Waste Not, Want Not: Feeding the British Home Front: Women’s Interconnectivity in the Second World War

By Kelly A. Spring

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the start of food rationing in Britain during the Second World War. On 8th of January 1940, the British government instituted a system of food controls, which was all-encompassing for the home front population. Items such as meat, cheese, tea and butter were put on the basic ration, while other foods such as tinned goods, rice and cereal could be purchased through a points system, whereby individuals received 16 and later 20 points per month to spend on these foods. Goods were assigned so many points by officials in the Ministry of Food, depending on availability of supplies, offering consumers a measure of flexibility in their diets beyond the basic ration.[1] Ration amounts fluctuated throughout the war as supply levels rose and fell according to shipping losses from U-boat action, domestic agricultural outputs and the needs of the military.

Queue for food rations, London, 1945. Image credit: Wikimedia commons.

The nature of the restrictions and their pervasiveness in society required everyone to use food resources wisely to feed the home front. But it was primarily to housewives that the nation and the government turned to make the ration programme a success. Through food rationing propaganda, officials called on married women to use their cookery skills to sustain their family’s consumption needs under the food controls. Such propaganda suggested that women, who could effectively provide nutritious meals to their loved ones by stretching limited consumables, were fulfilling the idealised domestic role in wartime.[2] However, in reality, not all housewives took up domestic roles with gusto, nor did they act alone in the battle on the kitchen front. Other women within the home and in the community often assisted housewives in their task of providing meals in the domestic environment. As a result, women’s responses to the food situation were much more diverse in scope and complexity than the image of the ideal housewife would lead us to believe.

The weekly ration for two people, UK, 1943. Image credit: Wikimedia commons.

My paper, ‘Feeding the British Home Front: Women’s Interconnectivity in the Second World War’, presented at the conference, ‘Waste Not Want Not: Food and Thrift from Antiquity to the Present’, explored the links between sustainability and women’s roles in wartime Britain. Using oral interviews, my research demonstrated that through associations both within and in connection to the home, women utilised their interconnectivity with other women to successfully sustain the consumption needs of home front families in a time of conflict and food insecurity. My paper illuminated the multifaceted work of grandmothers and single women in conjunction with housewives to facilitate and maintain the food levels in the home during the Second World. Overall, this paper provided a more nuanced understanding of the intricate structure of women’s food interactions. It showed that the British food rationing programme relied not simply on housewives’ individual efforts, but it depended on the cookery interactions of a community of women, who creatively pooled their culinary knowledge and resources to successfully maintain the food security, health and nutrition of a nation at war.  

[1] For a discussion of the points system and the foods included in it, see: Norman Longmate, How We Lived Then: A History of Everyday Life During the Second World War (London: Pimlico, 1971), pp. 141-142. 

[2] Kelly A. Spring, ‘“Today We Have All Got to be Fighting Fit”: The Interconnectivity of Gender Roles in British Food Rationing Propaganda during the Second World War’, Gender & History, 32/1, March 2020, pp. 1-27 (early view online February). 

History Carnival #139

We are very pleased to be hosting History Carnival #139 at the Recipes Project this month! We have a wealth of interesting posts to show you this month.

Education and the teaching of history has been a hot topic recently. Sean Creighton at History Matters reflected on how Black History Month has evolved and what constitutes the study of British Black History today. Our own Recipes Project blog devoted the month of September to the teaching of recipes, which ranged from early modern to Canadian history. In a related vein, Richard Blakemore offers his thoughts and criticisms on The History Manifesto, Cambridge University Press’s first open access book.

West End London Air Raid Shelter. Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library
WWII; England; “West End London Air Raid Shelter” in Aldwych tube station. Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library

Bridget Lockyer at the FWSA Blog presented the results of a workshop on teaching women’s history in the UK’s new curriculum that was run with students and teachers at three schools in York.

Women in history also featured in several fascinating posts this month. The writers at All Things Georgian brought to our attention the 1737 book, “The Whole Duty of a Woman”, and its recipes for just about every day of the year. Maritime historian Joan Druett has provided us with a glimpse at Mrs. Alexander’s maiden voyage on the James Craig in 1874, including giving birth!

Kathryn Robinson, also at History Matters, looks at the legacy of the London Tube during the Blitz in the Second World War.

Medical historians have been producing some excellent posts recently. At the Notches blog Katherine Harvey has been looking at medieval views on masturbation and the idea that prolonged celibacy could be a risk to a man’s health! Yikes. Lesley Hulonce has written a fascinating post on the earliest institutions for disabled children in Victorian and Edwardian Britain and the assumptions society placed on its inhabitants in terms of their education and livelihoods.

Leather doctor's bag with contents, English, 1890-1930. Wellcome Images.
Leather doctor’s bag with contents, English, 1890-1930. Wellcome Images.

Åsa Jansson tackled the thorny and ever popular topic of retrospective diagnosis with her reflections on the recent conference, Gloom Goes Global: Towards a Transcultural History of Melancholy since 1850” held at the Univeristät Heidelberg this past October. Ed Darrell has been looking at the use of DDT to fight malaria. Jacqueline Antonovich at Nursing Clio, wrote of her experience in the archives and surprising insights that can be gained from material culture. Suzie Grogan has written a really interesting guest post for The Quack Doctor on home remedies for shell-shock after the First World War.

Alun Withey put the beard and masculinity in its historical context as beards have becoming increasingly popular over the past few years.

Joanne Major at All Things Georgian tackled a grim mystery from the 18th century – that of Oliver Cromwell’s missing head.

October provided a number of posts on one of my favourite topics – historical food! The Sloane Letters blog returned after a brief hiatus with a post determining once and for all that Hans Sloane did not invent milk chocolate (alas).  Liz Adams at the Rubenstein Library tested an 1899 recipe for a dairy free ice-cream made from nut butter. While she concluded it may not be ice cream by modern standards, it was delicious! Over at Not Just Dormice, Lisa Lodwick explored the enduring use of coriander and its immense popularity in ancient Rome.

Rochester Bestiary (England, c. 1230): London, British Library, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 45r. Source: British Library.
Rochester Bestiary (England, c. 1230): London, British Library, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 45r. Source: British Library.

As a medievalist I would be remiss if I didn’t include some more posts from that quarter of the internet. Jonathan Jarrett tells us how to start a saint’s cult. Julian Harrison at the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts blog, meanwhile, tells us how to be a hedgehog. And Erik Kwakkel gives us the skinny on bad parchment in medieval books.

Finally, what better post to end October’s Carnival on than Donna Seger’s post on the image of the dancing witch!

We hope you have enjoyed the posts in this month’s History Carnival! The next History Carnival will be hosted at the Imperial and Global Forum on December 1st.