Imagine your closet with only three pairs of shoes in it. At one time, that was reality for many Americans.
As The New York Times pointed out, on this day in 1945, the U.S. government lifted a war-era rationing program on footwear that allowed consumers to buy only three pairs of shoes per year.
The limit on such purchases went into effect on Feb. 9, 1943, a little more than a year after America entered World War II. It was initiated by the Office of Price Administration (OPA), which was tasked with controlling purchases of food, materials and products to ensure that both the military and civilians had access to essential items and that costs didn’t skyrocket due to scarcity.
According to the Smithsonian Institution, footwear needed to be rationed because leather and rubber were in short supply — rubber in particular because it was sourced from Japan at the time.
As part of the OPA’s requirement, shoemakers could produce footwear in only four basic colors: black, white, town brown and army russet, and unnecessary features and embellishments were forbidden. In fact, noted the Smithsonian, the OPA banned heels higher than 2 5/8 inches, and men’s sandals and golf shoes were discontinued.
The rationing program had various impacts on the footwear industry. For one, manufacturers began to experiment with other nonrationed materials, such as plastics and textiles, which are prevalent today. And consumers got into the habit of buying practical, versatile looks, introducing a casual footwear trend that has continued to grow in this country.
Even toward the end of the rationing program, shoemakers were cautious about buying habits.
In the very first issue of Footwear News, published Oct. 6, 1945 (just weeks before rations were repealed), reporters noted that while shoemakers were looking forward to a spring season free of purchasing limits, they were still designing conservatively.
“The shoes which signalize advance spring fashion will show no radical changes in design, rather moderate modifications of styling which play safe with tested fashion themes,” wrote FN.
The article went on to note, “Last fall when makers went overboard as far as possible in the presentation of what colored leather was available, notably scarlet, retailers found that women were unwilling to spend the coupon required for bright color shoes.”