By Anne Rothfeld ~
Coffee shops today are ubiquitous: nearly every street corner, airport, hotel, grocery store offers coffee in a myriad of forms. Yet, this was not the case during World War II. From early 1942 to the immediate postwar years, American military and civilians experienced coffee rationing.
Coffee has long been a mainstay of many cultures. With its bitter taste and the stimulating effects of caffeine, coffee has evolved into a drug of choice and is enjoyed from the Middle East to Europe to the Americas. Coffee has its origins in Persian homes and coffeehouses as early as ninth century, and the Islamic physician, Abu ibn Sina (Avicenna), wrote about coffee around the year 1000. Arab traders in Africa first introduced coffee to Europeans in the late fourteenth century, and two hundred years later, Prospero Alpino of Padua described the pleasure in drinking coffee. By the mid-1700s, coffee houses were well established in Europe, and Dutch and French traders introduced coffee to American plantations.
Coffee was the most important beverage to serve U.S. Army troops. The War Department considered coffee an essential element to the troops’ diet as it lifted the welfare and morale of the men. Military men believed that a warm cup of coffee completed the ration meal. In fact, the Army requisitioned “ten times” more coffee in 1942 than in 1941, before Pearl Harbor.
The War Department developed different types of rations for the U.S. troops, and coffee allotments varied with ration type. The garrison ration was issued for peace times, troops traveling who were separated from field kitchens, and for national emergencies. For troops in active combat, the Army field forces commanders issued C, K, or D rations each including high-calorie foodstuffs. Powdered coffee was delivered in C-rations to military troops, whereas field ration K was issued with “5 grams soluble coffee” at breakfast only. In contrast, the peacetime or garrison ration consisted of two ounces of roasted and ground coffee. Whatever the form of coffee provided, soldiers in the field often found it difficult to boil the water needed to prepare it. Soldiers warmed up water over “some little candles.”
Ersatz concoctions were developed to stretch or replace rations when coffee was scarce, including the boiling of the taproots of chicory, soybeans, barley, and grains as a potable dark liquid. Some soldiers mixed roasted grains (such as barley or acorns) with molasses, and if available chicory and dried fruits. Troops in the Pacific War steeped burnt rice in water as a coffee substitute.
Food rationing on the home front took a toll on civilians’ accustomed coffee consumption. The primary reason for wartime rationing was the equitable distribution of limited quantities of food to the American people. A second reason was to rally support for the European war. In the spring of 1942, the Office of Price Administration (OPA) implemented food rationing. The OPA asked all Americans to do with less at home so the troops have enough at the front and to rationing meant fair shares for everyone. Sacrificing on the Homefront was soon equated with supporting the military. The War Ration Book “provided … about a pound per person every five weeks, sufficient for a cup each day.” The government asked Americans to reuse their brewed coffee grounds to stretch supplies. Additionally, and to prevent hoarding, the OPA requested that every American family report how many pounds were stored in pantries. Before long, American workers and housewives complained that rationing made their coffee tasted like dishwater, and affected their work performance as coffee rationing cut consumption from three cups to one per day.
Troops used coffee for its stimulant qualities. Stamina and alertness functions were necessary for nighttime combat, keeping soldiers’ performance at high-levels. Coffee enabled troops to endure fighting fatigue. To combat drowsiness in the field, military cooks judiciously added coca leaves to the urns of brewed coffee. A doctor in the Pacific War recalled the scents of portable coffee pots drifting through the jungle.
Hot coffee acted as a therapeutic in the fields. To prevent injured soldiers going into shock, field medics instructed the soldiers to give hot coffee, a teaspoon at a time, equal to a cup once an hour. Once resuscitated and conscious, the stimulants in the hot coffee, helped restore the patient’s strength.
The war accelerated Nescafe’s development and demand of instant and powered coffee—a product that many of us today take for granted. Packaged in small envelopes, coffee powder could be easily carried, filling soldiers’ needs to boost energy anywhere and anytime. Troops acquired a taste for burned, bitter, black coffee; taking in both its stimulating effects and opportunity to bond with other soldiers.
Anne Rothfeld, PhD, is a librarian and historian in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.