From Sugar Rationing to Rubber Drives: A Glimpse at World War II through the Al Monner News Negatives

April 16, 2020

By Lindsey Benjamin

Before the Oregon Historical Society closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, archivist Lindsey Benjamin was processing photographs taken by “Oregon Journal” photographer Al Monner depicting 1940s era rationing. While today’s toilet paper shortages can’t compare to formal World War II rationing measures, the parallels between these photographs to present realities are poignant reminders of the importance of community coming together during challenging times. This photograph from the Al Monner news negatives depicts a 1942 scrap metal drive at Lincoln High School in Portland. OHS Research Library, Al Monner news negatives, Org. Lot 1284, box 18, 656-4.

In the weeks before the Oregon Historical Society (OHS) closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was spending my days in the 1940s. No, I have not found a time machine in the OHS collections… yet. Rather, I had been working with a large set of newly processed photographic negatives from Oregon Journal photographer Al Monner. As a photojournalist for the Journal from 1939 to 1975, he captured remarkable images while covering news events around the state, especially during World War II. As I watched events unfold around the COVID-19 pandemic, I couldn’t help but make comparisons between what I was hearing on the news and what I was observing in the Al Monner news negatives. Common themes emerged, such as discussions around rationing and supply chains as well as stories of remarkable personal sacrifice for the greater good of the community.

Chances are, you’ve recently visited a grocery store. You might also have noticed that a few things are different. Toilet paper is often in short supply and other non-perishable staples such as flour, yeast, and pasta are in high demand. Wandering the grocery aisles here in Portland, I immediately thought of Monner’s images, depicting rationing efforts in Oregon during the war. Today, many stores are limiting the amount of items customers can buy. You’ve probably also read about the vital effort to provide Personal Protective Equipment to medical workers, and efforts to save N95 masks for the people who need it the most.

In another time, Americans were formally asked to ration food and supplies. In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Emergency Price Control Act, paving the way for the Office of Price Administration to oversee the rationing of certain food items. Roosevelt also instituted Executive Order 9024 on January 16, 1942, creating the War Production Board that would oversee the rationing of commodities such as metal, rubber, oil, paper, and even shoes. Oregonians were issued ration booklets, which contained coupons good for a year’s supply of items such as sugar, flour, meat, and even gasoline.

While the rationing that took place in Oregon from 1942 to 1945 is different from the “one package of toilet paper per person” limits we see today, we’ve all seen glimmers of how supply chains are strained during times of crisis. The extreme rationing efforts of World War II reflect government-led efforts to combat shortages, hoarding, and price gouging.

In this spirit of community, and perhaps saving a little toilet paper for someone else, we’re happy to share a few images recently digitized from the Al Monner negatives, showing rationing in action in the Portland area. Nearly 1,000 images from collection are now available on the OHS Digital Collections site.

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