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Shortages of foodstuffs, textiles and other items were part of everyday life during World War II. By 1940 controls over the production, distribution and pricing of goods were introduced. Disruption to shipping, and thus to imports, resulted in rationing of petrol, newsprint and tobacco. But it was not until 1942, following Japan's entry into the war, that rationing became comprehensive. Calling for an 'all-in' war effort, the federal Australian Labor Party Government of John Curtin emphasised that rationing ensured 'equality of sacrifice'. As war progressed, resources became increasingly limited, with primary and secondary production geared towards Australia's pressing defence requirements. These included commitments to supply US forces stationed in the Pacific and to fulfil export quotas to Great Britain.

In mid-1942 Australians were issued with ration books containing coupons for tea and clothing. Clothes rationing was preceded by quotas on retail trading, and by incidents of panic buying and hoarding. Department stores opened coupon advisory centres, with advertising strategies such as 'Couponomise at MYER's'. Rationing gradually extended to sugar, butter and meat. Fruit, vegetables, eggs and beer were in short supply. The majority of Melbourne's households suffered from severe firewood shortages during the winters of 1942-43. By 1945 hundreds of items as varied as cosmetics, clothes pegs, sanitary napkins, and building materials were scarce.

While inconvenient, rationing of food posed little threat to health. Indeed, the degree of hardship experienced by Melburnians as a result of wartime shortages was relative to their social and economic circumstances. Changes to shopping habits were visible, as home deliveries were curtailed and queues became commonplace. The black market flourished, with few police prosecutions for breaches of trading regulations. Rationed goods could often be purchased without coupons at the Queen Victoria Market and elsewhere. The Americans were known for their generosity to civilians with military stores, including 'luxuries' such as cigarettes, alcohol and chocolates. In the immediate postwar years, shortages of goods continued, with limited rationing (of butter, for example) while Australia fulfilled supply contracts to Great Britain. The 'hardships' of wartime rationing and scrimping have been famously lampooned by Barry Humphries' Edna Everage in the song 'War Savings Street'.

Kate Darian-Smith

Darian-Smith, Kate, On the home front: Melbourne in wartime, 1939-1945, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1990. Details