Tire Rationing During World War II

June 22, 2018

At the end of 1941, the wartime administration in Washington placed a ban on the sale of new tires for automobiles. Americans were already dazed by the furiously unfolding chain of events following the attack on Pearl Harbor and military mobilization. The ban accompanied gas rationing and other controls on the country’s economy.
Telling civilians that they were now home front soldiers, the government launched a massive campaign at the onset of World War II to rally support for its extensive rationing program. In time, nearly all foods were on the list, as well as gasoline, cigarettes, alcohol, heating oil, and clothing.
During the first couple of years of the war, rubber tires for passenger autos were not rationed; worse, they were not even allowed to be sold. Of all the raw materials needed to combat the Axis powers, rubber was considered among the most critical.
By now, tires had become an absolute necessity for the millions of automobiles owned and loved by Americans. But unfortunately, it took one ton of rubber to build each of the tens of thousands battlefield tanks needed to wage war. The Japanese Empire had overrun the Far East very rapidly, and our supply of crude rubber, the prime ingredient used to make tires, was almost completely cut off. Attempts to grow rubber trees in the U.S. failed, so what small flow of rubber was still available, mostly from South America, went into wartime production. Research in the technology of synthetic rubber production was stepped up. By 1943, nearly 800,000 tons of the material was being made.
To conserve the tires already on the hubs of the nation’s cars and make them last until the end of the war, authorities came up with a game plan. The scheme called for gas rationing and a 35 mph speed limit to halt excessive driving, slowing down wear and tear. The government also advocated countless scrap rubber collection drives.
Washington officials, however, in 1941 were a bit wary of hitting the public with these necessary restrictions too quickly. Shortly after the start of war in December, though ration Order #1-A, the sale of new tires was stopped. The following year, despite a public outcry, the OPA (Office of Price Administration) implemented gas rationing.
And thus began one of the worst hardships endured by civilians on the home front during WWII, gas rationing and the complete shortage of replacement auto tires. Used tires in almost any condition that had escaped the scrap drives were now sought after. The black market for tires flourished. At one point, midway through the war, a good second tire brought nearly $50, about five times the regulated price for a new one.
Old tires were patched and repatched. There was no other choice. “Since this was decades before the invention of the tubeless tire, patching also had to be done to the inner tubes. Once thought fit only for use as floating devices for swimming, old inner tubes were hurriedly recalled to active use. Old newspapers were frequently packed between thinning tire and inner tube to prolong its precious life.
The image of Americans feverishly patching and repatching old tires or searching for usable replacements in order to keep the family car running was not lost on that element of society responsible for making us laugh. In a very short time, radio comedians, cartoonists, comic strip artists, and Hollywood, who made animated shorts for the silver screen, got into the act.
They began portraying the predicament of poor John Q. Public trying to keep “Old Betsy” going so he could get to work, take his best gal out, or make it to the neighborhood movie house.
The scenario was also not lost on postcard publishers. By 1942, the printing presses at Dexter, Curt Teich, Asheville, Tichnor, Koppell, and dozens of other companies were churning out countless thousands of comic postcards with wartime humor themes. Added to boot camp, KP, and the draft were the home front woes of tire shortages and rationing.
In 1942, Curt Teich, one of the largest producers of home front and G.I. linen style postcards, published a five-card set about the troubles caused by the lack of tires. Each card depicted a humorous aspect of the situation. Unlike nearly all of their cards, these seem to have been published and sold exclusively by Curt Teich.
Beals Litho & Printing Company, of Des Moines, Iowa, included several about rationing among its hundred or so WWII linen comics. One, for instance, showed a poor car owner lamenting over his bandaged and patched tires.
The Asheville Post Card Co. also put out an interesting postcard on the topic. Captioned “Traveling Under Difficulties,” it portrays a young couple trying to chug along the road it their battered auto atop badly repaired tires.
As we look back at these yesterdays, it is a bit difficult for us to realize just how funny were these postcards. As they say, “you had to be there.” Some humor is timeless, and some transient. Unless tire rationing or stoppage returns to us in some nightmarish future scenario, we will never be able to fully appreciate the comedy being played out during those difficult times.
On Dec. 20, 1945, four months after V-J Day, tire rationing came to an end. Tires, the first commodity to be restricted, was the last to be freed. All of America celebrated, and in Akron, Ohio, and elsewhere in the nation, tire manufacturing geared up. Bead making and tire building machines and pressure presses were turned back on.
Up into the attic went the ration books and coupons, along with the postcards about it all. Americans wanted to forget what they had just lived through.
Now we as collectors want to be told the story.


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