Bill Burton on the Bay

Vol. 9, No. 4
Jan. 25-31, 2001
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Liberty: Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

Give me again my hollow tree, a crust of bread and liberty.
Imitations of Horace: Alexander Pope, 1688-1744

Fifty-eight years ago last week, bread and liberty made the news together in, as they say, one fell swoop.

We were in the midst of World War II. The tide had not yet turned in our favor, and many among the citizenry across the land accepted that they had to sacrifice if we were to whip the enemy.

In homes, millions of blue and gold stars were in windows, many family jalopies were in storage for lack of tires and gasoline, workers were on 48-hour weeks, just about anything good to eat was rationed as were shoes. Cigarettes weren't easy to come by as most went to the armed forces, there were blackouts in coastal areas and air raid drills in villages and cities. People making more money than at any time since the beginning of the Great Depression found few consumer goods available to spend it on as industry focused on supplying the troops.

On Jan. 18, 1943, three weeks before Admiral 'Bull' Halsey announced "total and complete defeat" of Japanese forces by Marines on Guadalcanal, from Washington came word that henceforth there would be a ban on the sale of pre-sliced bread.

If we wanted to preserve our liberty, we had to slice our own. Bakery slicing machines were breaking down; replacement parts were metal badly needed for everything from guns and tanks to ships, bombers, portable fighter plane landing strips, docks and such.

Sliced Bread = Cash

When many found they could buy a loaf of bread neatly and thinly sliced at an affordable price (10 cents a loaf), they gave up baking or slicing their own.

I recall people in my New England village talking about the new ban. Jim Brown, one of the proprietors of Brown & Hopkins Store, said he didn't really object if it would help win the war, but he had to admit that the popularity of sliced bread had done much for business in his grocery store.

To this very day, we not infrequently hear "It's the best thing since sliced bread." We've forgotten how useful an invention automatic bread slicers were.

Housewives busy straining fats for the war effort, figuring menus based on foods available via stamps from ration books, writing letters to sons, husbands and others in the armed forces, saving electricity and rationed home fuel - while oft-times themselves working full and part time in defense plants - had to take time to slice their own bread for the table and for sandwiches in school and job lunch pails.

Like Jim Brown, no one complained much. It was just another inconvenience to be endured if liberty was to be assured. After all, our sacrifices on the home front weren't much when compared with citizens of the other Allied Nations.

The edict was hardly noted in the Burton household, seeing as Grandma Clara Burton had never given up baking her own bread. Loaves of rye, wheat and sometimes white that were wrapped in clean white dish towels in the kitchen bread drawer. Occasionally Grandma applied a light sprinkling of water on the towels to guard against the loaves going stale prematurely. After all, there was sugar and flour in our bread, and both were strictly rationed.

Our bread was sliced only when about to be eaten.

Making Do

Today, we see store shelves stocked to overflowing with everything imaginable, and generally we have in our pockets enough money to buy what we reasonably want. We tend to forget it wasn't always like this.

First, there was the Great Depression. Goods were available, but there was little money to buy them. Then came the war, with full employment and good wages - but few goods to spend on.

For longer than we liked, we couldn't and didn't have it both ways. In the end, our sacrifices helped ensure freedom and liberty. And on the home front, there were few gripes.

We were in a big war. We'd suffered humiliating early defeats in the Pacific, and in the Atlantic things weren't going too well either. There was subdued confidence but no guarantee we would win. Scary.

Truthfully, on the home front it wasn't bad when compared with civilian life in England and other countries on both sides of the conflict. By the standards of today, our sacrifices might be considered significant, but back then they were only inconveniences.

So we had to slice our own bread. So what? Butter, like most other dairy products, was rationed - four ounces a week - and there wasn't always some for the home-sliced bread. Jams, jellies and preserves required tightly rationed sugar. Oleomargarine came on the scene, but mixing the coloring into the white lard-like cakes to make it look like butter was messy indeed - and the flavor was something between lard and butter.

In May of '42, a million and a third Americans were obliged to line up at schools to receive the first of their ration books. First was a pound of sugar per person every two weeks. Coffee to wash the toast down was rationed, as was meat - 28 ounces a week - and meatless Tuesdays and Fridays made canned tuna awfully popular.

Shortages of tin cans forced Campbell Soup to cut back on production - and give up its sponsorship of Amos 'n' Andy after 15 years on the radio. Shoes were rationed, three pair per year, and none were stylish. Silk stockings and nylons were virtually impossible to buy; women painted their legs or switched to slacks, which weren't popular at the time.

Designers had to get approval for dress designs, and dresses were short and slim, with no cloth-wasting frills. Businessmen gave up their vests, then the traditional cuffs on their trousers. Everybody saved. Household fat went to munitions makers; so did the lead from toothpaste tubes. Rubber bands ended up in tires. Rags and all papers were recycled. By 1944, nearly half of the steel, tin and paper needed for the war effort came from people who salvaged goods.

Unlike today, no one was concerned about the price of gasoline at the pumps: It was less than 20 cents a gallon. The problem was in buying it. On May 15, 1942, came gasoline rationing, first in 17 eastern states, soon thereafter for the whole nation.

Community Ration Boards were tight-fisted: Three gallons a week for non-essential driving, and for a time in the darkest days of the war it was less. Those with essential jobs were granted just enough to get them to work and back. Even tires of synthetic rubber were rationed, and virtually impossible to buy - even second-hand - unless, again, the driver had an essential job. Inspectors were on the road checking for joy-riders or inefficient vehicles that belched black smoke.

No longer were oil and radiators checked or windshields washed at service stations. Stations were understaffed, for able-bodied men had gone to war or were working in defense plants.

Within a month after Pearl Harbor, there were no new cars for civilians; the old ones had to be patched up. A nationwide speed limit of 35 miles an hour saved fuel and tires. Boy Scouts collected 150,000 tons of non-repairable tires in 1942 alone, and most of that rubber ended up recycled on military vehicles.

Somehow, we all made do. We walked a lot, tended home victory gardens even in the city, learned how to recycle, lived in chilly houses, ignored style in clothing, smoked less, actually ate better, worked harder and longer, saved more money and everything else.

We even sliced our own bread.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly