On a War-Time Ban

Our modern generation has “suffered” the inconvenience of supply-chain issues due to the Covid pandemic. We have only tasted the edge of what it is like to live in an extended time of rationing and shortages. During World War II (and also World War I, to some extent), rationing in the United States was mandated for several years. Several items during the war saw shortages, but it was only those commodities that were directly needed by the war effort that required rationing and the accompanying ration stamps.

Among the rationed items in the United States were gas, rubber (for tires), sugar, meat, and coffee. While most people hated rationing, most people also accepted it because, after all, it was the least they could do to support our fighting men and women in the “crusade” against Nazism and fascism. In fact, the rationing and shortages served to unify the nation in an odd way.

The federal government had been granted absolute authority to decide what items were to be rationed and what products could be manufactured and which ones were to be prohibited for the war’s duration. One such banned product caused an unusually loud outcry among the population when it was enacted in 1943. It was a product that had been ordered banned by the Secretary of Agriculture, a man named Claude Wickard.

Now, Wickard knew his stuff. He was from Indiana, farm country, and he had a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from Purdue University. The state had decreed Wickard as a Master Farmer in the 1920s for his agricultural innovations and improvements for small farmers. He had served as an Undersecretary of Agriculture in the Hoover Administration and then was appointed Secretary of Agriculture in 1940. He would hold that post all during World War II. He is remembered for promoting the growing of Victory Gardens as a way for Americans to extend their food supplies during the years of shortages and rationing.

However, it was the incredibly unpopular ban in 1943 that Wickard is best remembered for. In an article, Time magazine described the terrible deprivation the ban created. It said that American housewives felt the ban, “was almost as bad as gas rationing and a whale of a lot more trouble.” The article went on to point out that, for American women, they had to “saw…grimly on. This war was getting pretty awful.”

Sounds terrible. What product would you think could cause such consternation among American women? In a letter to the editor of the the New York Times, an irate American pointed out how important this item was to the morale and “saneness” of the average American household. She lamented the days gone by when this product made her life worth living. New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (yes, that LaGuardia) even got involved in the controversy, offering alternatives to the ban and saying that he would do all he could to intervene with Secretary Wickard to end the ban as soon as possible.

Wickard, for his part, pretended to ignore the uproar his ban had caused. He seemed to not notice the outcry. He pointed out the savings his ban would make and said that it was all necessary for the war effort. But the cries of housewives across America proved too incessant and the political pressure put on elected officials forced Wickard to retreat. He soon announced not that the ban was lifted because of the protests but, rather, that the supposed savings the ban was to provide did not in fact come to pass. Thus, he said, the ban was lifted.

Jubilation ensued. We don’t know if or what pressure Claud Wickard might have felt from Mrs. Wickard, but we know how happy she was, too, when her husband ended the ban.

And what was this product that every American housewife demanded to have during World War II?

Sliced bread.

On an Scrupulous Green Grocer

During World War 2, in Peoria, Illinois, John Scoutaris owned a business at 533 Main Street called the Illinois Fruit and Vegetable Company. It was one of those old-timey downtown fruit places that had the vertical displays on the sidewalks in front of the store. You know the type.

John was scrupulous in making sure that his customers received the best, the freshest produce available to them considering it was war time and many items were rationed. He sometimes made incredibly little money on his wholesale buys simply to ensure that his customers would have the best fruit and vegetables possible. John felt that to give the best was his part in the war effort, as minor as it may seem to us compared to those guys who were fighting and dying on the front lines.

One morning, as John was out front of his store, in his green apron, inspecting his wares, one of his regular customers, Mary Hunt, stopped by.

“Hi, John,” Mary said. John responded, but he was concerned that one of his cantaloupes on the second row from the top was probably too old to sell and thus not up to his usual standards. He picked it up and examined it closely. “Whatcha got there, John?” Mary asked. “Hmm,” John answered, somewhat preoccupied with the overripe fruit. “Oh, this,” he said, turning to Mary with the melon in his hand, “I think it’s about to go moldy on me, Mary.”

Suddenly, Mary took a keen interest in the fruit John was holding. “Say, John; what are you gonna do with that cantaloupe?” John told her that he always threw out the old fruit, that he would never sell anything not up to his high standards. But Mary persisted. “Would you do me a favor?” she asked. What she wanted was for John to start saving all the moldy fruit, especially the melons, for her in a box in the back. She told him she’d come by every few days and take it off his hands.

John argued weakly that he couldn’t sell her something that was old. She said she didn’t want to buy it—just to have it. John didn’t ask why; he assumed it might be something to do with pets or chickens or something. Maybe even composting. Mary seemed alright. She was a regular customer and a good one, and she was a war worker, also, John knew. So, he agreed. He began saving the moldy melons for Mary.

After a few weeks, Mary abruptly told John she didn’t need him to save the fruit anymore. John again didn’t ask why, and Mary didn’t offer a reason. In fact, John was a bit relieved. Besides, the box of old fruit attracted fruit flies, and who needs that in a fruit stand?

Several years later and after the war ended, Mary stopped by the fruit stand one day. “John,” she said, “I want to tell you why I wanted you to save that moldy cantaloupe for me.” “You don’t owe me any explanation, Mary,” John said.

Mary told John the story that she was a worker during the war and afterward in a biological lab that had government contracts. John said, yes, he knew she was involved in the war effort, and that’s one reason he never asked her questions about her work or the melons.

“Oh, I know, John. I wanted to thank you. You saved the lives of more people than most anyone ever has. You are one of the war’s heroes, and you don’t even know it.”

John was incredulous. “Whaaaat?” he asked, his mouth flying open. “What…how…why?” he exclaimed.

Mary continued. “Yes, John, I just thought you might like to know that the mold on that melon was the source for penicillin.”