce goods were distributed according to accepted norms of social justice. With the exception of certain consumption categories dictated by the new political realities, such as some special arrangements which were made for the families of Norwegian soldiers doing service for Nazi Germany, the rationing system was clearly designed to cater to the needs of the different segments of the population according to recognized definitions of age, gender and medical conditions. Moreover, the system was accepted as a necessary instrument for dividing the supplies between the Norwegian civilians sharing the unwelcome destiny of living under German rule.36

  • 37  See Foss J., 1981.

29The ministry in charge of food issues (Forsyningsdepartementet), although officially under German control, had a reputation in Norway for promoting a line of resistance within the central administration.37 Its principal motivation for the massive extension of the rationing programmes up to 1942 was, of course, dictated by pragmatic concerns about the dwindling supplies of foodstuffs. However, an additional motivation was found in the observation that as long as goods were distributed on the open market, the sizeable German occupying force was best equipped with cash to buy the goods. Placing food-stuffs under rationing thus provided the local authorities with a means to distribute the food to the local population.  

  • 38  Arbark, archive no. 1579: LOs Stockholmssekretariat, Jb 15 folder 2, Fri Fagbevegelse 19.8.1944.

30And there are sources indicating that consumers shared the perspective that rationing in itself helped promote Norwegian interests vis-à-vis the German occupiers. The illegal Norwegian trade union newspaper Fri Fagbevegelse warned in 1944 that the Germans were trying to buy workers with extra tobacco and alcohol rations, and asked the workers to stand firm defending the current rationing system, as the apparent offers by the Germans were in reality only stolen from other Norwegians. The Norwegian workers were irreconcilable enemies of the Nazis, the trade union declared, and could not be bought: “The housewives have to stand in long queues because the Germans have stolen our foods, and still they try to buy the working class with liquor and tobacco!”38

  • 39  See for instance Trienekens G., 2000.
  • 40 Arbark, archive no 1579, Stockholmssekretariatet, Jb14 Mappe 1, Report delivered in St.Holm Decembe (...)

31The working class had good reasons to defend the rationing system, as the evidence suggests it helped decrease class differences in food consumption during the war.39 The alternative to rationing in a market in which food was scarce would have been inflation, which would have put many goods out of reach for workers with limited incomes. Thus the workers also reacted to the trading which took place in the black markets, with prices putting most goods out of reach for people on normal incomes: “In the beginning there were probably many who appreciated the black market”, one report to the trade union-in-exile admitted, “but that was only as long as the black marketers kept the prices within reasonable limits [...] Lately, or one could say throughout 1943, the black market prices have reached such ludicrous levels that it is a shame. ... It is now a common opinion that the black market is a curse because it only benefits a small group of society.”40

  • 41  Milward A. S., 1972, The fascist economy in Norway, Clarendon Press, Oxford, p.232.
  • 42  Cole A.J., 1978, “The Moral Economy of the Crowd: Some Twentieth-Century Food Riots”, Journal of B (...)

32The resentment over black market activities pointed to an aspect of distributive justice within the Norwegian society which the rationing system had greater problems in regulating, namely that between urban consumers and rural producers. Alan Milward’s classical account of the fascist economy in Norway uses indicators such as the drastic drop in debts among Norwegian farmers to show how food producers on the whole “suffered less than other sections of the community, and in some cases benefited, from the occupation”.41 Echoes of the feeling that farmers “were having the time of their lives”, which A.J. Cole has identified in World War I England thus also had repercussions in Norway.42 Part of the reason for the growing strength of the farmers at the expense of the consumers had to with the massive demand for food products within the framework of the rationing system. However, a substantial amount of the production also found its way onto the black market, where the farmers could fetch prices far above the maximum set by the authorities.

  • 43 Milward A.S., 1972, p.230: table 54.
  • 44  Arbark, archive no. 1579: LOs Stockholmssekretariat, Jb 13 folder 11, Report from Dr Alf Seweriin, (...)
  • 45  Kjeldstadli K., 1990, Den delte byen, p.442.

33For the groups of consumers who could not or would not revert to the black market, the official rationing system in 1942 provided between 1678 and 2723 calories a day in 1942, to give one indication of the food consumption levels.43 The amount of calories and the composition of the diet was differentiated according to age group, type of work (with heavy manual labourers receiving extra rations) and special conditions such as pregnancy and breast-feeding. An underground medical report from Oslo in 1942 argued that the food situation was acceptable for households with small children, because of the comparable generosity of the rations for this age group, while the situation for families with older children was more difficult.44 Nevertheless, there was never any actual famine in capital45, a feat which is difficult to imagine without the bureaucratic rationing system.  

Can rationing be imagined today?

34One may well understand why the rationing system is often associated with endless queues and general drabness, and under normal circumstances it is hard to see why it would appeal to consumers or, equally important, what incentive political authorities would have to opt for such a regime of regulation. However, it is worth noting that despite of the obvious drawbacks of this arrangement, there appeared to be few complaints against the rationing system itself during the war-time crisis. Of course, consumers protested against the difficulties in getting hold of the rations and the poor quality of the food, but such grievances did not amount to any protests against the system as such. The many letters of complaint from individual consumers to the provisions office in Oslo, for instance, were most commonly complaints that the system did not function good enough and thus called for the authorities to intervene to improve rather than abandon rationing.

  • 46  Miller D, 1998, p.135.

35As the shortages of food and other goods were evident to everyone, consumers clearly experienced the war as an exceptional situation. However, their responses to the shortages were perhaps not so exceptional. The crisis fostered new levels of thrift among the consumers, but, as Daniel Miller notably has argued, this has been a central virtue of shopping since the rise of the modern household in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.46 Thrift, according to Miller, goes beyond saving money, and could perhaps better be understand as an ethos of provisioning.

36Perhaps the apparent lack of success in promoting sustainable consumption in the contemporary world has more to do with the political definition of the state of the world than with the inherent qualities (or lack of such) in consumers. The political message to consumers today is ambivalent, in contrast to the clear message of their duties to consume less during the war. Moreover, the link between consumption and the climate crisis has not been established with the same strength as the link between consumption and the war effort during the Second World War.

  • 47  Roodhouse M., 2007.
  • 48  McKinstry L, 2007, ’Green fascists plan to crush your freedoms’ in The Daily Express, 16.03.2007.

37In 2007, the British historian Mark Roodhouse encountered this problem when he tried to explore the possibilities of implementing rationing as a remedy for the current climate crisis. Based on the experiences of rationing during World War II, Roodhouse suggested that if rationing was to be reintroduced today, consumers would need to be convinced that 1) rationing would help alleviate the climate crisis and 2) it would be a temporary measure with a defined goal.47 This was met with an outcry from columnist Leo McKinstry in the Daily Express, who regarded the suggestion as a warning sign of the coming tyranny of our age, the increasingly “oppressive grip of green policy” with tighter controls of private consumption: “In a preposterous outburst this week, historian Mark Roodhouse of York University claimed that we needed to bring back the "wartime spirit" in the fight against climate change, which he said should include a return to rationing.  But the war was fought against a real enemy. There is no such threat today”, McKinstry argued passionately.48

38However, if a consensus should be reached about the relationship between consumption and climate change, and the public would be convinced about the need to reduce consumption in order to prevent a climate disaster, there are some lessons and inspirations to be found in the experiences from World War II. Among these is the social justice aspect. Rationing is tailored to distribute goods according to needs, rather than to financial capacity. In relation to food, one might for instance imagine that particularly CO2-demanding products such as red meat were rationed according to special dietary requirements, where the war-time system with extra rations to heavy workers and pregnant women might be used as but one example of how “needs” could be defined.

  • 49  In the case of Britain, Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska argues in Austerity in Britain that the British (...)

39Despite of the obvious bureaucratic inconveniences of the rationing system, the lesson from World War II suggests that it had the advantage of enforcing more equitable forms of consumption, by which consumers would trust that they all got their fair share of the goods available, and that no-one got more just because they could pay for it (unless of course they reverted to illegal shopping on the black market). The trust in the fairness of the system might help explain why there were surprisingly few consumer protests against it, even though the rationing in Norway as in several other countries continued well into the post-war era.49

40As shown in this article, the housewives played a central part in making the rationing system work. They used the scarce food resources as carefully as possible, preventing anything from going to waste which could be used for human nutrition. Their thrift was not only guided by the concern for their own families, but also for the societies to which they belonged. The discourse on sustainable consumption could be seen as a similar call to consumers to step up as citizens and take responsibility for the climate. Based on the experiences from the Second World War, it is however difficult to imagine such a reconnection between consumption and citizenship without the active involvement of governments.

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COHEN L., 2003, A Consumers Republic: The politics of mass consumption in postwar America, Knopf, New York.
DOI : 10.1086/383439

COLE A.J., 1978, “The Moral Economy of the Crowd: Some Twentieth-Century Food Riots”, Journal of British Studies, 1,157-176.

FOSS, J., 1981, , “Direktoratet for proviantering og rasjonering under den tyske okkupasjonen. En studie i motstandsvirksomhet innen sentraladministrasjonen”. (Oslo University Master thesis, 1981)

HAGEMANN G. and ROLL-HANSEN H. (eds.), 2005, Twentieth-Century Housewives: Meanings and implications of unpaid work, Unipub, Oslo.

HJELTNES G, 1995, Hverdagsliv. Norge i krig, bind 5, Aschehoug, Oslo.

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JACOBS M., 1997, “ ‘How About Some Meat?’: The Office of Price Administration, Consumption Politics, and State Building from the Bottom Up, 1941-1946”, Journal of American History, 84, 910-41.
DOI : 10.2307/2953088

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JACOBSEN E. and A. DULSRUD, 2007, “Will consumers save the world? The framing of political consumerism”, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 20, 469-482.
DOI : 10.1007/s10806-007-9043-z

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MILWARD A. S., 1972, The fascist economy in Norway, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

PRINCEN T. et als (eds.), 2002, Confronting consumption, The MIT Press, Cambridge.

ROODHOUSE M., 2007, “Rationing returns: a solution to global warming?” on http://www.historyandpolicy.org/papers/policy-paper-54.html, (01.10.2009).

SMITH D. F. and J. PHILLIPS (eds.), 2000, Food Science, Policy and Regulation in the Twentieth Century. International and comparative perspectives, Routledge, London.

SOLBRAA-BAY J., 1942, Vi sylter tross alt – uten sukker [We make jam anyway – without sugar] , Cappelen, Oslo.

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STØ E. et al, 2008, “Review: a multi-dimensional approach to the study of consumption in modern societies and the potential for radical sustainable changes” in TUKKER A. et als. (eds.), 2008, System Innovation for Sustainability 1. Perspectives on radical changes to sustainable consumption and production, Greenleaf, Wiltshire.
DOI : 10.9774/GLEAF.978-1-907643-36-1_14

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TAYLOR L., 2000, Between Resistance and Collaboration, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.
DOI : 10.1057/9780230513976

TRIENEKENS G., 2000, “The food supply in the Netherlands during the Second World War” in SMITH D. F. and J. PHILLIPS (eds.), 2000, Food Science, Policy and Regulation in the Twentieth Century. International and comparative perspectives, Routledge, London.

TUKKER A. et als. (eds.), 2008, System Innovation for Sustainability 1. Perspectives on radical changes to sustainable consumption and production, Greenleaf, Wiltshire.

ZWEINIGER-BARGIELOWSKA, I., 2000, Austerity in Britain. Rationing, controls, and consumption 1939-1955, OUP, Oxford.

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WANSINK B., 2002, “Changing Eating Habits on the Home Front: Lost Lessons from World War II Research”, Journal of Public Policy& Marketing, 21, 90-99.
DOI : 10.1509/jppm.21.1.90.17614

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Notes

1  More recent examples of food rationing could also be cited, most famously on Cuba, where this system has been in place since 1962. See Alvarez J., 2004, Overview of Cuba's Food Rationing System (EDIS document FE482, UF/IFAS, University of Florida), online document.

2  An often-cited starting point for the dawning of the green consciousness is set as the publication of Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring in 1962, and the UN Brundtland Report from 1987 on Our Common Future is commonly regarded as the breakthrough for the notion of sustainable development.

3  Tukker A. et al. (eds.), 2008.

4 Taylor L., 2000.

5  Christensen, C. B., 2003.

6  This issue has been confronted by, among others, Stø E. et al, 2008, , pp. 235-254; Jacobsen E. and A. Dulsrud, 2007, , pp. 469-482; and Princen T. et al (eds.), 2002

7 Cohen L., 2003p.

8  See Jacobs M., 1997.

9  See Cohen L, A Consumers Republic, pp. 62 ff. and Zweiniger-Bargielowska, I., 2000, Austerity in Britain. Rationing, controls, and consumption 1939-1955, OUP, Oxford, 286 p.

10 For studies of rationing in occupied Europe, see for instance Trienekens G., 2000 in Smith D. F. and J. Phillips (eds).; Taylor L.,2000 and Christensen, C. B 2003.

11  The rationing system of the Second World War has received surprisingly little attention in Norwegian historiography, and this article will thus principally relay on the use of primary sources. The social history of rationing has been most fully treated by Hjeltnes G, 1995, The bureaucratic organisation of rationing has most notably been treated in a master thesis in history from Oslo University by FOSS J., 1981

12  The Oslo City Archives: Forsyningsnemnda Series Dd, Pk 4 F, Report on the Rationing of consumer goods in Norway, 28.10.1945.

13  Kjeldstadli K., 1990, p.443.

14  The Archives and library of the Norwegian labour movement (Arbark), archive no. 1579: LO Stockholmssekretariat: Jb14 Mappe 1, Report delivered in St.Holm December 1943, signed Anders Eng.(?).

15  The Oslo City Archives: Forsyningsnemnda Series Dd, Pk 4, file 13: Letter from NSK kretsleder to NSK fylkesleder for stor-Oslo, 9.11.1942.

16  The Oslo City Archives: Forsyningsnemnda Series Dd, Box ”Rasj.saker Fi-Mi”, folder ’Complaints from individuals’, Letter from Borghild Esvoll to the Oslo rationing office, 4.2.1943.

17  Solbraa-Bay J., 1942, p.29.

18  Letter collection in SIFO’s in-house archives; Stack 1 – loose files, folder “Krisekrem”.  

19  Ibid. Letter from Lisa Hallberg to NRK (undated).

20  Ibid., Letter from Sigrid Coll Hansen to NRK, 02.01.1968.

21  Ibid. Letter from Kaia Holst to NRK, 29.12.1967.

22  Ibid. Letter from Gerd Spinnangr to NRK, 05.01.1968.

23  Ibid. Letter from Astrid Sivertsen, Stavanger to the NRK, undated.

24  Ibid. Letter from Signe Andersen to the NRK, 02.01.[1968].

25  SIFO archives, shelf 1, box 1 marked ”Statens opplysningskontor i husstell’, file 1. Report on ”Statens forsøksvirksomhet i husstell gjennom ti år (1939-1948)”, p.1-2 and copy of the ”Innstilling om opprettelse av Statens Opplysningskontor i husstell” from the Ministry of Agriculture, 5 October 1939.

26  Wansink B., 2002, pp. 90-99.

27  Ibid., p.94.

28  SIFO archives, shelf 1, box 1 marked ”Statens opplysningskontor i husstell’, file 1. Report on ”Statens forsøksvirksomhet i husstell gjennom ti år (1939-1948)”, p.11.

29  SIFO archives, shelf 1, unmarked box, file of recipes “Mat med saltet rogn”, (Statens opplysningskontor i husstell).

30  SIFO archives, shelf 1, box 1 marked ”Statens opplysningskontor i husstell’, file 4 (Recipes).

31  SIFO archives, shelf 1, unmarked box, file of recipes “Mat med saltet rogn”, (Statens opplysningskontor i husstell).

32  Food tasting at The National Institute for Consumer Research (SIFO) 26.02.2009, conducted by Tone Bergh at the SIFO lab.

33  SIFO archives, shelf 1, unmarked box, file of recipes “Silderetter III”.

34 The Oslo City Archives: Forsyningsnemnda Series Dd, Pk.‘Korrespondanse A-B’, File ‘Bærplukking’: Letter from the provisions office (signed G. Falsen) to the City councellor, 24.08.1940, poster attached.

35  Hjeltnes G, 1995, Hverdagsliv (Oslo), p.133.

36  For a parallel in France, see Taylor L., 2000.

37  See Foss J., 1981.

38  Arbark, archive no. 1579: LOs Stockholmssekretariat, Jb 15 folder 2, Fri Fagbevegelse 19.8.1944.

39  See for instance Trienekens G., 2000.

40 Arbark, archive no 1579, Stockholmssekretariatet, Jb14 Mappe 1, Report delivered in St.Holm December 1943, signed Anders Eng (?).

41  Milward A. S., 1972, The fascist economy in Norway, Clarendon Press, Oxford, p.232.

42  Cole A.J., 1978, “The Moral Economy of the Crowd: Some Twentieth-Century Food Riots”, Journal of British Studies, 1, pp.157-176. On Norway, see Theien I., 2005, “Campaigning for milk: Housewives as consumer activists in post-war Norway” in Hagemann G and Roll-Hansen H. (eds.),2005.

43 Milward A.S., 1972, p.230: table 54.

44  Arbark, archive no. 1579: LOs Stockholmssekretariat, Jb 13 folder 11, Report from Dr Alf Seweriin, 15.3.1942.

45  Kjeldstadli K., 1990, Den delte byen, p.442.

46  Miller D, 1998, p.135.

47  Roodhouse M., 2007.

48  McKinstry L, 2007, ’Green fascists plan to crush your freedoms’ in The Daily Express, 16.03.2007.

49  In the case of Britain, Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska argues in Austerity in Britain that the British housewives had grown tired of rationing by 1950, and thus turned to the Conservative Party at the elections, an argument partly contested by Trentmann F, 2004, “Beyond consumerism: New historical perspectives on consumption”, Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 39 (3), p.395, who observes that women in the co-operative and labour movements organized mass demonstrations in support of rationing as late as 1953-54. Moreover, scarcity and food were developed in the Aofood special issue on "Food and survival" (Anthropology of food, n.6 , September 2008). Two articles there illustrate two very different cases of state control of food (in Spain during the Spanish Civil War and in Romania from Ceausescu) showing  how scarcity in food, even in case of rationing system, actually can strengthen social inequalities.

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References

Electronic reference

Iselin Theien, « Food rationing during World War two: a special case of sustainable consumption? », Anthropology of food [Online], S5 | September 2009, Online since 10 September 2009, connection on 01 September 2014. URL : http://aof.revues.org/6383

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About the author

Iselin Theien

Researcher in history at the National Institute for Consumer Research (SIFO), Norway. E-mail: iselin.theien@sifo.no.

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