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Make It Do – Metal Shortages During World War II

Make It Do - Metal Shortages in World War II

Imagine going to the store and not finding batteries, thumbtacks, alarm clocks, or paper clips on the shelves.

During World War II, metals were needed for military purposes. Ships and planes and jeeps and guns and ration tins and helmets took precedence over civilian products. After the United States entered the war, factories quickly shifted from manufacturing civilian goods to military matériel.

Preparation for War

US poster encouraging conservation of metal for military purposes. Read more: "Make It Do--Metal Shortages in World War II" on Sarah Sundin's blog.

US poster encouraging conservation of metal for military purposes, WWII

In 1941, the United States was still neutral. However, military production grew to increase America’s readiness and to send war materiél to the Allies under the Lend-Lease Act (signed March 11, 1941). On March 21, 1941, the Office of Production Management limited use of aluminum, and on August 2, 1941, it restricted steel to government use only.

After the US entered the war on December 8, 1941, US industry quickly converted to war production.

Restrictions

US poster encouraging tin can collection, WWII. Read more: "Make It Do--Metal Shortages in World War II" on Sarah Sundin's blog.

US poster encouraging tin can collection, WWII

Civilian vehicle factories were the first to be converted to military use, and the last automobile rolled off the assembly line on February 10, 1942.

On April 2, 1942, the US War Production Board (WPB) ordered a reduction in the use of tin in packaging of civilian products. Anyone who wanted to purchase a tin tube of toothpaste, shaving cream, or medicated ointment had to turn in the old tube first.

One month later, on May 5, 1942, the use of steel & iron was banned in more than four hundred civilian products, and production of civilian appliances was discontinued.

On March 1, 1943, restrictions on the use of tin resulted in the rationing of canned foods (Make It Do—Rationing of Canned Goods in World War II).

Oneida Silverware “Back Home for Keeps” advertisement looking forward to peacetime when its production will again be available to young couples, 13 Dec 1943 (Western Connecticut State University Archives)

Oneida Silverware “Back Home for Keeps” advertisement looking forward to peacetime when its production will again be available to young couples, 13 Dec 1943 (Western Connecticut State University Archives)

Manufacture of silverware was discontinued March 31, 1943. Oneida converted to making flatware for military, bayonets, surgical instruments—and promoted their conversion in a wildly popular “Back Home for Keeps” advertising campaign.

Even coins were affected. From October 1942, the US Mint removed all nickel from nickels, using a copper-silver-manganese alloy for the duration. And on January 27, 1943, steel pennies replaced copper, leading to confusion between pennies and dimes. On January 1, 1944, copper returned to pennies, salvaged from spent shell casings.

Shortages

US poster with instructions for tin can collection, 1943

US poster with instructions for tin can collection, 1943

Scrap drives and tin can drives reclaimed tons of metals, but not enough to prevent shortages. (See: Make It Do—Scrap Drives in World War II)

Many everyday items became hard to find—can openers, kitchen utensils, steel wool, batteries, pie tins, hair curlers, razor blades, wristwatches, thumbtacks, paper clips, pins, needles, zippers, garden tools, and bed springs. When ladies went to the beauty salon, they were even required to bring their own bobby pins due to the shortage. People learned to take care of what they had—or do without.

Appliances

Both large and small appliances were not manufactured during the war, so appliance stores shifted their business focus from sales to repairs. Often families or neighbors would share appliances. In July 1944, to encourage home canning but prevent botulism, 400,000 pressure cookers were released for sale, preferably for community use. In Antioch, California, the PTA purchased a pressure cooker to share within the community.

Toys

US poster promoting war bond sales, 1942

US poster promoting war bond sales, 1942

Many popular children’s toys couldn’t be manufactured due to restrictions or shortages of rubber, tin, and steel. Manufacturers converted to wood and cardboard. (Learn more about toys in WWII here: A WWII Christmas—Teaching About Christmas Past to Reduce Christmas “Presents”)

Typewriters

US poster, WWII

US poster, WWII

Not only did typewriters contain metal, but they were vital to a paperwork-dependent military. In July 1942, a call went out to the public to donate late-model, nonessential typewriters to the military. Typewriters were rationed in the US from March 6, 1942 to April 22, 1944, requiring a certificate from the local ration board for a purchase.

Plaster Statues

Joan Fontaine and Gary Cooper holding their Oscars at the Academy Awards after party, Feb. 26, 1942 (public domain via Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA Library)

Joan Fontaine and Gary Cooper holding their (plaster) Oscars at the Academy Awards after party, Feb. 26, 1942 (public domain via Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA Library)

Beginning with the 1942 Academy Awards, the Oscar statuette was made of plaster sprayed with bronze lacquer for the duration. Recipients could exchange them for the traditional gold-plated bronze after the war.

Likewise, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the Jefferson Memorial on April 13, 1943, the 200th anniversary of Jefferson’s birth, Jefferson’s statue was made of plaster painted bronze, It was replaced in 1947.

Failures

US poster, 1943

US poster, 1943

Some programs ended up as humorous failures. In July 1942, the US government proclaimed a stop to the manufacture of beauty products  metal packaging—but a great uproar led to the repeal four months later. Manufacturers used more glass jars in packaging.

Sliced bread also briefly became unavailable. On January 18, 1943, the sale of sliced bread was banned in America to conserve the metal blades. This ban lasted only until March 8.

Alarm clock production stopped in the US on July 1, 1942. However, employers all over the nation lobbied to resume production to reduce absenteeism. In March 1943, alarm clocks were produced again.

Relaxed Restrictions

US Victory Loan Drive poster by Norman Rockwell, 1945

US Victory Loan Drive poster by Norman Rockwell, 1945

As the tide of war swung to the Allies, US leaders began to plan for postwar conversion. On October 29, 1943, the ban on using aluminum was relaxed. And on June 18, 1944—after D-day—industry was allowed to produce civilian items under spot authorization.

After the Battle of the Bulge prolonged the war, production of civilian goods was again halted on January 1, 1945.

However, victory led to an end of restrictions. On August 18, 1945, President Harry Truman restored the free market, and on August 20, the War Production Board lifted controls on consumer items. On August 30, the first automobile rolled off the assembly line—a Hudson Super Six coupe.

Which of these shortages would have been most difficult for you?

6 responses to “Make It Do – Metal Shortages During World War II”

  1. Katers says:

    Oh goodness.. needles and bobby pins. Yikes.

    So basically, I didn’t have fabric to make a wedding dress.. I couldn’t get nylons.. and I was frantic about loosing my needles and bobbypins.

    I had to pray my washing machine didn’t break (maybe I did that anyway), ration my sugar (and other foods), and figure out what I could donate.

    I think maybe everyone learned to just do without huh.

  2. Sarah Sundin says:

    Kate – they sure did. People had to be more careful with what they had, do good maintenance, and get things repaired. We could all learn from that!

    My grandfather was in the Navy while my grandmother raised my infant father. She could not buy a washing machine or dryer. She HANDWASHED my dad’s diapers and hung them to dry – and she prided herself that they never had a stain 🙂 She was a character.

  3. Abigail says:

    It seems women can’t be without their beauty products, even if there is a war on. That’s just a little sad.

    I’ve been watching the “World at War” documentary with my father over the past few evenings. It’s been interesting to listen to the interviews and watch as World War II unfolds, and to actually see some of the things as they happen. Some parts are even amusing, like the Finnish soldiers on skis. I can’t get over the humorous picture that makes!

  4. I think at that time I would have been using a bicycle for transportation because of the gas rationing. So I would have had problems finding metal parts to do regular maintenance like replacing the chain, sprockets, and rims.

  5. Sarah Sundin says:

    Abigail – I agree, we women can be a bit pathetic 🙂 And I find a lot of those amusing stories too, like the ski troops. My all-time favorite funny image was sheep in parachutes. I blogged about it in May (http://sarahsundin.blogspot.com/2011/05/sheep-in-chutes.html

    Sean – bikes were a problem too! They encouraged bike riding to conserve fuel and rubber tires, but bikes used metal and rubber too.

  6. Michelle says:

    I think I’d just enlist so that the military would clothe me and I wouldn’t have to worry too much about transportation and food and whatnot 🙂 I know that would come with it’s own set of challenges, but I like that solution!

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