During the Second World War, rationing was a thing in most parts of the world, and Britain had some of the most stringent rules of any free nation. Then, as now, they relied heavily on imported goods and raw materials, and when shipping became a problem, conservation was the order of the day. Not only that, but the armed forces had priority for what the U.K. did have.
It wasn’t just food that was tightly controlled, but clothes, household goods, and pretty much everything else. People needed all the help that they could get when it came to making use of their things, and the government helpfully distributed little booklets with tips and resources. Historian Jill Norman has compiled many of these into a book, Make Do And Mend: Keeping Family And Home Afloat On War Rations.
According to Norman, fuel rationing was where the vast majority of Brits felt the shortages most. People could no longer just burn coal, coke, or other heating elements as much as they wanted to, and although fuel was doled out according to household size and geographical region, the allotment wasn’t a whole lot.
The Ministry of Fuel framed conservation as “battle orders,” and advised such measures as adding fire bricks to coal heaters as insulation and wrapping pipes in felt to “lag” hot water systems. They cautioned against letting cold water drip from taps because coal was used to pump water. The public were even instructed on how to read their own gas and electricity meters so as to keep better tabs on their fuel consumption.
Clothes and shoes presented another challenge, as fabric was severely rationed. Nylons, of course, went bye-bye, and just as in the US, women stained their legs with tea and drew lines up the backs of their legs with eyeliner. Utility dress was the byword for much of the war, with suits made single-breasted only and skirts hitting the knee. It was a hit with the public, who saw utility dress as patriotic. The only clothing items that weren’t rationed were hats.
It might be easy to assume that people of the nineteen-forties already knew how to care for their clothes and other household items, but even if someone is handy with a needle and thread, reminders are always helpful in times of stress. The British Board of Trade employed a character called Mrs. Sew-and-Sew to encourage Brits to take care of their clothes. Everything from darning to mending to patches to working with different types of fabric are covered. Among her other tips, Mrs. Sew-and-Sew recommended shortening hems and eking out extra fabric from parts of clothing that could spare some. Sometimes making over clothes was as simple as taking off the worn parts, such as a shabby fur collar.
Childrenswear presented the biggest challenge due to the obvious fact that kids grow. The recommended methods of stretching childrens’ wardrobes usually involved adding fabric to existing clothes and reinforcing seats and knees. Children’s pajamas and underwear could be cut from grownup clothes, as well as dresses, blouses, and boy’s shirts. Floursacking material wasn’t rationed, so mothers made good use of it. The pamphlets advised making the seams of childrens’ clothes with extra fabric so that they could be let out as a child grew. If all else failed, mothers could also buy the family’s clothes and shoes secondhand or at a clothing exchange, as neither required ration coupons.
Outfitting a baby was yet another hurdle, as we all know how fast babies grow and how liable they are to soil their clothes. The Board of Trade suggested skipping rubber pants, which babies often wore in the days before disposable diapers, as rubber was scarce and the pants were uncomfortable anyway. Okeydokey. Other tips were putting drawstrings in the neck and sleeves so that the clothes could be adjusted as the babies grew, as well as omitting lots of frillies. After all, the babies wouldn’t care too much. Maternity wear is also covered, and the Board of Trade advised adding extra fabric to existing clothes so that clothing coupons weren’t wasted on expensive, basically disposable clothing.
Shoe repair often fell to the average Brit, and these pamphlets included helpful tips on how to make them last. Pamphlets advised reminding children and adults to untie their shoes before taking them off (or putting them on) and only wear rainboots when it was raining, as rubber was hard to come by. Another cautioned against warming shoes against woodburning stoves because heat is bad for leather. Mrs. Sew-and-Sew had helpful ideas for making slippers for the whole family out of leather, yarn, cardboard, or any other fabrics on hand.
Furniture was another issue, since fabric, glue, metal, and other materials used were rationed. Fortunately, the Board of Trade came to rescue with tips on how to shore up broken chair legs and reinforce loose drawer pulls. Since it was wartime, blackout curtains had a way of showing wear and tear as well, not to mention just plain old dust and dirt. The number one “Don’t” when it came to caring for them was don’t wash them. Repeated washings would cause the blackout to get thin and thus show light.
Should the worst happen, the Board of Trade also had pamphlets about what to do in case one’s house was destroyed. Families and friends were to make plans to come stay with each other if that was the case, but if that was unfeasible, there were rest centres available.
It was possible for families to be provided with another home, and if they lost their ration coupons, to get replacements, with the proviso that they were really in trouble. It was a criminal offense to lie about being homeless or about losing coupons–the punishment being a £500 fine or up to two years imprisonment, possibly both. And no, the government wouldn’t pay rent–that was the responsibility of the displaced family. However, if someone became injured and was unable to work, they might be eligible for a pension.
The British government left no issue unaddressed, as it was important to morale that people knew they had options. These pamphlets provide a glimpse of what the Brits on the home front had to consider on a day to day basis, and what’s interesting for today’s readers is that they provide step-by-step instructions on how to perform skills that may be largely forgotten today. That’s not a bad thing, especially since we never know when we might need to get creative with our stuff.
Thanks for reading, all, and I hope you’ll check back here tomorrow. Spoiler alert: There may be some deja vu…