War rationing: Residents fought the Battle of Miles City

History Columnist

As is obvious, I enjoy history. And not just big picture history, like famous battles or major historic events. I like the little details. The things that get forgotten for the big picture.

For example, I knew about rationing during World War II. I remember watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon that had a rationing card joke. I had to ask my mother, who graduated from high school in 1944, to explain the punch line. But didn’t really appreciate the effect rationing had on everyday life.

Until I got to World War II in the Stardust books.

Even the bound copies of the newspapers themselves are different. Rather than bundling two or three months together, the way most of the older newspapers are, they are bound six or eight months to a book, creating a very large, very heavy book. They are much more difficult to handle than all the other bound copies of newspapers.

Then there is the paper itself. It is brittle and yellowed, looking worse than earlier years, because there was a paper shortage during the war and newsprint, which is never high quality to begin with, got really cheap. 

And then there is the type. It is very, very small. Good thing I am extremely near-sighted or I might not be able to read those issues at all.

I have been fascinated by the minute details of rationing. Once a week, the Star ran a list of who got tubes and tires, by name, with occupation listed. A member of the rationing board said how hard it was to get letters from desperate farmers and ranchers who couldn’t get into town because they had a flat tire and needed a new tube. He said it was really hard when they got a dozen requests and had two tubes.

Stores cut back on deliveries. In the 1940s, it was very common to call an order into the market and have it delivered,  usually within a couple of hours. But with gasoline rationing in effect, deliveries were cut to twice a day or even once a day and, for the first time, a minimum amount had to be purchased for delivery.

There were half-page advertisements — very wordy advertisements — that explained how “points” worked for rationed foods like sugar. For example, Del Monte Foods ran an ad explaining how housewives should “Buy For a Week.” Rather than running to the store every day or so, housewives should plan meals and stock up so they only had to shop weekly.

It saved gasoline and rubber — and gas rationing was more about preserving tires than saving gas — and stores, which were now often short-handed, could deal with fewer customers at a time.

Stores like Miles & Ulmer, a hardware store that had started in Miles City in the 1880s and lasted until the 1980s, had to cut their hours drastically. Instead of being open from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., Miles & Ulmer ran ads saying that they would only be open from noon to 6 p.m. weekdays and only open in the morning on Saturday. They didn’t have enough employees to be open longer, with so many young people in the service or in war industries in Washington or California.

A local gas station owner had four stations in Miles City. He was forced to close two locations simply because he could not find men to work. John Kuilman’s ad said he was proud to do it, to close two of his four stations, in order to provide manpower to win the war.

The Miles City Laundry required customers to bring in their own coat hangers. The metal coat hanger was no longer available for purchase so if you wanted your clothes cleaned, you brought them in on your own hanger. And since a large percentage of particularly men’s wardrobes needed professional cleaning, wire coat hangers became precious.

There was even a running joke in “Blondie.” Dagwood couldn’t buy a new tube of toothpaste because he forgot to bring in the old tubes. Metal was so tightly controlled, customers were required by law to return metal tubes of toothpaste, shaving cream, hair cream, or other products before they could buy a replacement.

There were LOTS of ads for War Bonds, explaining that “$150 will buy one parachute” or “10¢ will pay for 5 cartridges.” There were even rather threatening ads pointing out that your son might die for lack of supplies if you did not buy War Bonds and conserve materials. 

Gas stations advertised tune-ups for cars, since you couldn’t buy a new car until after the war was over. Lumber yards advertised insulation as patriotic. You could save coal by insulating your home. There was even a national loan program to pay for insulation as part of the war effort. 

There were lots of ads for what to get your son in the service for Christmas. How about a Parker Pen with the approved military style pocket clip? Or a “toilet apron,” which sounds odd but was an apron with deep pockets so men could put their shaving supplies in the pockets and not have to have a medicine chest, as men wouldn’t have one while at war. (I have never heard or seen of those before or since so I suspect they were not a popular gift.)

Shore’s, a long-time Miles City department store, advertised sewing kits, billfolds, money belts and gloves that all met military regulations as gifts for those in the service. Vaughn-Ragsdale advertised ladies’ party dresses with the note that “Remember — a War Bond is the best GIFT OF ALL.”

Clothing stores advertised winter clothing, pointing out that you had to keep your house cooler to save coal and that meant new long underwear or other warm clothing. Buying new long underwear was your patriotic duty.

J. F. Regan & Son’s plumbers had a picture of Uncle Sam in their ad, saying “It’s Your Patriotic Duty To See That Your Plumbing System Is In First Rate Repair.” I’m not sure why plumbing was patriotic but it may have had to do with scrap metal and metal shortages.

But of all the war-related ads, my favorite has to be “Guard Against Wartime Constipation! It’s frequently due to lack of bulk. Millions of folks these war days feel all dragged out, with no zip or pep. And no wonder! Their working, sleeping and especially their eating habits are all different. Meals are apt to be hurried, improperly balanced — and they neglect the important matter of “bulk” in the diet.”

Today, we call it fiber but it was the same thing. 

The ad continued “But KELLOG’S ALL-BRAN corrects this constipation by supplying the needed “bulk”: often brings lasting freedom from the trouble.”

Yes, it was your patriotic duty to see to your plumbing, both internal and external.
(Amorette Allison is a local history columnist.)