Published online by Cambridge University Press: 30 August 2017
WHEN the imperial Japanese army invaded and occupied Malaya in December 1941, Britain lost access to raw rubber. The ramifications of the invasion for the British war effort were undeniably great, but the impact of the rubber shortage on civilians was no less significant. The lack of rubber consumer products created problems for infants, mothers and midwives. By February 1942, rubber gloves for home births were rationed, the manufacture of rubber teats for infant feeding bottles was only 25 per cent of pre-war levels and the production of contraceptive rubber diaphragms and condoms for civilians had ceased. As the war progressed, the lack of rubber teats for feeding infants created mounting difficulties for mothers with young babies. While a public outcry forced the government to restart production in late 1944, the lack of rubber contraceptives led to unwanted pregnancies and a surge in venereal diseases. This public health crisis did not restart the production of diaphragms or condoms for civilians, but resulted instead in the establishment of treatment centres for sexually transmitted diseases. Appeals to the government for more gloves for midwives failed, leading many midwives to leave the profession. This produced a critical shortage of birth attendants at the very moment the birth rate in Britain increased dramatically.
The literature on wartime shortages, rationing and austerity in Britain is rich and detailed. Recently, Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska and Mark Roodhouse have explored wartime policies and the implementation of rationing, as well as the black market that developed alongside official channels. Earlier scholarship has focused on the shortages and state policies aimed at increasing food production and maintaining equitable access to food supplies. R.J. Hammond's ‘official history’ of the development of those policies, and recent comparative work by Lizzie Collingham, signal that all the major powers connected the control of food to the maintenance of civilian morale. Britons’ nutrition improved markedly during the Second World War. Many citizens reused, repurposed and recycled consumer items for personal use and, as Peter Thorsheim argues, for weapons. Nevertheless, some items could not be reused indefinitely. These included medical rubber gloves, condoms, diaphragms (or ‘Dutch Caps’) and rubber teats for infant feeding bottles.