Monday, March 23, 2015
Gasoline Rationing and the Black Market During WWII
The Black Market: “Chiseled Gas”
Consumers, gasoline dealers, and distributors gave the black market a tacit approval. Beyond approval, many American consumers purchased from the black market. In 1943, Colliers writer Mike Miller traveled on “chiseled gas,” from the Mexican border at Brownsville, Texas to the Canadian boundary at International Falls, Minnesota. A chiseler, defined during the war, was one who drove to gas stations and attempted to ‘finagle’ a tank of gas. Some gas stations refused Miller service, but many were willing to sell gasoline at the regular market price. He also discovered that truckers reported they used gas, but still had gas in the tank, and received more tickets to sell. Miller noted that retailers were permitted to build surplus in their tanks. He wrote, “No one had stopped me to ask if the trip was necessary or to examine my ration books. There was an A card sticker on the windshield.”74 Miller’s trip might have been more difficult if he traveled from Florida to Maine, but his journey exposed the OPA’s inability to prevent a black market.
By 1943, the black market threatened America’s successful prosecution of the war. The Senior Scholastic, in a call to “Smash the Black Market Menace,” wrote “the general public has been too tolerant, or ignorant, of the activities of the black market.”75 The article blamed ignorance and called for teamwork. It linked American’s driving directly with the war: “The Nazis know that a breakdown in our gasoline rationing program would seriously hamper the American war effort.”76
By 1944, the Office of Price Administration recognized the black market as a serious threat to the American war effort. Chester Bowles, an OPA administrator wrote, “every gallon of gasoline bought in the black market is an overdraft on our precious war stock: gas that is diverted from legitimate users.”77 In 1944, even with limited manpower, the OPA began to thwart the black market. First the OPA launched a public information campaign to warn the American people of ‘black gasoline.’ Second, the OPA appealed to car owners to endorse their coupons. Beginning in March 1, all “B” and “C” stamps were issued with serial numbers to make stolen and counterfeit coupons easier to trace.78 The Petroleum Industry War Council created a Black Market Committee and that paid for $500,000 in newspaper ads. By the summer of 1944, a majority of the American public was informed of ‘black gasoline.’
In 1943 the OPA cracked down on the black market. Chester Bowles declared, “We must smash the racketeers, if we are to save soldiers’ lives.”79 Before the war ended, more than 4,000 stations had lost their selling licenses, and 32,500 drivers lost their ration coupons due to illegal gasoline transactions.80 In 1944, Congress convened to address the problem.81 Despite a diminished black market, more oil was dedicated to military use. In the latter years of the war, Americans hoped for more gasoline, but the prospects were bleak. A September 1943, Business Week article noted that the “PAW considers civilian supply seventh on its list of important jobs.”82
Business Week explained that rationing was more of a problem than a solution, because, “car owners turned out to be rugged individualists.”83 In June 1943, more gas came to America by barge, but the Army and Navy demanded more gasoline,84 so much so that, “Good Humor’s jingling ice cream trucks were swept off the streets,” and made stationary outlets.85 By summer 1943, rationing became more stringent. Gasoline supplies for civilian use were pressured between military demands for both aviation gasoline and all-purpose gasoline.86 The Nation declared, “Maybe We’ll Get More Gasoline, but Outook’s None Too Bright.” Civilian supply remained lowest on the PAW’s triage even with crude production oil reaching a peak in 1944. Americans supported the war effort and wanted to defeat the Nazis and Japanese empire abroad, but the war revealed an American dependency on gasoline for the operations of daily life and a car culture of individual anonymity that permitted ease of theft and widespread complicity in a black market. Gas rationing also revealed the masterful effort of various government agencies to control automobile travel. In his final analysis, Bradley Flamm asserted that “had the American public been able, they would have used the money they were finally earning after the lean years of the 1930s to get in a car and go,” and thus the efforts of the ODT to control American desires was “a remarkable accomplishment.”87