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World War Two: Rationing and Shortages generally


Utility merchandise and its alternatives in and after WW2

What utility goods were

During the austerity in and after WW2, the Government decreed exactly what raw materials could and could not be used in the manufacture of goods. Goods which met the provisions were described as utility. They were basic and functional with the huge advantage that they were tax-free - although of course not always available.

The utility mark, CC41

The utility mark was a special mark on new goods to show that they met Government austerity regulations - see the following image.

WW2 utility mark

Design of the utility mark

I saw a lot of the utility mark when I was a child in the 1940s. It was in the design of the characters CC41, but it was only ever called 'the utility mark'. In fact it was only some years after the war ended that I found out that the design portrayed CC41.

I haven't been able to confirm the meaning of the CC41 for the utility mark. However, I can guess: I assume that 41 - strictly 1941 - was the year that the relevant Government discussions took place and that the CC stood for Civilian Clothing as there was then a Director of Civilian Clothing at the Board of Trade and clothing was the initial stimulus for utility goods. I also assume that the design was chosen to be easily recognisable. In this it certainly succeeded.

In the remaining ten years of the mark's use, the 41 was not updated.

The utility mark was most commonly found on clothing, but it was also stamped or otherwise marked on other goods, like shoes and furniture.

The 'utility' mark, sewn on knitware made during the Second World War.

The 'utility' mark sewn onto knitwear

The 'utility' mark stamped onto socks made during the Second World War.

The 'utility' mark stamped onto socks

Utility mark stamped onto a vest made during the Second World War

Utility mark stamped onto a warm, long-sleeved vest, photographed in The Nidderdale Museum

Utility goods, like so much else, were rationed at a certain number of coupons or points from customers' clothing books.

WW2 Clothing ration book 1942-43

Clothing ration book, 1942-43

Like everything else, they almost always still had to be queued for.

Outlets for non-utility goods

Alternatives to utility goods were available, but not necessarily legally.

Pre-war goods

Goods that were manufactured before the utility restrictions and still in the shops were still available to buy. They were nevertheless officially rationed, but it was widely known that they were 'under the counter' for special customers and sold at inflated prices.

'Barrow Boys: discount street traders

Although I never saw any shops or market stalls selling cut-price or rationed goods during the years of rationing and austerity of World War Two, what I do clearly remember are what was known as barrow boys. They sold goods from large barrows on wheels. The following photo gives the idea, although what barrow boys sold was not generally the fruit and veg shown in the photo. It was such things as cut-price and off-ration clothes, ornaments and tools. Where they got their goods from is anyone's guess. 'Falling off a lorry' was the generally accepted term, although I cannot vouch for how true this was.

The point is that barrow boys sold goods which were rationed or scarce and probably evaded purchase tax.

Barrow boy being accosted by a policeman

A barrow boy being accosted by a policeman

Where to find barrow boys

Barrow boys knew that what they were doing was illegal, so were always on the look-out for policemen. If they saw one coming would trundle their barrow away as quickly as possible. They normally worked from somewhere that had rapid escape alleyways.

Attitudes to barrow boys

Somehow, after the end of the war, ordinary people didn't seem to mind using barrow boys, although they would never have broken the laws on rationing while the war was on. I remember my mother buying something from one of them along London's Oxford Street. She gave him a pound note but he instantly rushed away pushing his barrow as fast as he could. She was left standing there without her change and with amazement all over her face. She found out later that he had seen a policeman coming.

He shouted back at her, "Round the corner!" and when she followed him there, he gave her her change. So he hadn't meant to defraud her. Actually the policeman must have seen what was happening, but chose to turn a blind eye.

Barrow boys did a good trade and were well customised by the public.

Cottage industries and scarce goods

As explained on the page about the Government policy on rationing, rationing was set up so there were fair shares of what was available for all. In other words, when goods and foodstuffs were enough to go round, however little there was, they were rationed. If there was not enough for everyone, whatever was available was not rationed. Cottage industries were good examples, as there was no way they could share a crop of apples or a few hand-made tools. So their goods were off-ration. If word got around that some were available, people would cycle miles to find them.

Gifts from American soldiers - legal

Young British women who befriended American soldiers would get gifts from them like nylon stockings, which were simply unavailable in our British shops.

Living as I did in Edgware, I never saw an American soldier during the war, but I knew that they were regarded as having no shortages at all. (This still puzzles me, as presumably the merchant seamen who brought their luxuries were risking their lives to do so. Or perhaps the goods were flown in.) My cousin did see American soldiers and got chewing gum from them.

The black market

The black market was an illegal, secretive and generally despised trade which enabled people to buy what they wanted off-ration at exorbitant prices. It has its own page.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

Text and images are copyright

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