What is a Ration Book?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A ration book is a book of coupons which is used to control consumption of certain products which may be in high demand. Ration books are particularly associated with the Second World War, when many countries experienced shortages of needed consumer goods, and they decided that a rationing system would ensure fair and even distribution. Numerous examples of World War Two ration books can be seen on display in museums, for people who are interested in this period of history.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Typically, a ration book takes the form of a pad filled with perforated coupons. When someone wants to buy something such as a pound of sugar, he or she tears out the coupon for that item and presents it to a retailer; the retailer retains the coupon and charges for the item. Having a ration book does not ensure that foods will be available; in the Second World War, many people stood in line for hours to access coveted things like fresh meat and fruit, and others turned to the black market to supplement their rations.

The individual coupons in ration books are sometimes referred to as “ration stamps,” and during times of shortages, they are tightly controlled. Typically, a government agency issues ration books at set intervals, such as weekly, monthly, or quarterly, and consumers must hold on to their coupons because replacing a ration book can be a complicated process. The ration stamps may be dated, so that consumers can only use them during a certain time window, or they may be open-ended, allowing people to save up ration stamps for special occasions. Rations were usually controlled by registering consumers with specific shops, which were provided with the goods for their registered customers.

During periods of hardship, the use of ration books can help to ensure that people have a fighting chance to access the goods that they need, ranging from fabric for clothing to eggs. Ration coupons are typically distributed to a single head of household, who claims all of the members in the household to get access to additional coupons. Some governments may also provide extra rations to pregnant women or people with specific illnesses which require nutritional support.

During the Second World War, many people were encouraged to supplement the ration book coupons with the produce of “Victory Gardens,” small gardens to generate basic produce, thus relieving food producers of some stress. The rationing system could also get quite complex, with point values being assigned to various foods, and consumers swapping rations of some things for others; vegetarians, for example, might choose to exchange their meat stamps for vegetables.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Generally, during World War II, ration books were issued once a year, though the beginning of the issue year could vary; the UK dated theirs as 1942-1943 and so forth.

Each member of a family was issued their own book(s); one applied for the books based on their circumstances, as the ration amounts could vary. Pregnant and nursing women and young children, for example, were rationed larger quantities of milk than the general population. If the circumstances changed, one was responsible for reporting the changes or face legal penalties.


How many ration books are there in the world?


What were ration books used for?


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