When milling about an antique store one lazy afternoon, I came across an assortment of red and blue discs, haphazardly displayed inside a locked curio case. About the size and thickness of a penny, made from fibrous material, and designed to look like currency, I soon learned these tokens—and millions more like them—once served a vitally important role in America’s wartime economy during World War II.
America Declares War
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, forcefully ended the debate over America’s entrance into World War II. A day later, the United States Congress declared war on the Empire of Japan. Nearly overnight, America’s economy shifted to war production.
With the stroke of a pen, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the War Production Board (WPB) in January 1942, with Executive Order 9024. “The WPB immediately directed the conversion of industries from peacetime work to war needs, allocated scarce materials, established priorities in the distribution of materials and services, and prohibited nonessential production.”
As industry shifted from peacetime work to wartime production, consumer goods grew scarce and inflation soon gripped the economy. In response, the Office of Price Administration (OPA) was granted the power to cap prices on everything excluding agricultural commodities, and to ration scarce supplies of other items. The OPA leveraged a variety of instruments in executing its power.
The most notable of these instruments, were War Ration Books (with OPA stamps), tokens, and chits, which were distributed to every American family. These instruments dictated how much gasoline, tires, sugar, meat, canned goods, coffee, silk, shoes, nylon, and other necessities any one person could buy.
In May 1942, the OPA started the process of freezing prices on virtually all consumer goods, starting with sugar and coffee. To administer pricing and distribution restrictions, some 6,000 local ration boards, staffed mostly by volunteers, were established across the country. On May 4, 1942, those volunteers distributed War Ration Book Number One, informally known as the “Sugar Book.”
The ration books contained removable stamps that could be exchanged for specific rationed items, like sugar, meat, and canned goods. Red stamps were used to ration meat and butter, while blue stamps were used to ration processed foods.
A grocer could not sell a person a rationed item without collecting the corresponding ration stamps. And once a person’s ration stamps were used for the month, she did not have the means to purchase any more items.
Such restrictions meant careful meal planning and no waste. In fact, the American Woman’s Cook Book issued a wartime edition that contained recipes, menus, and advice on getting the most out of what little food she had.
Types of Rationing
Some essential items, such as sugar, were rationed through a Uniform coupon rationing system, which provided equal shares of a single commodity to all consumers. Items rationed under this method also considered the number of people in each household.
The OPA also deployed Point rationing, in which the government issued points to each person, babies included, in the form of War Ration Books and OPA stamps. When purchasing restricted items, the consumer had to turn in their points (OPA stamps) along with hard currency. In turn, the grocer would submit the used ration stamps to the OPA for authorization to procure and replenish their stock.
Other items, like gasoline or fuel oil, were rationed only to those who could justify a need through a Differential coupon rationing system. Lastly, Certificate rationing allowed an individual to acquire restricted products, like tires and cars, only after an application demonstrated the need.
Due to Japan’s seizure of rubber plantations in the Dutch East Indies, rubber became the first nonfood item rationed under the OPA. Those plantations were responsible for 90% of America’s raw rubber consumption.
WW2 Ration Tokens
To make change for ration stamps, the OPA introduced red and blue tokens on February 27, 1944. The “red point” tokens were to be given in change for red stamps, and “blue point” tokens in change for blue stamps. A token was worth one point, taking 10 tokens to equal one OPA stamp.
Both red and blue tokens, 16mm in size, were made of celluloid, the first synthetic plastic developed in the 1860s. Due to a shortage of metals, celluloid offered the OPA a tough, moldable material that was cheap to produce and durable enough to withstand repeated use.
Each token displayed the number “1”, flanked on each side by a letter, and encircled by the words “OPA RED (or BLUE) POINT”. It is the letter combinations that matter most to collectors.
There are 24 different letter combinations known for blue tokens: CC, CH, CT, CV, CX, HH, HU, HV, HX, HY, TC, TT, TU, TV, TX, UU, VV, WC, WH, WT, WU, WW, XX, YY
There are 30 different letter combinations known for red tokens: HC, HT, MV, MM, TH, TY, UC, UH, UT, UV, UX, UY, VC, VH, VT, VU, VX, VY, XC, XH, XT, XU, XV, XY, YC, YH, YT, YU, YV, YX.
Most numismatists believe the letter combinations served no specific purpose beyond an anti-counterfeiting measure.
The harder to find (and more valuable) letter combinations are MV and MM for red tokens, and WH, CX and WC for blue tokens. Like traditional coinage, errors such “double-struck” or “off-center” tokens are worth more. As a class, red tokens are more common than blue.
Keep The Change
Although the OPA’s pricing controls and rationing instruments continued, OPA tokens stopped being issued in 1945. As the war ended, the call for the rapid deregulation of the economy gained widespread support among conservatives and businessmen. The movement against “Over Priced Administrators” ultimately led to the defeat of many Democratic incumbents in the midterm elections of 1946, putting Republicans in control of Congress.
Following this defeat, President Harry S. Truman eliminated nearly all price and wage controls. While the OPA was authorized to exist until June 30, 1947, its purpose and authority was severely diminished by President Truman. By the end of 1946, most OPA ration offices would be shuttered and the OPA itself would cease to function soon thereafter.