On June 17th, 1943, the New York Times printed an editorial speculating that the United States found itself on the verge of the “the greatest shoe buying orgy in the history of the nation.” This was about four months into the U.S. Office of Price Administration’s institution of shoe rations.
The OPA, the same people who brought the US rations on sugar and gasoline and an outright (albeit short-lived) ban on sliced bread, called for shoe rations because rubber and leather were in short supply during World War II. In their great wisdom, they suggested members of the American public could get by with no more than three new pairs of shoes per year. Also, these shoes would only come in four colors—black, white, dark brown, and light brown, and under no circumstances were shoes to be multicolored. Because war.
There were some exceptions. Police officers and others who relied heavily on a sturdy pair of shoes to complete their essential tasks were excused from the rationing, and allowances were made for orthopedic shoes and in cases of lost or damaged footwear due to theft or fire. But families with fast-growing little feet had to make due by creatively distributing their ration cards from adult family members to the youngsters.
There were some other restrictions as well, including the prohibition of boots taller than ten inches, all golf spikes, and shoes with heels higher than two-and five-eighths inches, which had the added bonus of greatly increasing American foot comfort.
The shoe rationing was a logical move by the OPA, and one that the American public handled fairly well, even through a further restriction down to two pairs per year, and all the way until the rations were entirely lifted on October 30, 1945. The used shoe business surged, as did the seedy shoe black market. Some inventive entrepreneurs turned to non-rationed supplies, growing the plastic, recycled carpet, and whatever-material-one-could-find-lying-around-in-one’s-basement shoe industry. Whatever the solution, Americans spent a couple of years contemplating what might have been an unhealthy obsession with what they put on their feet.
Because there’s no question Americans like shoes. Estimates of the average number of shoes owned by today’s American woman fall somewhere between twenty-one and twenty-eight pairs, with the men polling surprisingly close behind them.
I have to admit, I scoffed a little at that. As a highly practical person who mostly wears comfy tennis shoes, I definitely don’t own such a ridiculous amount of footwear. I mean sure, I sometimes don a pair of dress flats, which I own in several sensible colors. Also, sometimes I wear boots, either black or brown, or with a dress or skirt I might occasionally put on a pair of heels to match. And everyone has to have a pair of hiking shoes, and a pair of tough summer sandals, or fun flip-flops appropriate for beach-going, or strappy little sandals for wearing with a cute summer dress.
That’s right. In an attempt to prove that I’m far superior to the average American woman, I went into my closet and started counting. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I am, well, let’s just say above average. I walked out of my closet a little humbler, and I started to think about whether I would feel good about limiting my new shoe purchases to two or three pairs a year.
Of course, if I had to, I could do it. I do, after all, have a pretty good supply of shoes already. I’d probably benefit from a new pair of tennis shoes at some point during the year because they don’t last forever and I’m old enough to suffer aches and pains if I push a pair too far. I’d also probably have to give up at least one new pair for myself to get an extra for one of my growing boys.
I’d like to think that if, like the Greatest Generation before me, I had to limit myself in a patriotic effort to help out my country, I would do it without full-on panicking. Because despite a little grumbling from podiatrists and the fear expressed in the New York Times that rations would lead to hordes of crazed women engaging in shoe-buying orgies, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that the rationing was too much of an issue.
But to be fair, I haven’t found evidence of any greater shoe-buying orgies in American history, so I guess maybe that panicked, shoe-obsessed Times writer might not have been entirely wrong.