Make It Do – Rationing of Butter, Fats & Oils in World War II

US poster, World War II

US poster, World War II

Rationing was part of life on the US Home Front during World War II. Along with gasoline, sugar, coffee, canned and processed foods, meat, and cheese—butter, fats, and oils were rationed. To help produce the glycerin needed by the military, housewives also collected kitchen waste fats.

US poster, World War II

US poster, World War II

Why Fats?

Shortages of butter and oils began early in the war. Most cooking oils came from Pacific lands conquered by the Japanese, and the supply plummeted. Fats were also needed in higher quantities for industrial and military use. For example, the Navy used lard to grease their guns. In addition, the United States provided the fats needed by many of the Allies for military and civilian use.

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)

Rationing of Butter, Fats & Oils

By Christmas of 1942 a serious shortage of butter and other fats developed. The Office of Price Administration added butter, fats, and oils to rationing on March 29, 1943. Points were assigned to each type of fat based on scarcity. Grocery stores posted the required ration points along with prices. Lard was removed from rationing on March 3, 1944 and shortening and oils on April 19, 1944, but butter and margarine were rationed until November 23, 1945. Butter required a higher number of points than margarine, so “oleo” margarine became more popular. Naturally white, oleo came with a packet of yellow food coloring to mix in.

Safeway ad from the Antioch Ledger, 1943

Safeway ad from the Antioch Ledger, 1943

Ration Books

Ration Books Two, Three, and Four included blue stamps for processed foods and red stamps for meat, cheese, and fats. Each person received 64 red stamps each month, providing about 12 pounds of fats per year.

Glycerin Shortage

The vital substance of glycerin comes from fats. In the United States, most glycerin came from the production of soap—when fats and lye are combined, soap and glycerin are formed. Glycerin is a crucial ingredient in the manufacture of explosives such as nitroglycerin. It was also needed for other military uses—as a lubricant, in protective paint for planes and tanks, in hydraulics, in the production of cellophane for food wrappers, and in dyes for uniforms.

In addition, glycerin is vital in pharmaceuticals as a solvent, protectant, and emollient. To free up some of the supply, glycerin use was restricted or removed from civilian products such as beverages, gum, antifreeze, tobacco, cosmetics, lotions, soaps, and shampoo. Pharmacists learned to use other solvents to make suspensions and elixirs. However, more glycerin was needed, so America turned to the housewife to provide more fats.

US poster, World War II

US poster, World War II

“Pass the Grease and Make the Ammunition”

“One tablespoonful of kitchen grease fires five bullets.” “One pound of kitchen fats makes enough dynamite to blow up a bridge.” Slogans like these prompted housewives to salvage cooking fats. In June of 1942, a national program was begun for collection—but it still wasn’t enough. To reward collection, starting on December 13, 1943, people received 2 red ration points and 4 cents for each pound of grease.

How were waste fats collected?

Housewives saved fats trimmed from meat (boiled down), pan juices, skimmings from stews and gravies, even water from boiling sausage (chilled and skimmed). The grease had to be free of water and juice, strained through a fine-mesh sieve to remove impurities, and stored in a cool and dry place, preferably refrigerated. When a pound had been collected in a tin can, the housewife took it in to her grocer or butcher, who would return her tin can—tin was scarce too!

How would you deal with rationed butter and oils—or saving your kitchen grease?

6 Responses to “Make It Do – Rationing of Butter, Fats & Oils in World War II”

  1. MichelleH

    I don’t generate much kitchen grease! I can’t imagine cooking enough fatty stuff to have a POUND of it!

    I would really hate having rationed butter though – I like lots of butter on my bread. 🙂

  2. Noelle the dreamer

    I always have mixed feelings about rationing Sarah as I mentioned before but it is always interesting to read the US side of it. Despite our buying the best (at least that we can afford), I notice a larger amount of grease generated in cooking here versus overseas so unlike MichelleH, I guarantee a pound of it would come swiftly! When we first came over, ex-RAF hubby requested that I rinse minced meat (ground chuck).
    Meat, particularly chicken tastes entirely different (due to feed?) and was an acquired taste. The same for bread, milk and potatoes, again possibly due to agriculture process.
    Baking is done with butter in this house only and I cannot think of substitution at this time. MIL would say that lard is the best thus nulling the suggestion of collecting and recycling.
    But as Granny would say: “A la guerre,comme a la guerre!”, in other words when need is there, you do what you have to do (and no geographical location is going to change that!)
    And 5 bullets would be worth it for Freedom!!
    God bless,

  3. Sarah Sundin

    Michelle – me neither! But “low-fat” wasn’t part of the vocabulary back then. Ironically, there was no obesity epidemic either.

    Noelle – I love your contributions! I also bake with butter only – it tastes so good 🙂

  4. Pamela S. Meyers

    Sarah, I have some old rationing booklets my parents kept, but I didn’t know much about how the rationing worked. Interesting fact: I grew up in Wisconsin and there was a state law that margarine couldn’t be sold in the “Dairy State.” After all, it was butter’s competitor. But I remember oleo (and this was long after WWII!) which people would bring back from Illinois like contraband. Yes, it was white and inside the plastic bag it came in was a dark reddish orange dot of coloring that you had to knead into the white oleo margarine until it turned yellow like butter. I doubt it tasted very good, but people felt like they’d exercised their independence and worked around the state law. I can’t remember when the law was finally repealed. It’s been a very long time.

  5. Louise M. Gouge

    What interesting information, Sarah. I was born near the end of WWII, and in later years I remember my mother talking about rationing and saving cooking fats. You took me way back in my childhood!

  6. Sarah Sundin

    Pam – how funny! I’d heard about Oleo and the coloring bag, but never that it was contraband in Wisconsin! Love it.

    Louise – Thanks! By the way, my mom still collects kitchen fats 🙂