Please don’t pour your used cooking oil down the drain. Water gets contaminated and becomes very difficult to treat. Instead, put the oil in a closed, non-recyclable container, close it, and throw everything in the trash. But if, when it comes to frying your food, patriotism overcomes earth-friendliness, you can still do as the U.S. government suggested to back in the day. In that case, just take your used (cooled down!) oil to your town store: it may come in handy to make the bombs that will destroy your enemy’s villages.
Hopefully, no town store of today – if there is still such a thing – will ask for your used oil to make explosives. But seen through the lens of the Aspero family collection of World War II ephemera (one of Penn’s latest acquisitions), life in America during the conflict was no less terrifying that in the worst totalitarian nightmares of a Bradbury or an Orwell. The war never arrived in continental U.S. And yet, it was very much present in the minds and hearts of those who remained at home. To them, it assumed the form of an invisible presence, ever looming over their daily existences, down to the most apparently innocuous, prosaic aspects. It was not just about knowing that the lives of your beloved children and spouse were constantly in danger or that those who were serving in the Armed Forces were constantly put in danger on the front or in one of the many training camps scattered across the nation. It was also about food, clothing, traveling, and talking in the street–all activities that had to be carefully regulated and controlled.
Because most of the processed food and gas was directed to the military, and imports were limited, food and fuel had to be rationed. Individual war ration books were issued for every member of the family by the U.S. government Office of Price Administration. The books included different types of removable stamps, each to be used for the purchase of a specific good. Once a person had reached the set quantity of a given item or food that was established by the government, no more could be bought until the next war ration book was be issued. Ration books were considered serious business by the government, and as personal documents bearing the signature of their owner, they had to be handled with extreme care. In dry prose, the Office of Price Administration issues dire warnings should violations occur and instructions should accidents happen: “This book must be returned to the War Price and Rationing Board which issued it, if the person to whom it was issued is induced into the armed services of the United States, or laves the country for more than 30 days, or dies. The address of the Board appears above.”
The government also published special brochures with the purpose of instructing citizen on the appropriate behavior to adopt, especially in public. One of them, titled “A Personal Message to the Mothers, Wives, Fathers, Brothers, Sisters and Friends of Service Men,” warned citizens to not pass on personal communications sent from dear ones at the front, or even make comments on their personal lives. Because … you know, spies are everywhere! Examples are provided. “Last Tuesday evening, on a bus, the wife of a shipping clerk in a Iowa drug house remarked to a friend: “We’re staying home tonight—Al’s tired. He shipped 80 cases of quinine to the Army today.”” But nearby, somebody is listening: “Quinine for the Army… the tropics, eh? And 80 cases means a lot of men. Interesting.”
As grim as all this may have sounded, morale was to be kept up at any cost and civilians were offered suggestions to how they could help. A brochure issued by the United Service Organization (USO) featuring three smiling soldiers on the front cover, explained the need for support of their organization in highly patriotic terms. “’Sighted sub; sank same.’ ‘Send us more Japs’…..Our fighting men have this spirit. But loneliness, monotony, and boredom can destroy it.” In another leaflet – the one inviting Americans to “save waste fats to make explosives” –, a smiling housewife is nonchalantly placed next to a firing cannon. A greeting card from a military camp comically describes the daily life of training soldiers, but it is folded inside an envelope carrying the picture of a man in uniform, asking in tears to “please write more letters for me.”
The U.S. declaration of war on Italy, Germany, and Japan made the life of an Italian-American family like the Asperos (the creator of the collection, Umberto Aspero, emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s) even more complicated. Like Japanese and German Americans, U.S. citizens of Italian origins were seen with suspicion; and for a period of time, unnaturalized immigrants from Italy were even designed as enemy aliens. In California, 10,000 Italians were removed from their homes in prohibited zones, and even naturalized citizens were forced to leave their homes or close their businesses because they were considered dangerous by the government. Seen seventy years later, then, the act of collecting material from the war looks not only like an attempt to document the harshness of those days, but perhaps also as a possible way for the Italian ethnic minority to stake a claim on such an important part of American history.