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Seventeen states put gasoline rationing into effect

Seventeen states put gasoline rationing into effect

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On May 15, 1942, gasoline rationing began in 17 Eastern states as an attempt to help the American war effort during World War II. By the end of the year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had ensured that mandatory gasoline rationing was in effect in all 48 states.

America had been debating its entrance into World War II until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The following day, Congress almost unanimously approved Roosevelt’s request for a declaration of war against Japan and three days later Japan’s allies Germany and Italy declared war against the United States. On the home front, ordinary Americans almost immediately felt the impact of the war, as the economy quickly shifted from a focus on consumer goods into full-time war production. As part of this transformation, women went to work in the factories to replace enlisted men, automobile factories began producing tanks and planes for Allied forces and households were required to limit their consumption of such products as rubber, gasoline, sugar, alcohol and cigarettes.

Rubber was the first commodity to be rationed, after the Japanese invasion of the Dutch East Indies cut off the U.S. supply; the shortage of rubber affected the availability of products such as tires. Rationing gasoline, it was reasoned, would conserve rubber by reducing the number of miles Americans drove. At first, the government urged voluntary gasoline rationing, but by the spring of 1942 it had become evident that these efforts were insufficient. In mid-May, the first 17 states put mandatory gasoline rationing into effect, and by December, controls were extended across the entire country.

Ration stamps for gasoline were issued by local boards and pasted to the windshield of a family or individual’s automobile. The type of stamp determined the gasoline allotment for that automobile. Black stamps, for example, signified non-essential travel and mandated no more than three gallons per week, while red stamps were for workers who needed more gas, including policemen and mail carriers. As a result of the restrictions, gasoline became a hot commodity on the black market, while legal measures of conserving gas—such as carpooling—also flourished. In a separate attempt to reduce gas consumption, the government passed a mandatory wartime speed limit of 35 mph, known as the “Victory Speed.”

READ MORE: America's Patriotic Victory Gardens

Rationing in the United States

Rationing is the controlled distribution of scarce resources, goods, or services, or an artificial restriction of demand. Rationing controls the size of the ration, which is one person's allotted portion of the resources being distributed on a particular day or at a particular time.

Rationing in the United States was introduced in stages during World War II.

Gas Lines Evoke Memories Of Oil Crises In The 1970s

Gas lines in America may be rare, but they're not unprecedented.

The gas shortage in the Northeast, the result of Superstorm Sandy, is inflicting plenty of pain. But it's a localized phenomenon that's not expected to last for long.

During two separate oil crises in the 1970s, Americans from coast to coast faced persistent gas shortages as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, flexed its muscles and disrupted oil supplies.

In 1973 and again in 1979, drivers frequently faced around-the-block lines when they tried to fill up.

Drivers would go to stations before dawn or late at night, hoping to avoid the lines.

Odd-even rationing was introduced — meaning that if the last digit on your license plate was odd, you could get gas only on odd-numbered days. New Jersey and New York have just reintroduced the system.

Back in the '70s, some gas stations took to posting flags — green if they had gas, yellow if rationing was in effect and red if they were out of gas.

To conserve gas, the maximum speed limit was cut to 55 miles per hour. To cut energy consumption in the broader economy, daylight saving time was introduced year-round at the beginning of 1974, facing criticism from parents whose kids had to go to school before sunrise in the winter months.

When the second crisis hit in 1979-80, President Carter described combating it as the "moral equivalent of war," and many Americans feared that oil shocks would be a recurring nightmare.

What else was rationed?

As soon as any war begins, automobile sales are affected. Same was the case when the World War II began. Since automobiles were continuously needed on battlegrounds and so were their parts, the local consumption had to be reduced. The War Production Board ordered an end to local sales of automobiles in 1942.

This led to huge losses for car dealers, but this had to be done to make sure enough automobiles were available to be sent to the battlegrounds and that the manufacturing capacities were producing more of military vehicles than the other ones.

The civilian models were stopped from production, and the same facilities were used to manufacture weapons, tanks, aircraft and other military products needed in war. Due to the lack of resources, dog food, which was originally sold in cans, was converted to the dehydrated form.

Seventeen states put gasoline rationing into effect - HISTORY

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor dramatically ended the debate over America's entrance into the war that raged around the world.. On December 8, the Senate unanimously endorsed President Roosevelt's request for a declaration of war against Japan. The House followed suite with only one dissenting vote - Jeannette Rankin of Montana. Three days later, Germany and Italy - fulfilling their treaty obligations with Japan - declared war against the U.S.

Motorists in Washington D.C. line
up to fill their tanks the day before
the beginning of gas rationing
May 1942
As eager volunteers flooded local Draft Board offices ordinary citizens soon felt the impact of the war. Almost overnight the economy shifted to war production. Consumer goods took a back seat to military production as rationing began almost immediately. It was truly a total war affecting every citizen whether soldier or worker, mother or child.

Rubber became the first commodity rationed as the Japanese invasion of the Dutch East Indies cut off our supply. Gasoline rationing reduced the number of miles the average citizen drove and thus conserved rubber. Voluntary gas rationing proved ineffective and by the Spring of 1942, seventeen Eastern states had instituted some form of mandatory gas rationing. By December mandatory controls extended across the entire country. On average, motorists who used their cars for "nonessential" purposes were restricted to 3 gallons of gas a week.

Every man, woman and child received a ration book restricting consumption of essential products. Many planted "Victory Gardens" to supplement their grocery list. By 1944, whisky had disappeared from liquor store shelves as distilleries converted to the production of industrial alcohol. New car production was banned beginning January 1, 1942 as former auto plants switched to the production of military vehicles. The ban was lifted on July 1, 1945. Thirty percent of all cigarettes produced were allocated for service men, making cigarettes a scarce commodity on the home front by 1944. By the end of the war, rationing limited consumption of almost every product with the exception of eggs and dairy foods.

World War II Rationing

With the onset of World War II, numerous challenges confronted the American people. The government found it necessary to ration food, gas, and even clothing during that time. Americans were asked to conserve on everything. With not a single person unaffected by the war, rationing meant sacrifices for all.

In the spring of 1942, the Food Rationing Program was set into motion. Rationing would deeply affect the American way of life for most. The federal government needed to control supply and demand. Rationing was introduced to avoid public anger with shortages and not to allow only the wealthy to purchase commodities.

While industry and commerce were affected, individuals felt the effects more intensely. People were often required to give up many material goods, but there also was an increase in employment. Individual efforts evolved into clubs and organizations coming to terms with the immediate circumstances. Joining together to support and maintain supply levels for the troops abroad meant making daily adjustments. Their efforts also included scrap drives, taking factory jobs, goods donations and other similar projects to assist those on the front.

Government-sponsored ads, radio shows, posters and pamphlet campaigns urged the American people to comply. With a sense of urgency, the campaigns appealed to America to contribute by whatever means they had, without complaint. The propaganda was a highly effective tool in reaching the masses.

Rationing regulated the amount of commodities that consumers could obtain. Sugar rationing took effect in May 1943 with the distribution of "Sugar Buying Cards." Registration usually took place in local schools. Each family was asked to send only one member for registration and be prepared to describe all other family members. Coupons were distributed based on family size, and the coupon book allowed the holder to buy a specified amount. Possession of a coupon book did not guarantee that sugar would be available. Americans learned to utilize what they had during rationing time.

While some food items were scarce, others did not require rationing, and Americans adjusted accordingly. "Red Stamp" rationing covered all meats, butter, fat, and oils, and with some exceptions, cheese. Each person was allowed a certain amount of points weekly with expiration dates to consider. "Blue Stamp" rationing covered canned, bottled, frozen fruits and vegetables, plus juices and dry beans, and such processed foods as soups, baby food and ketchup. Ration stamps became a kind of currency with each family being issued a "War Ration Book." Each stamp authorized a purchase of rationed goods in the quantity and time designated, and the book guaranteed each family its fair share of goods made scarce, thanks to the war.

Rationing also was determined by a point system. Some grew weary of trying to figure out what coupon went with which item, or how many points they needed to purchase them, while some coupons did not require points at all.

In addition to food, rationing encompassed clothing, shoes, coffee, gasoline, tires, and fuel oil. With each coupon book came specifications and deadlines. Rationing locations were posted in public view. Rationing of gas and tires strongly depended on the distance to one's job. If one was fortunate enough to own an automobile and drive at the then specified speed of 35 mph, one might have a small amount of gas remaining at the end of the month to visit nearby relatives.

Rationing resulted in one serious side effect: the black market, where people could buy rationed items on the sly, but at higher prices. The practice provoked mixed reactions from those who banded together to conserve as instructed, as opposed to those who fed the black market's subversion and profiteering. For the most part, black marketeers dealt in clothing and liquor in Britain, and meat, sugar and gasoline in the United States. While life during the war meant daily sacrifice, few complained because they knew it was the men and women in uniform who were making the greater sacrifice. A poster released by the Office of War Information stated simply, “Do with less so they’ll have enough.” And yet another pleaded, “Be patriotic, sign your country’s pledge to save the food.” On the whole, the American people were united in their efforts.

Recycling was born with the government’s encouragement. Saving aluminum cans meant more ammunition for the soldiers. Economizing initiatives seemed endless as Americans were urged to conserve and recycle metal, paper and rubber. War bonds and stamps were sold to provide war funds, and the American people also united through volunteerism. Communities joined together to hold scrap-iron drives, and schoolchildren pasted saving stamps into bond books.

Others planted "Victory Gardens" to conserve food. For a small investment in soil, seed and time, families could enjoy fresh vegetables for months. By 1945, an estimated 20 million victory gardens produced approximately 40 percent of America's vegetables.

Training sessions were held to teach women to shop wisely, conserve food and plan nutritious meals, as well as teach them how to can food items. The homemaker planned family meals within the set limits. The government's persuasion of people to give up large amounts of red meats and fats resulted in more healthy eating.

The government also printed a monthly meal-planning guide with recipes and a daily menu. Good Housekeeping magazine printed a special section for rationed foods in its 1943 cookbook. Numerous national publications also featured articles explaining what rationing meant to America. Then there were the food manufacturers who took advantage of the wartime shortages to flaunt their patriotism to their profit. The familiar blue box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinner gained great popularity as a substitute for meat and dairy products. Two boxes required only one rationing coupon, which resulted in 80 million boxes sold in 1943. Food substitutions became evident with real butter being replaced with Oleo margarine. Cottage cheese took on a new significance as a substitute for meat, with sales exploding from 110 million pounds in 1930 to 500 million pounds in 1944.

After three years of rationing, World War II came to a welcome end. Rationing, however, did not end until 1946. Life resumed as normal and the consumption of meat, butter, and sugar inevitably rose. While Americans still live with some of the results of World War II, rationing has not returned.

The Gas Shortage of the 1970’s - Oh, The Madness!

I was in elementary school during the oil crisis/gas shortage of the 1970’s. I wasn’t overly concerned at the time since, as a kid, I wasn’t driving so I didn’t really have a horse in that race. My parents, on the other hand, had their concerns. My father had to get to work everyday at all costs. Calling out was not an option his work ethic wouldn’t allow it. We were fortunate to have two cars so it all worked out, although it was still a huge worry. A lot of people were of the opinion that the shortage was unnecessary and purely political, but the fact remained that gasoline was scarce.

My family lived in Maryland at the time of the gas shortage. Gas was being rationed and sold under certain conditions. Of course, the public was expected to conserve gas whenever possible, but measures were put into place to ensure that everyone was participating in the effort. Gas stations were selling gas on an odd/even day basis. If your license plate number ended in an even number, you could buy gas on certain days and the same concept applied to odd numbered license plate numbers. If your car had vanity tags, you could only buy gas on odd days. My parents were fortunate enough to have one of each an even and an odd license plate number so theoretically, they could buy gas every day. During that time, though, many families only owned one car so plenty of people ran into a big problem. As you can imagine, public transportation was encouraged but was also limited due to the gas shortage.

In June of 1973, the price of a gallon of gasoline was under 50 cents. By May of 1974, it had skyrocketed to over $4.00 per gallon. The shortage and price hike were reportedly due to two major oil refineries being closed. Supply couldn’t keep up with demand and everyone was scrambling to get the gas they needed mainly so they could get to work. Vehicles of the 1970’s were gas guzzlers, so a tank of gas didn’t last long. It got so bad that people were regularly stealing gas from unattended vehicles.

During this time, I remember many times being in the car with my parents, waiting in the gas line which stretched out of the parking lot and at times about ¼ of a mile down the road. People even lined up with their gas-powered lawn mowers. It wasn’t unheard of to wait in line for a couple of hours only to find out that the pumps were empty when you finally made it to the front of the line.

Gas stations limited the amount of gas that could be purchased on any one visit. The shortage was so dire that some gas stations couldn’t even buy gas and had to close because they had no gas to sell. President Nixon had asked gas station owners not to sell gas on Saturday nights or at all on Sundays. Most complied with the conservation request but plenty did not.

Energy conservation efforts were put in place to relieve some of the demand. Eventually, the nationwide highway speed limit was lowered to 55 MPH. NASCAR voluntarily shortened their races, even cancelling some. Everyone had to do their part.

As the frustration grew, tempers flared. People were fighting, both verbally and physically in the gas lines. If a person got in line on the wrong day (and it was easy to tell because of the license plate number) there was hell to pay. Normally rational people turned into raging vigilantes in order right that wrong. Professional truck drivers were not able to work at times because they were being limited as well. Obviously, this led to deliveries not being made to stores which in turn hurt the business of store owners. It wasn’t just a gas shortage, it was an entire economy crisis.

It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. The gas shortage created demand for more efficient automobiles with the public's affection for gas-guzzling muscle cars waning, the market for compact and subcompact cars -- including the notorious Ford Pinto -- exploded. At the height of the 1970's gas shortage, alternative and renewable energy sources were being explored. Now, we have more fuel-efficient vehicle and even vehicles that run on electricity. At the time, we would never have dreamed of an electric car! Unfortunately, after the gas shortage leveled out, most of us went back to business as usual as far as our gas usage. The convenience of transportation was and is just too tempting.

Seventeen states put gasoline rationing into effect - HISTORY

Special to The New York Times

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"We must do everything within our power," the Chief Executive stated, "to see that the program starts Dec. 1, because victory must not be delayed through failure to support our fighting forces."

This admonition was contained in identical letters sent by the President to William M. Jeffers, Rubber Director of the War Production Board, and to Leon Henderson, Price Administrator. He stated the case briefly but bluntly, and soon key civilian and military officials in the fields of war production and domestic economy swung into action, taking turns in broadcasts notifying the people of the country that, despite resistance at the Capitol, where a large, segment of the Congress is demanding at least postponement of general gasoline limitations, the restrictions would be imposed.

The President&aposs Letter

The text of the President&aposs letter follows:

"Following submission of the Baruch Rubber Report to me in September, I asked that mileage rationing be extended throughout the nation. Certain printing and transportation problems made it necessary to delay the program until Dec. 1.

"With every day that passes, our need for this rubber conservation measure grows more acute. It is the Army&aposs need and the Navy&aposs need. They must have rubber. We, as civilians, must conserve our tires.

"The Baruch Committee said: &aposWe find the existing situation to be so dangerous that unless corrective measures are taken immediately this country will face both a military and civilian collapse. In rubber we are a have-not nation.&apos

"Since then the situation has become more acute, not less. Since then our military requirements for rubber have become greater, not smaller. Since then many tons of precious rubber have been lost through driving not essential to the war effort. We must keep every pound we can on our wheels to maintain our wartime transportation system.

"We must do everything within our power to see that the program starts Dec. 1 because victory must not be delayed through failure to support our fighting forces."

Jeffers in Nation-Wide Plea

Mr. Jeffers, responding to the President&aposs letter in a country-wide broadcast a few hours later, charged that untruths were being told to obscure the necessity for the impending rationing of motor fuel oil to force drastic reductions in mileage of non-essential travel.

Meanwhile, in a joint broadcast, Mr. Henderson, Robert P. Patterson, Under-Secretary of War, and Rear Admiral Claude A Jones, the Navy&aposs assistant chief of Procurement and Materials, emphasized that the program must go through, and replied to objections raised during the campaign which has obtained widespread Congressional backing.

The distorted story of mileage rationing, Mr. Jeffers said, was being circulated, particularly among the people of the West and Midwest where gasoline is plentiful, with "trimmings" and "local embellishments," all for the single purpose, he held, of making the average American overlook the basic facts about our rubber situation.

This was being done, he alleged, so that "some downtown merchants and some gasoline jobbers" might "continue to enjoy business-as-usual."

Declares Facts "Are Simple"

"The facts," Mr. Jeffers said, "are simple. With only a trickle of new rubber coming in, with our synthetic rubber plants still in construction, we are going to have to get along on the rubber we have. That means that the vast majority of our 27,000,000 passenger cars and 5,000,000 trucks are going to have to run from now until mid-1944 on the tires now in use.

"That&aposs the reason, and the only reason, for the entire rubber conservation programs. That&aposs the reason nationwide gasoline rationing will go into effect Dec. 1. That&aposs the reason for the thirty-five-mile speed limit and for periodic tire inspection."

Mr. Jeffers, too, turned to the Baruch Report, as did the President and quoted this:

"&aposGas rationing is the only way of saving rubber. Every way of avoiding this method was explored, but it was found to be inescapable. This must be kept in mind: the limitation of the use of gasoline is not due to shortage of that commodity--it is wholly a measure of rubber saving. That is why it must be nation-wide."

"That statement," Mr. Jeffers said, "continues to be true. I have seen no suggestion by anybody that offers any hope of saving rubber by any other method."

The rubber director said that he was not concerned about "the business-as-usual fellows" except as their activities imperiled the progress of the war by "misleading the man in overalls."

"The man in overalls is the man I am concerned about," he said, and continued:

"That man is the plain, ordinary citizen, who wants to do a good patriotic job, the man in the factory, the man on the farm, the housewife, the business man, the American citizen-- in other words, who does a day&aposs work and who is the most important unit in our home- front picture."

Such persons, Mr. Jeffers charged, were being told that if they did not oppose mileage rationing they would be unable to go to work and back.

"That simply isn&apost true," he said. "The entire purpose of mileage rationing is to insure they will get to work and back, not just this month and next but in the months to come.

&aposEnough Gasoline for Worker&apos

"The worker can obtain enough gasoline for his necessary driving. The farmer can obtain enough for getting his produce to market. Every citizen can get enough gasoline for essential driving.

"But there we have to stop. Non-essential driving is one of the luxuries all of us will have to give up for the duration.

"The people are being told that the 35-mile speed limit will save all the rubber that is necessary. That isn&apost true. The wheels can be driven off an automobile at 35 just as well as at 60. It merely takes longer."

Those of an organized opposition to the program, Mr. Henderson declared, were banded together to oppose our keeping faith with our fighting men. Powerful and self-seeking groups, he held, were working through whispering campaigns as well as the printed word.

"We are here tonight," he said, speaking for himself, Under-Secretary Patterson and Admiral Jones, "to answer these men who would gamble America&aposs future, not for a mess of pottage, but for a gallon of gasoline."

Then he announced bluntly:

"I wish to state here and now that nation-wide mileage rationing will definitely go into effect Dec. 1, 1942. My authority is a letter which I have just received from the President of the United States."

Mr. Patterson warned that if transportation bogged down, plane and tank production would break down. Those who would risk crippling transportation, he added, took a chance of crippling the fighting forces.

"Every day," said Admiral Jones, "we in the Navy are haunted by the realization that every tire not used for absolute essential driving will have to be replaced in some manner by additional rubber that the Navy needs--needs for things like life rafts yes, the kind that saved Captain Eddie Rickenbacker. To save the wear on a tire may mean the saving of a life."

Rather than giving their own answers to some of the objections raised against the mileage rationing program, the speakers read replies direct from the Baruch report.

"I feel positive," Mr. Henderson said, "that if the President of the United States, the War Production Board, and the War and Navy Departments have accepted the judgment of the Baruch report that nation-wide mileage rationing is the surest, wisest method to prevent a real rubber catastrophe, then the people of Indiana, Michigan, Arkansas, Texas and other States will also accept that judgment rather than the falsehoods being spread by these self-seeking pressure groups.

"And the West will learn what the East already knows by experience, that mileage rationing really insures essential transportation."

Opponents Press Arguments

By The Associated Press

Washington, Nov. 26--President Roosevelt&aposs stand on nationwide gasoline rationing in effect repeated pleas of members of Congress from oil-producing and other Western States outside the existing rational area of the East that extension of rationing be delayed from 90 days to six months pending a trial of voluntary tire-saving schemes.

Representative Boren of Oklahoma, a leader in the Congressional movement to block nationwide rationing, termed the President&aposs order "a dangerous error."

"Nobody is more favorable to rationing rubber than I am," Mr. Boren commented, "but I feel that rationing gasoline for the purpose of conserving rubber is a dangerous error.

"I still say that rationing gasoline, excused on the ground of conserving rubber, is comparable to rationing water to save coffee, or amputating a leg to cure a toothache."

Mr. Boren said that the only recourse would be legislation, and that a special Congressional committee probably would meet tomorrow to decide whether to seek Congressional action to block rationing.

Representative Wickersham of Oklahoma declared that he was "still interested in the furtherance of the war effort above everything else," but added:

"I still firmly believe, upon the evidence compiled by our committee in the past ten days, that the nationwide gasoline rationing program as proposed by Mr. Henderson will hinder rather than help the war effort."

Big Football Crowds Cited

Cleveland, Nov. 26 (AP)--Crowds at recent football games in the Midwest "did not indicate that people were taking the rubber shortage seriously," the regional OPA office here asserted today, replying to critics of the OPA&aposs mileage rationing program.

"Ohio State and Illinois played to an estimated 68,000 in Cleveland," the OPA added. "Notre Dame and Michigan drew a crowd of 57,000 in South Bend. People did not walk to these games. Traffic conditions in the host cities indicated that they rode to and from on critical rubber."

Texas Rationing Aide Named

Houston, Texas, November 26 (AP)--State OPA officials today put C. J. Crampton in charge of Harris County gasoline rationing after Chairman Raymond Elledge of the rationing board stated that this city faced a complete shutdown if the program went into effect Tuesday. Mr. Crampton is assistant manager of the Houston Chamber of Commerce.

Mr. Elledge was quoted as saying that a force of 200 persons would be needed up to Jan. 1 to complete the task of issuing gasoline coupon books.

Dec. 1, 1942: Mandatory Gas Rationing, Lots of Whining

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To revist this article, visit My Profile, then View saved stories.

1942: Nearly a year after the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor that brought the United States fully into World War II, the Americans get around to imposing nationwide gasoline rationing.

A fuel shortage was not the problem. America had plenty of that. What it lacked was rubber. Both the Army and Navy were in desperate need of rubber for the war effort.

Imports had fallen off to a trickle, because many of the traditional sources were now in Japanese hands. The construction of synthetic-rubber factories was just beginning.

Mandatory gasoline rationing had been in effect in the eastern United States since May 1942, but a voluntary program in other parts of the country had proven unsuccessful.

The Baruch Rubber Report, presented to President Franklin Roosevelt on Sept. 1, 1942, concluded that the United States was "a have-not nation" when it came to rubber. Meeting the military's enormous needs would be nearly impossible if the civilians at home didn't cut out nonessential driving to conserve on tire wear.

The best way to achieve that was to make it more difficult for people to use their cars. And the best way to do that was to limit the amount of gasoline an individual could purchase.

Proving it could remain obstinate even in the face of a national crisis, Congress balked at imposing nationwide gas rationing. Forcing Americans to curtail their driving would be bad for business, many legislators argued. They evidently feared voter backlash more than they did Hitler or Hirohito.

They pushed for a delay at the very least, but FDR would have none of it. Backed by government procurement agencies and military leaders, the president ordered gasoline rationing to begin on Dec. 1 and to last "the duration."

Americans were presented with FDR's fait accompli on Nov. 26, giving them less than a week to prepare. The story shared the top of Page 1 in The New York Times, alongside a report of the developing Soviet offensive at Stalingrad.

Thus, Americans soon became acquainted with the ration card, which had to be presented on every trip to the filling station. To be out of ration stamps was to be out of luck.

Drivers who used their cars for work that was deemed essential to the war effort were classified differently and received additional stamps. There were five classifications:

  • Class A drivers were allowed only 3 gallons of gasoline per week.
  • Class B drivers (factory workers, traveling salesmen) received 8 gallons per week.
  • Class C drivers included essential war workers, police, doctors and letter carriers.
  • Class T included all truck drivers.
  • Class X was reserved for politicians and other "important people."

The last three classifications were not subject to the restrictions.

The griping didn't stop, not in Congress and not on Main Street, USA, despite assurances from William Jeffers, the War Production Board's rubber director. He said, "[T]he worker can obtain enough gasoline for his necessary driving. The farmer can obtain enough for getting his produce to market. Every citizen can get enough gasoline for essential driving."

The whining was loudest in the western states, where gasoline was especially plentiful, rationing had come late, and the distances were great.

*Image: This set of Basic Mileage Ration class A coupons covered a 1934 Plymouth. (Wikipedia)

Fact Sheet | A Brief History of Octane in Gasoline: From Lead to Ethanol

A cornerstone of U.S. environmental policy has been the reduction of harmful tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks. Thanks to EPA regulations of mobile sources, air pollutants have been reduced by millions of tons in the urban environment. Several EPA fuel regulations have concerned octane. Octane is a gasoline additive that is needed for the proper functioning of modern engines. Octane sources have taken many forms throughout the years, both renewable and petroleum-based. They include lead, methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), benzene, toluene, ethyl-benzene and xylene (BTEX), and ethanol (a biofuel). As adverse health and environmental consequences have been discovered for lead and petroleum-based octane providers, they have been removed from the fuel supply or decreased. Today, there are two primary sources of octane used in the U.S. gasoline supply, the BTEX complex (a petroleum refining product commonly referred to as gasoline aromatics), and ethanol.


Fig. 1: octane rating of gasoline, as displayed at a
typical gas station

The octane rating is a measure of a fuel&rsquos ability to avoid knock. Knock occurs when fuel is prematurely ignited in the engine&rsquos cylinder, which degrades efficiency and can be damaging to the engine. Knock is virtually unknown to modern drivers. This is primarily because fuels contain an oxygenate that prevents knock by adding oxygen to the fuel. This oxygenate is commonly referred to as octane.

At most retail gasoline stations, three octane grades are offered, 87 (regular), 89 (mid-grade), and 91-93 (premium). The higher the octane number, the more resistant the gasoline mixture is to knock. The use of higher octane fuels also enables higher compression ratios, turbocharging, and downsizing/downspeeding&mdashall of which enable greater engine efficiencies and higher performance. Currently, high-octane fuel is marketed as &lsquopremium,&rsquo but automotive manufacturers have expressed interest in raising the minimum octane pool in the United States to enable smaller, more efficient engines. Doing so would increase vehicle efficiency and lower greenhouse gases through decreased petroleum consumption.


In the early 20th century, automotive manufacturers were searching for a chemical that would reduce engine knock. In 1921, automotive engineers working for General Motors discovered that tetraethyl lead (better known as lead) provided octane to gasoline, preventing engine knock. While aromatic hydrocarbons (such as benzene) and alcohols (such as ethanol) were also known octane providers at the time, lead was the preferred choice due to its lower production cost. Leaded gasoline was the predominant fuel type in the United States until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began phasing it out in the mid-1970s because of proven serious health impacts.

Leaded Gasoline & Health Concerns

Early in its use as a fuel additive, health concerns were raised regarding the use of lead in gasoline. In 1924, 15 refinery workers in New Jersey and Ohio died of suspected lead poisoning. As a result, the Surgeon General temporarily suspended the production of leaded gasoline and convened a panel to investigate the potential dangers of lead use in gasoline. While the panel found insufficient evidence of lead poisoning over a short time period, the panel warned that longer exposure to lead could result in &ldquochronic degenerative diseases of a less obvious character.&rdquo

Despite these warnings, the Surgeon General set a voluntary standard of lead content, which the refining industry successfully met for decades. It was not until the 1960s, following extensive health research, that the devastating health impacts of low-level lead exposure were established. Children&rsquos developing bodies are particularly sensitive to low-level, ambient exposures to lead. The health impacts of lead exposure in children include anemia, behavioral disorders, low IQ, reading and learning disabilities, and nerve damage. In adults, lead exposure is associated with hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Prior to the lead phase-out in gasoline, the total amount of lead used in gasoline was over 200,000 tons per year.

Leaded Gasoline Phase-out in the United States

Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970, setting in motion the formation of the EPA and, ultimately, the removal of lead from gasoline. EPA estimates that between 1927 and 1987, 68 million children were exposed to toxic levels of lead from leaded gasoline alone. The phase-out of lead from gasoline subsequently reduced the number of children with toxic levels of lead in their blood by 2 million individuals a year between 1970 and 1987.

Timeline of Lead Phase-out

1970: Congress passes the Clean Air Act. The EPA is formed and given the authority to regulate compounds that endanger human health.

1973: EPA mandates a phased-in reduction of lead content in all grades of gasoline.

1974: EPA requires availability of at least one grade of unleaded gasoline, in order to be compatible with 1975 make and model year vehicles. Lead damages the catalytic converters used in these new vehicles to control tailpipe emissions. Catalytic converters are still used in vehicles today.

1996: EPA bans the use of leaded fuel for on-road vehicles (leaded gasoline was down to 0.6 percent of 1996 gasoline sales). Lead is still used in some aviation fuels.

Thanks to coordinated efforts, lead is now absent from gasoline in most of the world. Following the lead phase-out in the United States, the oil refining industry chose to construct additional refining capacity to produce octane from other petroleum products, rather than from renewable sources such as ethanol.

Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (MTBE)

The Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA) of 1990 were the next major regulation of fuels. Among other things, CAAA requires areas that do not meet ground-level ozone standards to use reformulated gasoline (RFG). RFG has an increased oxygenate content, which helps it burn more completely. As a result, RFG lowers the formation of ozone precursors and other air toxics during combustion.

Petroleum refiners were not required to use any particular oxygenate in RFG, but by the late 1990s, a petroleum product, methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), was used in 87 percent of RFG due to its ease of transport and blending. In the Midwest, ethanol was a more common component of RFG. Despite its success at reducing ozone precursors, MTBE was phased out of the gasoline pool due to concerns over its solubility in water, which resulted in the contamination of water resources in numerous states. As of 2005, EPA reported that MTBE was not being used in significant quantities in the United States. Currently, 30 percent of gasoline sold in the United States is reformulated gasoline. Ethanol is providing the additional octane required by RFG.

Timeline of MTBE Phase out

1998: EPA convenes a Blue Ribbon Panel, which finds MTBE poses a threat to groundwater supplies. At the time, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) finds MTBE present in 20 percent of groundwater supplies in RFG areas.

2000: EPA announces the phase-out of MTBE to protect drinking water. At the same time, EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) call for an increase in the use of ethanol to preserve air quality.

2000 &ndash 2005: Seventeen states ban or significantly limit the use of MTBE in gasoline pools.

The BTEX Complex

The BTEX complex is a hydrocarbon mixture of benzene, toluene, xylene and ethyl-benzene. Commonly referred to as gasoline aromatics, these compounds are refined from low-octane petroleum products into a high-octane gasoline additive. While some volume of BTEX is native to gasoline, it is also added to finished gasoline to boost its octane rating. The total volume of BTEX (aromatics) in finished gasoline depends on the desired octane value and other desired fuel properties.

The Rise of BTEX Use

A consequence of lead&rsquos phase-out was the increase of BTEX in gasoline. When faced with the removal of lead as the primary octane provider in gasoline, refiners had two available alternatives, BTEX and ethanol. The refining industry invested in additional refining capacity to replace lead with BTEX, a high-octane petroleum refining product. As a result of its substitution for lead, BTEX volume rose from 22 percent to roughly a third of the gasoline pool by 1990. In premium gasoline grades, the BTEX volume content was as high as 50 percent. In mandating cleaner fuels, through reformulated gasoline and other programs, EPA has reduced the volume of aromatics to between 25 to 28 percent of the conventional gasoline pool, though some health professionals question the safety of even these levels.

BTEX & Health Concerns

After the lead phase-out, there were early concerns regarding the BTEX complex. In 1987, Senator Tom Daschle expressed concern over gasoline aromatics, writing, &ldquoA revolutionary change is occurring in the gasoline industry which poses a serious threat to the environment and public health &ndash namely the increased concentration of benzene and other aromatics.&rdquo

Today, health research indeed suggests that even very low-level exposure to the BTEX complex, from gasoline additives and other petroleum products, may contribute to negative developmental, reproductive and immunological responses, as well as cardio-pulmonary effects. Upon incomplete combustion of the BTEX complex contained in gasoline, ultra-fine particulates (UFP) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are formed, which carry their own adverse health impacts even at low levels. UFP and PAHs are carcinogenic and mutagenic. Both UFP and PAHs have also been linked to developmental and neurodegenerative disorders, cancers, and cardio-pulmonary effects. Considerable attention has been given to benzene in fuel, as it is highly toxic. At the same time, the partial replacement of benzene with other aromatic compounds (xylene, ethyl-benzene, toluene) may not be sufficient in reducing exposure to BTEX's toxic effects.

Timeline of Benzene Regulation

1990: Congress passes the Clean Air Act Amendments, which, among other things, require lowering the content of benzene in areas that do not meet ground-level ozone standards. Passed as part of the CAAA was S.1630, the Clean Octane amendment, which gives EPA the authority to use &ldquobenign additives to replace the toxic aromatics that are now used to boost octane in gasoline.&rdquo

2007: EPA updates the Control of Hazardous Air Pollutants from Mobile Sources (MSAT2), which caps the total content of benzene in gasoline at 0.62 percent, down from an average of 1.3 percent. The other aromatics, such as toluene and xylene, are not capped.


Early automakers expressed interest in plant-based alcohol fuels, such as ethanol. Henry Ford designed the first Model T to run on ethanol. But, at the time, gasoline was a much cheaper fuel. Additionally, Standard Oil was &ldquoreluctant &hellip to encourage the manufacture and sale of a competitive fuel produced by an industry in no way related to petroleum.&rdquo The petroleum industry has controlled the fuels market ever since.

During the 1973 oil embargo, regular unleaded gasoline prices jumped 57 percent and routine gasoline shortages also occurred. These events, and the regulation of many air pollutants, sparked a renewed interest in fuel efficiency, electric vehicles, and renewable fuels such as ethanol, which were seen as ways to meet the new regulations and reduce petroleum consumption. Today, the majority of ethanol in the United States is blended with gasoline to produce E10 (10 percent ethanol, 90 percent gasoline). Over 95 percent of gasoline sold in the United States is E10.

Ethanol as an Octane Booster

In addition to having lower lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than conventional gasoline, ethanol is an excellent octane provider, with neat (pure) ethanol having an octane rating of over 100. Currently, refiners create &lsquosub-octane gas,&rsquo which has a lower octane rating than required. Ethanol, which is generally the cheapest octane provider, is then used to bring the octane rating of the gasoline up to the labelled octane value on the gas pump. For example, 84 octane gasoline is typically blended with 10 percent ethanol to reach the minimum octane requirement of 87 for retail gasoline.


The Search for Additional Octane

Currently, there are two ways of increasing the octane content of gasoline: increasing the volume of gasoline aromatics or increasing the volume of ethanol.

Ethanol & Health Concerns

While ethanol has a higher volatility than gasoline, meaning it vaporizes more quickly, it is a cleaner-burning alternative to petroleum-based octane boosters. Additionally, the toxicity of ethanol is low compared to the health effects of BTEX and its combustion products, such as ultrafine particulates (UFPs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). A modest increase of ethanol content in fuel from 10 to 15 percent would result in an anticipated 6.6 percent reduction in cancer risk from tailpipe emissions.

There is contradictory evidence that increasing ethanol content in gasoline increases nitrous oxide (NOX) emissions, an ozone precursor. Several studies find either no relationship between ethanol blending and NOX emissions, or find decreased NOX emissions with increasing ethanol volumes. Other studies suggest older cars emit more NOX when using ethanol blends. However, a study of 2012 make and model year vehicles found no increase in NOX emissions between E10, E15 and E20 blends, suggesting that both engine design and engine age play a role in NOX emissions. Overall, the effect of ethanol on NOX and carbon monoxide (CO) emissions is minor in newer engine emission control systems.

Timeline of Ethanol Phase-In

1975: Congress passes the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPAct), establishing Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for cars and trucks.

1988: The Alternative Motor Fuels Act establishes incentives under CAFE for alternative fuel vehicles.

1992: The Energy Policy Act of 1992defines alternative fuels and establishes programs at the federal level to increase the use and research of alternative fuels.

2005: Congress passes the Energy Policy Act of 2005, establishing the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). RFS sets a minimum volume of renewable biofuels to be blended into the transportation fuel supply.

2007: Congress passes the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA), significantly increasing the volume of renewable fuels mandated under the RFS, to 36 billion gallons by 2022.

2013: Citing a lack of renewable fuels infrastructure, EPA proposes reducing the volume of renewable fuels under the RFS.

2015: The Administration sets renewable fuel volumes for 2014 &ndash 2016. Final renewable fuel volumes for 2016 are 18.11 billion gallons, set at approximately 1 billion gallons higher than the 2013 proposal, and at just over 10 percent of the fuel supply. This includes the categories of renewable fuels, cellulosic biofuels, advanced biofuels and biomass-based diesel.


Lead and various petroleum products have provided octane to gasoline for over 100 years, but evolving health and environmental concerns have led policymakers to reconsider the widespread use of many of these compounds. As the United States looks to reduce the greenhouse gas intensity of the transportation sector, increasing the octane value of gasoline is a promising avenue, as it would enable more fuel-efficient engines. But the health and environmental impacts of the octane sources that are used must be considered as well. By adding ethanol to finished gasoline, called &ldquosplash blending,&rdquo octane ratings can be increased while simultaneously lowering toxic octane sources.

A national transition to an optimized mid-level ethanol blend, between E25 (25 percent ethanol, 75 percent gasoline) and E40 (40 percent ethanol), would lower consumer fuel costs and standardize the fuel supply. The Department of Energy recognizes that increasing the ethanol content of gasoline is a potential pathway to increasing the octane rating of the gasoline supply. A mid-level ethanol blend would enable the design of highly fuel-efficient engines that would significantly reduce petroleum consumption, reduce lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions, and help meet higher fuel economy standards. As of now, the Department of Energy and the EPA have approved the use of E15 for make and model year 2001 and newer vehicles, which account for 80 percent of the vehicles on the road today.

Automotive manufacturers are examining clean octane sources as a way to meet efficiency and greenhouse gas regulations. It is here that the greatest benefit to health, the environment and vehicle efficiency can be realized in the near-term.

Sacrificing for the Common Good: Rationing in WWII

A bas relief panel on the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. depicts farmers harvesting wheat while a soldier leans on the tractor's wheel.

During the Second World War, Americans were asked to make sacrifices in many ways. Rationing was not only one of those ways, but it was a way Americans contributed to the war effort.

When the United States declared war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States government created a system of rationing, limiting the amount of certain goods that a person could purchase. Supplies such as gasoline, butter, sugar and canned milk were rationed because they needed to be diverted to the war effort. War also disrupted trade, limiting the availability of some goods. For example, the Japanese Imperial Army controlled the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia) from March 1942 to September 1945, creating a shortage of rubber that affected American production.

On August 28, 1941, President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8875 created the Office of Price Administration (OPA). The OPA’s main responsibility was to place a ceiling on prices of most goods, and to limit consumption by rationing.

Americans received their first ration cards in May 1942. The first card, War Ration Card Number One, became known as the “Sugar Book,” for one of the commodities Americans could purchase with their ration card. Other ration cards developed as the war progressed. Ration cards included stamps with drawings of airplanes, guns, tanks, aircraft, ears of wheat and fruit, which were used to purchase rationed items.

The OPA rationed automobiles, tires, gasoline, fuel oil, coal, firewood, nylon, silk, and shoes. Americans used their ration cards and stamps to take their meager share of household staples including meat, dairy, coffee, dried fruits, jams, jellies, lard, shortening, and oils.

Americans learned, as they did during the Great Depression, to do without. Sacrificing certain items during the war became the norm for most Americans. It was considered a common good for the war effort, and it affected every American household.

Symbolizing Sacrifice in the World War II Memorial

The World War II Memorial symbolizes sacrifice in more than one way. A wall of gold stars recognizes the American military personnel that were killed during the war. A brass relief panel has an image of men and women working on a farm chafing wheat. Since wheat was an important product, some men who lived on farms were exempted from military service, and few of them were drafted. Families like the one depicted in the memorial would have made a major sacrifice by losing an able-bodied farmhand, symbolized by the uniformed serviceman on the left. As the war progressed, German and Italian prisoners of war were used as farm laborers to assist in the food production that carried the war effort.

Agriculture is represented elsewhere in the memorial. Wheat wreaths on the columns of states and territories ringing the memorial are a reminder of the effort and sacrifice all Americans made to defend freedom and defeat tyranny in the Second World War.

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