Coffee Rationing on the World War II Home Front

Color illustration. A white soldier in combat uniform and helmet smiles at the viewer holding a mug (assumed to be coffee).
“Do with less – so they’ll have enough! Rationing Gives You Your Fair Share.” Office of War Information, 1943.

Collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 513838).

Coffee was rationed from November 1942 to July 1943.[1] There were bumper crops of coffee in Central and South America at the start of the war. But U-boat attacks on cargo ships and the diversion of cargo capacity for the war meant that a lot of it wasn’t making it to the US. The coffee that did arrive – including instant coffee -- was prioritized for the military.[2]

To manage the shortage, the government first tried limiting how much coffee roasting companies could use. In April 1942 they imposed a limit of 75% of the previous year’s amount. In September, they lowered the limit to 65%. Consumer demand stayed high – even though supply fell, consumer demand stayed at pre-war levels of about 20 pounds per person per year. The only solution was for the Office of Price Administration (OPA) to ration coffee, which they did, beginning at the end of November, 1942.[3]

To help prevent hoarding sales of coffee were halted for a week before rationing began on November 29, 1942. The OPA designated a set of stamps in Ration Book One (the “Sugar Book”) for coffee purchases. At first, every adult over the age of 15 could get one pound of coffee every five weeks (about 10.5 pounds per year). In February 1943, that ration was reduced to one pound every six weeks (slightly over 8.5 pounds per year). This made less than one cup a day for coffee drinkers. Before rationing, they had been used to one to two cups per day on average.[4]

To help people manage the coffee shortage, magazines like Life published articles on how to make the best cup of coffee possible, and how to stretch the coffee they could get. The authors compared brewing methods to get the most coffee from grounds (boiled coffee yielded the most; percolated yielded less; and drip coffee produced the least) and gave tips on stretching coffee rations.[5]

Two cups of coffee on saucers. The one on the right is full to the brim. The one on the left has less coffee in it.
Four cups can serve five” when you reduce the amount of coffee in each cup.

Life Magazine, November 30, 1942, p. 68.

Although it was technically illegal, those who did not drink coffee shared or sold their coffee coupons.[6] Methods for stretching coffee included:

  • Reducing the amount of coffee in a cup. By reducing the amount of coffee poured into a cup, “four cups can serve five.” This method was also used by restaurants and coffee shops.[7]

  • “Double Dripping.” Pouring water over used coffee grounds will give you an additional 30% yield. If using a percolator, longer percolation would also give 30% more coffee, but it makes it bitter.[8] Some called coffee made using reused grounds “Roosevelt coffee” after the president.[9]

  • Adding chicory. Chicory is a caffeine-free herb introduced to North America from Europe in the 1700s. Chicory coffee is made from the roasted root, which has a nutty and slightly bittersweet taste. It was popular in the Civil War, when coffee was not easily available.[10] A Life Magazine article from 1942 recommended adding one-half ounce of chicory to one pound of coffee to stretch it 30% without much altering the taste.[11]

A pale blue chicory flower against a leafy green backdrop.
Chicory flower (Cichorium intybus). Detail of a photo by Hockenheim 2016.


Other coffee substitutes or stretchers included those made from roasted grains like barley and other ingredients. Postum, made with roasted wheat bran, wheat, and molasses, was probably the most well-known in the United States.[12]

Like other rationed goods, just because you had a ration coupon didn’t mean coffee was available. Some grocers would take names of those wishing to buy coffee and contact them when it was available. At other grocers, it was hit or miss. One grocer broke the seals on vacuum-packed coffee to prevent people from hoarding – once exposed to air, coffee had to be used relatively quickly. Restaurants who served customers bottomless cups of coffee before the war limited them to a single cup during rationing.[13]

Coffee rationing ended on July 28, 1943. In September 1944, the OPA raised the price of coffee to help control the demand. It worked, and they did not have to re-institute coffee rationing.[14]

Document, black on white paper. “Certificate of Registrar” has spaces to fill out identifying information of the book owner (name, address, height, weight, etc.). Two rows of numbered “War Ration Stamps,” 1-28.
War Ration Book 1. Initially issued for sugar rationing, stamps #19-28 were later designated for coffee – one pound per stamp, to last five weeks each. Office of Price Administration 1943.

Collection of Duke University Libraries, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library (ark:/87924/r3930p504).

This article was written by Megan E. Springate, Assistant Research Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Maryland, for the NPS Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education. It was funded by the National Council on Public History’s cooperative agreement with the National Park Service.

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Last updated: November 16, 2023