Fighting the Axis powers one tire at a time

Amorette Allison
Star History Columnist

It wasn’t just scrap metal that was collected during World War II. Old newspapers, silk stockings, and used cooking fat were collected. Second only to metal were the rubber drives of WWII.

President Roosevelt urged Americans to turn in “old tires, old rubber raincoats, old garden hoses, rubber shoes, bathing caps, gloves,” and so on at their local service stations. The service stations collected old rubber by the ton, just as iron and steel was collected.

The Star ran a helpful full-page advertisement in the summer of 1942 listing all possibilities for scrap rubber besides the few items the president had mentioned. The list included typewriter rollers, keys, cushions and pads, which would render the typewriter  useless. (Typewriters were rationed but the Star rented them, so it no doubt worked out for all parties.) 

Also on the list of recommended rubber items were ash trays, coasters, rubber grips and handles, rubber bands, ink rollers, rubber stamps, rubber mattresses, cuspidor mats (rubber mat placed under the jug into which one spat tobacco), sponge rubber cushions, hot water bottles, rubber toys and dolls, billiard table cushions, tennis racket covers, tires, tubes, fan belts and radiator hoses (gas was rationed, as were tires, so no one was driving much). Even the rubber tips on crutches were collected.

The advertisement delicately showed a few photos of ladies undergarments, which were also made of rubber. Giving away a rubber girdle probably made a few ladies happy as well as making them feel patriotic.

And there were snappy slogans like: “Put your rubber heels on fighting wheels.”

Just one problem: there wasn’t (and still isn’t) an efficient way of recycling rubber products. Rubber’s complex chemistry and the variety of formulations in use made recycling slow and expensive and the resultant material inferior to virgin rubber. 

Although the rubber recycling industry did produce a fair amount of material throughout the war, the rubber scrap drive didn’t significantly boost its output. 

The real solution to the rubber shortage was the development of synthetic rubber and conservation — gas rationing was primarily meant to save tires, not gas.

In reality, used cooking fat was much more useful to the war effort than an old rubber hot water bottle. Salvaged kitchen fat was used to produce glycerin, an ingredient in drugs and explosives. 

The military’s love for paperwork could be blamed, but the military also used lots of paper packaging for supplies. On the civilian side, paper packaging had replaced tin for many products. A paper drive in mid-1942 brought in so much paper that mills were inundated and actually called for a stop. 

However, by 1944 an acute paper shortage existed. Publishers found their paper allotment cut by 15 percent. Newspapers, magazines, and books were printed on fewer pages with thinner paper and narrow margins.

During World War I, everyone was encouraged to plant a garden and grow potatoes in particular. During World War II, the Victory Garden again came into fashion. In 1943 victory gardens produced 40 percent of the country’s fresh vegetables.

Some of the drives were more for morale than actual use. While iron and steel could be reused, aluminum was also collected, but only virgin aluminum, which had not previously been tempered, could actually be used. After the war, the British in particular had lots of old aluminum pots and pans they had to quietly dispose of.

At the beginning of WWII, some old war memorials were even uprooted and melted down for scrap. After the war was over, more were put up and they haven’t had to be recycled.