Make It Do – Sugar Rationing in World War II

US poster promoting canning, 1943

US poster promoting canning, 1943

What could be more American than Hershey bars, homemade cookies, and birthday cake? During World War II, these items were hard to come by. Today marks the 75th anniversary of the start of sugar rationing in the United States.

Short on Sugar

When the Japanese conquered the Philippines in the early months of 1942, the United States lost a major source of sugar imports. Shipments from Hawaii and Central and South America had to be curtailed 50 percent as cargo vessels were diverted for military purposes – and due to heavy losses of cargo ships to German U-boats in early 1942. The supply of sugar fell by one-third. To ensure adequate supplies for manufacturers, the military, and civilians, sugar became the first food item to be rationed. Manufacturers initially received supplies at 80 percent of pre-war levels, but that was reduced over time.

Registration for Rationing US poster, WWII

On April 27, 1942, families registered for ration books at their local elementary schools. One book was issued for each family member and had to be surrendered upon death. The sale of sugar was halted for one week to prepare for the program. To discourage hoarding, each family had to report how much sugar they had in stock over a certain amount – and the corresponding number of stamps was removed from the book.

US rationing books owned by my mother and grandmother, WWII (Photo: Sarah Sundin)

US rationing books owned by my mother and grandmother, WWII (Photo: Sarah Sundin)

Ration Books

On May 5, 1942, each person in the United States received a copy of War Ration Book One, good for a 56-week supply of sugar. Initially, each stamp was good for one pound of sugar and could be used over a specified two-week period. On June 28, 1942, each stamp became good for two pounds of sugar over a four-week period. The ration book bore the recipient’s name and could only be used by household members. Stamps had to be torn off in the presence of the grocer.

If the book was lost, stolen, or destroyed, an application had to be submitted to the Ration Board for a new copy. When entering the hospital for greater than ten days, the ration book had to be brought along.


Home canning was encouraged during the war – however, canning requires sugar. To provide for this patriotic need, each person could apply for a 25-pound allotment of canning sugar each year. Each local ration board determined the quantity and season of availability based on the local harvest. A special canning sugar stamp in the ration book had to be attached to the application. In 1944, confusion arose when “spare canning sugar stamp 37” was called for – but many people mistakenly used the regular sugar stamp 37, invalidating it for normal household purchases.

US poster, World War II

US poster, World War II


Knox Wartime Recipes: How to be Easy on Your Ration Book, 1943 (Smithsonian)

Knox Wartime Recipes: How to be Easy on Your Ration Book, 1943 (Smithsonian)

Just because you had a sugar stamp didn’t mean sugar was available for purchase. Shortages occurred often during the war, and in early 1945 became acute. As Europe was liberated from Nazi Germany, the US took on the main responsibility for providing food to those ravaged countries. On May 1, 1945, the sugar ration was cut to 15 pounds per year for household use and 15 pounds per year for canning – a total of eight ounces per week. Sugar was the last product to remain on rationing after the war. The program was discontinued in June 1947.

Housewives learned to be creative, using saccharine, corn syrup, and even packets of flavored gelatin as sugar substitutes. Women’s magazines featured recipes with reduced sugar or creative substitutes.

Do you have any stories of wartime sugar rationing?

7 Responses to “Make It Do – Sugar Rationing in World War II”

  1. Rick Barry

    In wartime England, sugar and many other goods were rationed, and this gave rise to a black market for goods in demand. One episode of the delightful British miniseries Foyle’s War addressed the crime sparked by rationing there. For anyone who is interested in wartime England, I recommend that series. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/foyleswar/

  2. Sarah Sundin

    In England, rationing was quite austere! Americans had it a lot better 🙂 Not easy, but easier. I’ve heard such great things about Foyle’s War. If I ever get time to watch more TV (and wrestle the remote from my kids), I’ll have to watch it.

  3. Rachel

    Wow! Great facts and very detailed. I do not have a story about sugar rations, but my aunt and I found a gasoline ration book that was my grandmother’s. The stamps were gone, but the receipts were marked and dated.

    IN my research, I found Carroll County Maryland was the first to can corn. (This is where I’m from)Since our community has always been a huge farming community, canning was the way of life. My husband’s grandmother still cans applesauce, and she’s STILL very careful NOT to add too much sugar!

  4. Sarah Sundin

    Rachel – how wonderful to have the gasoline ration book! My mom still has a lot of her ration books from when she was a little girl. During the war a passerby saw my mom playing outside and thought she was adorable – and she brought a pound of sugar and gave it to my grandmother for my mother :)Now I realize what a gift that was!

    I enjoy canning too, although I’ve never done corn 🙂

  5. Rachel

    Aww! How sweet! Those stories are so endearing. It’s amazing how God works even in those small gifts and gestures. It is something we take with us the rest of our lives!
    I only have the gas ration stamps. We could not find food ration stamps in my grandmother’s belongings, but she said she had them. When she passed away, they most likely were thrown out. She hid them in the most strangest of places. The gas ration stamps were wrapped inside a Christmas wrapping paper tube. It almost got thrown away!