Posted in WB Cartoon Companion on March 5, 2004
During the Second World War, a government-imposed gasoline rationing program was implemented in the United States. Rationing was especially strict for those living in the eastern seaboard states, because at the time, most petroleum was carried by tanker -- an impractical mode of transport with enemy U-Boats operating off the US coast. Until the “Big Inch” pipeline was finished, gas supplies in the East were generally considered “tight”.
Depending on need, citizens were issued one of a number of different “gas cards”, entitling them to a certain quantity of gasoline each week. (One had to present a ration book as well when purchasing gas. Ration book coupons were valid for only a set period of time; so you could not save them up for rainy -- or sunny -- days.)
To get a classification and the necessary rationing stamps, you had to appear before a local board, often comprised of your neighbours, who would likely know something of your actual need for gasoline. You had to certify that you needed gas and that you owned no more than five tires; any in excess of five were confiscated by the government to alleviate rubber shortages. The rubber shortage was, in fact, a major reason for rationing, since the government wanted to keep driving, and thus the demand for tires, as low as possible.
An A card would have had the lowest priority in the rationing system, entitling the holder to around 3 gallons per week. (Some sources say 4, apparently reflecting varied rations depending both on the stage of the war and the geographic location of the rationee.) B cards were issued to persons essential to the war effort, including industrial war workers, and therefore entitled the holder to more gas: most sources say around 8 gallons per week. C cards were granted to those who were deemed vital to the war effort, such as doctors and railroad workers. X cards entitled the holder to unlimited supplies and was the highest priority in the system. Clergy, police, volunteer firemen, and civil defense workers all fell into this category. (Something of a scandal erupted when 200 Congressmen received X cards.) T rations were available for truckers.
Gags based on these cards would have struck a chord with contemporary moviegoing audiences; and indeed, a number of Warner-released shorts used them. (They appear for a time to have been a favourite device of director Bob Clampett.) The closing gag in Falling Hare (Clampett, 1943) has the plane in which Bugs and the Gremlin are plunging to almost certain death run out of gas just before hitting the ground. Bugs points with his carrot to the ration card on the windscreen, observing “you know how it is with these A cards!” In Tortoise Wins By a Hare (Clampett, 1943), Bugs displays his secret weapon to beat Cecil Turtle, flashing A and C ration cards. Russian Rhapsody (Clampett, 1944) has a gag in which one of the Russian Gremlins replaces the C card on the windscreen of Hitler’s plane with an “a” card -- the lower-case letter possibly serving to sharpen audience reaction to the gag. A slightly exaggerated view of the number of stickers on a windshield can be seen in The Weakly Reporter (Jones, 1944), in which a windshield is covered by these stickers, forcing a motorist to use a periscope to see.
Gas rationing policies were also reinforced by certain slogans, several of which found their way into the cartoons. A national speed limit of 35 miles per hour was imposed to save fuel and tires: see the closing gag in The Daffy Duckeroo (McCabe, 1942) which exhorts people to “Keep It Under Forty”. Posters were often seen asking “Is this trip really necessary?” The question is asked in Draftee Daffy (Clampett, 1945) by the little man from the draft board, by a billboard in Wagon Heels (Clampett, 1945). Daffy Duck as Duck Twacy in The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (Clampett, 1946) asks “Was that trip really necessary?” after falling through a hidden trap-door. Baseball Bugs (Freleng, 1946) uses the line after Bugs tags out a Gashouse Gorilla at the plate. (The cartoon was completed in June, 1945 but not released until 1946, after gas rationing had ended.) Requests not to do any unnecessary traveling were also prevalent, as noted in the closing gag in The Unruly Hare (Tashlin, 1944), and Daffy, to the father in Nasty Quacks (Tashlin, 1945).