Minnesota's Greatest Generation

Marie Cavanagh: "Rationing Was Hard"

Marie Cavanagh of St. Paul was married with two children when her husband, Jim, was drafted into the Navy in 1944. Marie supplemented her husband's small military income by renting space in her home to a cousin. She used ration stamps to buy food, and canned what she could to keep the family in groceries. Marie remembered life on the home front in a 2002 interview with Thomas Saylor.

Oral History Excerpt

TS: You were married in 1939 and lived in St. Paul. How did the war, the U.S. going to war, seem to impact St. Paul as a community from your perspective?

MC: I think everybody was really upset. I can remember one of the things we always did, we could hardly wait for the newspaper. They printed all the names of those that were dead, and we'd go through the newspaper hoping that there wouldn't be any name we recognized. They printed them on the front page every day. And it was really a tragic thing. Anything connected with the war was a big tragedy.

TS: Your husband Jim was inducted into the Navy in May of 1944, by which time you were a homemaker with two children. Who moved in with you?

MC: My cousin, Marie Kunst.

TS: And her husband had also been drafted to service?

MC: Yes.

TS: And she had one child?

MC: One child.

TS: How did she approach you with that idea, do you remember?

MC: I think they were living with her husband's family, and I think she felt it would be so much easier to come live with me. I can remember at night every single night we sat and wrote letters to our husbands, which, if I had to do it again, I wouldn't. There was nothing to write about. Every night we'd write the same thing—what the weather was, what the kids were doing. Then when I would get letters from him, and there were so many portions that were cut out.

TS: Marie, how did that function from your perspective, with two women and three kids living in the house?

MC: It was great. We got along very well.

TS: Marie Kunst. She was outside the home working, right?

MC: Yes. She worked at Buckbee Mears doing some defense work.

TS: Did she pay you rent?

MC: Yes.

TS: How long did she stay with you?

MC: Perhaps a year.

TS: You mentioned writing letters a moment ago. What prompted you to write every day?

MC: I suppose we felt we were staying in touch. There was no other way to stay in touch.

TS: You mentioned that it was hard to find things to write about?

MC: It really was hard to find things to write about. I can remember I never wanted to write things to him that were difficult. It was always about the kids. And the weather. But both Marie and I were very content. The kids were good. We seemed to have enough. Having three children, we didn’t have to have the big meals like you have to have when they're men, so that was easier.

TS: You mentioned the letters, that if there were difficult things that you didn’t write those things. Why is that?

MC: I had a feeling that I didn't want him to worry. One of them, we had an old furnace that used oil, and at the time oil was rationed. I ran out of ration stamps. I needed more, so I had to go downtown. I can’t even remember where. They did give me more oil, and I can remember I never wrote that to him.

TS: Because obviously he would be powerless to help you anyway and—?

MC: That’s right.

TS: Did you depend on your mom and dad at this time for any kind of—outside of financial help, any kind of help around the house or things like that?

MC: No. I think my mother felt that with Marie living with me, between the two of us we could manage, and we did. We did manage very well.

TS: Now before Jim went into the Navy in May of 1944 he worked for Union Brass and Metal [in St. Paul]. You had to manage the household finances from his pay packet. From your perspective as a person buying food or managing money, was your family financial situation better, about the same, or not quite as good before Jim went into the service?

MC: Not quite as good.

TS: So his money was stretched.

MC: He allotted me a hundred dollars a month, and my house payment was fifty-two.

TS: That left you less than fifty dollars for groceries and other things.

MC: And gas and electric and oil, clothing.

TS: So money was tight.

MC: Really.

TS: When Jim went into the Navy in mid-1944, how did that impact your financial situation?

MC: We had been buying War Bonds steadily through Jim's work, and I went through every one.

TS: Were you getting an allotment from his service pay every month?

MC: That hundred dollars.

TS: So you got a little bit every month from him plus the war bonds, and then when Marie moved in a little bit of rent, and that sort of helped you make ends meet.

MC: Yes.

TS: How surprised were you and was Jim to get the draft notice in the mail?

MC: Very surprised. We never ever thought that it would come to that.

TS: Having to deal with life as a single mother, in a sense, I want to ask you about the impact for you of things like rationing.

MC: That was a mess. It was hard to figure out what to buy so that you wouldn't use all your ration stamps or tokens. I think the hardest thing was the meat, the meat situation. The rest of it was fine. We managed. I can't remember that we were ever completely short of ration stamps.

TS: Why was the meat so difficult?

MC: I don't know. I don't think you got too much for the amount of stamps that you had, so that we gave the kids scrambled eggs more than we did meat. Eggs, I don't really know, but they seemed to stretch farther. A dozen eggs can go a long ways.

TS: How did your rationing situation change after Jim went into the service? Did the kind of stamps you got or the amount of stamps you got change?

MC: No, not really, because we all were issued ration stamps: the husband, the wife and the children. When he left we did without his stamps, but then we did without him, too. So it kind of evened out.

TS: Did you do most of your shopping locally at shops?

MC: There was a grocery store right up on Grand [Avenue] and Syndicate [Street], where Kowalski's [grocery store] is now. It was Crane's Grocery. That's where I shopped, because I never drove. He had everything in the store, and he was so good to the kids. I always had to take the kids with me. Took them in the wagon. I don't think it changed too much. They were very good kids.

TS: Did you have your milk delivered then?

MC: Yes. We had a milkman.

TS: Did you feel you were able to get as much milk as you needed?

MC: Yes.

TS: When you had ration stamps, was it possible to trade those around to other people or get them from other people if you needed?

MC: I don't really know.

TS: Now when Marie lived here with her one child you had, I guess, more stamps.

MC: Right.

TS: Did you share the household chores in a way, too?

MC: She worked all day. I can remember she used to do the washing on the weekend when she was home. But I think that's about all she did do.

TS: Did you cook most of the meals?

MC: Yes.

TS: Were you a person who did any canning?

MC: A lot.

TS: What sort of things did you can?

MC: I canned tomatoes, for one thing. We had lots of spaghetti. And I canned fruit, peaches. I can remember we never bought peaches unless we bought a crate.

TS: Really?

MC: Yes. A crate of peaches. I can remember that my brothers, now they must have not gone in the service before Jim, but at least one of them went hunting, and he got some pheasants. My mother came over one day and we cooked these pheasants and put them in glass jars. We canned them and then sent some to Jim.

TS: Did they get there in one piece?

MC: Yes.

TS: Did you do more canning than you had done before rationing became an issue for you, or had you always been a person who canned?

MC: Always. From the time I got married I canned.

Read Full Interview Transcript



Cavanagh, Marie; Thomas Saylor, Interviewer, Minnesota's Greatest Generation Oral History Project, Thomas Saylor; Minnesota Historical Society Oral History Collection, 2002.