Wartime in America for Restaurants

The Effect of War Rations on the American Restaurant

Origins & Beginnings

McCreey Big top Department stores started in 1869 right after the Civil War on Broadway at 11th Street. It was originally known as James McCreey & Co. Dry Goods. The building was designed by John Kellum using new materials of cast iron, the design itself was French in nature.

The restaurant we can assume existed on one of the lower floors of the building. And served as a family restaurant from the observation of their menu which features Felix the clown which would be present for birthday parties. We can also see from the menu that being family oriented was probably important during the time of World War II, with the men away on the front lines. Making a birthday party memorable in any way for children and mothers was probably something that made it more bearable for families.

We also see from the menu that it was supportive of war bonds and rations and regulated prices during the time of the war. It also was conscious of rationing by not having meat on their menus on Tuesday’s. They also It takes a very patriotic approach saying how it will invest a billion dollars in bonds and stamps and you can even purchase them there.

Poster Design by Asha Altemus
Poster Design by Asha Altemus

All About Was Rations

From the beginning of the First World War women became the predominant work force in the foodservice industry with the men away fighting. During the Second World War the average American frequented restaurants more than before. And food rationing began to increase which meant restrictions on essential items, sugar, meats, cheeses, canned goods, and other processed foods by the Emergency Price Control Act enacted by the Office of Price Administration (OPA). This was enforced to set price limits and ration food and other commodities to discourage hoarding and make sure food and items were proportionally and equally distributed because of scarce resources due to the war and limitations on agricultural resources and imported goods. A large percentage of the population applied and received a series of war ration books that had stamps within them that could be used to buy restricted items. ‘The OPA allotted a certain amount of points to each food item based on its availability, and customers were allowed to use 48 ‘blue points’ to buy canned, bottled or dried foods, and 64 ‘red points’ to buy meat, fish and dairy each month—that is, if the items were in stock at the market.’ However this system was adjusted often due to supply demands.

Rationing Effects on Restaurants

The menu at the McCreey Big top restaurants has what looks to be some pretty standard American dishes one would probably be accustomed to at the time mixed with a few dishes we’d find interesting today. It includes a luncheon style meal with roll, salad and dessert with choices of meals. A type of beef and kidney casserole with vegetables and noodles, there’s spaghetti, there’s a type of Italian casserole with cheeses and sausage, there’s an assorted cold meats and potatoes with vegetables and salad dish, then there’s stuffed eggs and vegetables, there’s cassoulet which is a type of casserole that has white beans and pork skin in it. Then on another portion of the menu there’s a few different types of sandwiches like a corned beef hash sandwich which seems to be chopped up beef and even can include scrambled egg, a deviled egg sandwich, tomato sardine, and a type of raisin bread with cream cheese. And for the children there’s chicken and gravy. On the menu as well for dessert there’s Blueberry pie, a type of pudding that is a little hard to male out with the writing over top, a chocolate pie, jello, ice cream, applesauce, stewed rhubarb which is sweet almost jam looking dish, and stewed prunes which seem to be just soft prunes. On the menu there is also a buffet on Thursday nights, and afternoon tea from 3 to 5pm.

I think we can really see that war bonds and rations affected this restaurant in terms of what it served and put on it’s menu because like many restaurants at the time were also rationing and various foods, while in high demand were also in short supply due to the limitations on agricultural resources and imported goods. We can even see that evident on one version of the menu from a few years earlier in 1943, the menu in so many words with the notes this by saying that their Tuesday’s are meatless due to making sure the troops get all that they need. Which reflected the nationwide shortage of meat, since meat initially would go to the troops, and a declaration was made by The Office of Price Administration (OPA) that Tuesdays, as well as Fridays, would be meatless. This would often reflect on the menus like we see on the Big Top’s menu with serving dishes with lots of vegetables, beans, potatoes, egg dishes and dishes with starches like spaghetti and noodles. In the earlier version of the menu they also serve fish. If meat was to be served it often was limited it would seem and restaurants probably used whatever they had left or available like the Big Top did in casseroles, or in sandwiches, or as mentioned in the 1942 version of the menu having some meat “julienned” or chopped extremely finely and reserving meat and gravy dishes for children which were already served in extremely small portions. No types of substitutions were allowed, margarine was served instead of butter when butter was scarce. Milk by the glass was restricted and was only to be used to cook within the kitchen. If coffee was ordered it was limited to one cup and only one teaspoon of sugar. Restaurants at the time were also open fewer hours due to blackouts at night in order to deter enemy forces from being able to find their targets so windows were to be covered, street lights were turned off, and car headlights covered except for narrow slits, all in order to help out during the war.

Even though restaurants were actually allotted 20-30% more rations than citizens, the Office of Price Administration (OPA) also set a rationing policy for restaurant owners, that they were to have documentation of the number of meals that they had served during the month of December 1942. This documentation would determine what the restaurant could charge for it’s “ceiling price” as we also see mentioned in the top section of the menu. What was of concern to some restaurants was with the fluctuation of staff, and business, and food supplies and restaurant frequency would be drastically different in the month of December than in months like June or July and if the numbers reported were too low or incorrect owners would have to fill out a form to explain why and then petition to the local board for a price increase. On top of these changes of food rationing, printing of menus was also changing and menu extravagant designs decreased and paper quality and quantity decreased due to Paper mills taking on war related work. Menus had fewer pages and sometimes handwritten attachments if necessary.

Poster Design by Asha Altemus
Poster Design by Asha Altemus

All about War Bonds

War bonds were debt instruments used by the government in order to have finances for military operations and productions in wartime. It is used as an initiative by the government to fund these operations by issuing debt basically for the public to purchase. During WWII war bonds contributed about $185 billion and were bought by over 84 million Americans. War bonds were advertised from posters, sports events, radio show promotions to even restaurant menus. These bonds were typically bought by Americans to feel as if they were contributing to the war and as a part of one’s patriotic duty. They would often be advertised as having an emotional appeal with themes of beauty and youth going into battle usually with darker  themes of a threat to life and liberty sometimes pictured to appeal to this emotional side.

I think this was especially true for Restaurant ads about war bonds. Just as many posters did, they produced ideal images and representations of the nation, citizens, soldiers and offered a type of welcoming persona and made people who were pejoratively eating in these establishments, such as women and families, want to pitch in to the war effort. The government felt the need to spread this information to persuade as well as inform the public in order to fund the war without attributing a large debt, and what better way to do this than pulling on the heartstrings of women without their husbands at a dinner table through ads in menus.


  1. Lyon, Author Shire. “Food Rationing during World War Two.” FG MAGAZINE, June 8, 2021. https://thefashionglobe.com/food-rationing.Miller, Tom. “The 1868 McCreery & Co Dry Goods Store – 801 Broadway.” The 1868 McCreery & Co Dry Goods Store – 801 Broadway, January 1, 1970. http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2011/03/1868-mccreery-co-dry-goods-store-801.html.
  2. Team, Yesterday’s America Editorial. “Rationing in WWII: How Some Restaurants Survived.” Yesterday’s America, June 17, 2020. https://yesterdaysamerica.com/rationing-in-wwii-how-some-restaurants-survived/.
  3. Team, Yesterday’s America Editorial. “Rationing in WWII: How Some Restaurants Survived.” Yesterday’s America, June 17, 2020. https://yesterdaysamerica.com/rationing-in-wwii-how-some-restaurants-survived/.
  4. “Wartime Rationing – Restaurant-Ing through History.” Restaurant-ing through History. Accessed December 17, 2021. https://restaurant-ingthroughhistory.com/tag/wartime-rationing/.
  5. Whats on the Menu. New York Public Library. Accessed November 16, 2021. http://menus.nypl.org/menu_pages/57535/explore. 

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