Ypsilanti Thanksgivings During World War Two
“Any prisoners confined in the jail on Thanksgiving Day will be served the usual menu of bologna and bread,” said the November 20, 1941 Ypsilanti Daily Press in an article about Thanksgiving Day menus in the city’s public institutions.
The article went on to say that Beyer Hospital, the Ypsilanti State Hospital southwest of town, and Leland Sanitarium north of town could expect the traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings. Beyer also planned to serve celery and pear pickles and Leland would serve tomato bouillon and celery hearts. At the State Hospital, staff received a turkey dinner but patients made do with pork chops and mashed potatoes.
But the austere jail repast, served only about two weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor, was an augury of rationed Thanksgiving meals to come.
Sugar was the first food to be rationed in May of 1942, and would be the last item to leave the ration list in 1947. By the fall of 1942, the price of turkeys was soaring. “The housewife shopping for turkey and trimmings today is realizing the high cost of being thankful,” noted an article in the November 25, 1942 Ypsilanti Daily Press. “Turkeys are fine this year, but high! They’re also plentiful but not for civilians. The Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Marines, WAACS and WAVES have gobbled up so many gobblers that many markets in the larger cities won’t have a turkey left on Thanksgiving eve.”
The article continued, “You can be thankful if you have coffee on hand otherwise tea will top off your meal as all coffee sales are frozen this week.” Three days later on November 28, 1942, coffee joined sugar on the ration list, to be purchased with stamps from one’s personal ration book.
The Ypsilanti Archives safeguards former Ypsilanti Press editor Eileen Harrison’s World War II ration books. At the time, Eileen was 40 years old, single, and living at 413 Washtenaw. The Archives contains her gas ration book, showing that she had an “A” rating for her 1935 coupe. This was the smallest ration (about 3 or 4 gallons a week) and was allotted to those whose driving was deemed nonessential to the war effort. “B” and “C” ratings offered greater amounts of gas, “T” was given to truckers, and “X,” the category allowing unlimited use of gas, was given to civil defense workers and public safety officials.
The Archives also contains Eileen’s ration book for food (at left), with an array of blue stamps used to buy processed and canned foods. Red stamps were used to buy meat. Stamps could not be saved up for a big Thanksgiving meal. Every week the Office of Price Administration in charge of the rationing program published lists of the specific stamp numbers that could be used that week and that week only to purchase specified quantities of food such as coffee. The office was trying to prevent hoarding.
“Enough coffee will be available during the life of the first coupon, but if everyone tries to redeem all of his stamps, the first day or the first week, there simply will not be enough to go around,” said an article in the November 28, 1942 Ypsilanti Daily Press. “Because of the perishable nature of the roasted and ground bean, the administration pointed out that excessively large household stocks would mean that people would be drinking stale coffee.”
On March 29, 1943 the rationed-foods list added many more foods, including cheese, butter, edible fats, canned fish and milk, processed foods, and just about every imaginable variety of fresh, frozen, smoked, canned, or preserved meat, including turkeys. The March 12, 1943 Ypsilanti Daily Press listed the new weekly limits per person:
“Meat—2 to 2 ¼ lbs.
Butter—4 ½ oz.
Margarine—1 1/3 oz.
Cheese—slightly less than 2 oz.
The paper pointed out that this was far more than was being rationed to the British, who could get only 1 ¼ pound of meat and 2 ounces of butter per week.
Ads in the Ypsilanti papers reflected food concerns. A March 12, 1943 ad for the Savage Community Store off Holmes Road says, “Don’t waste food: store it properly, prepare it carefully, buy it sensibly.” In the same edition, a Morton’s Salt ad proclaims, “Salt on grapefruit makes it sweeter.” A November 26, 1943 ad for Warner Dairy at 928 West Michigan Avenue said, “Hitler’s Children Don’t Get Milk Every Day—Be Thankful That You Do!”
Ypsilantians preparing for Thanksgiving that month were helped by an easing of meat point requirements. “Despite the fowl shortage,” said an article in the November 25, 1943 Ypsilanti Daily Press, “Ypsilanti’s soldiers and civilians apparently have not suffered and Thanksgiving menus today appear equal to those of previous years with roast turkey the favorite . . .”
It wouldn’t be until Thanksgiving of 1945, months after the surrender of German and Japanese forces, that the two-and-one-half-year federal rationing of meat ended, on November 24. For some Ypsilantians that post-war Thanksgiving was likely the first lavish meal in years.
At other homes, the feast table had empty chairs.
Ypsilanti merchants planned an end-of-November Christmas shopping event. “‘The lights will be on again’ marking the end of wartime restrictions,” said an article in the November 27, 1945 Ypsilanti Daily Press. “Ypsilanti merchants will do their utmost to make this a real old-time Christmas. Toys are here in profusion, and gifts for adults too, in such quantity and assortment as the limited market permits.” The event would feature strolling musicians, a performance by the Drum and Bugle Corps, the Boy Scout Drum Corps, and a torchlight parade to the Post Office where Santa would hold court.
After privation and sorrow, worry and loss, rations and restrictions, the city was thankful for peace.
Laura Bien is the author of “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives.” Have a WWII story to share for a future column? Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.