In the vault of the National Postal Museum is a rarity which is neither a piece of postal operations history or philately. This relic of the 1973-74 oil crisis has never been displayed and fits into no narrative for any future exhibit. It is a block of 16 gasoline rationing coupons which were transferred from the Treasury Department in 1984.
These coupons were among the almost five billion gasoline rationing coupons which were produced in response to the 1973-74 gasoline shortage at the direction of the Federal Energy Office. But national gas rationing never happened and the coupons were never used. On October 18, 1973, the Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) stopped the flow of oil to the United States in response to the United States’ support of Israel during Yom Kippur war with Syria and Egypt. Prior to this the United States, like other industrialized nations, had become accustomed to and dependent on cheap and abundant gasoline. A gallon of gasoline cost about 35 cents.
After October 18, the price of gasoline rose immediately and its supply became uncertain. There were long lines at service stations to buy gasoline. In some cases, service stations themselves could not acquire gas. Theft of gas by siphoning from vehicle fuel tanks became common. To restore order, state legislatures in those states most affected by the shortage implemented a simple form of rationing. Drivers whose license plates had an odd number could purchase gas on the odd-numbered days of the month and those whose plates had an even number could purchase gas on the even days of the month. This helped, but the shortage worsened as time went on.
The government then proposed nationwide gasoline rationing, as had occurred during World War II. On December 28, 1973, William E. Simon, head of the Federal Energy Office, announced the Bureau of Engraving and Printing would print gasoline rationing coupons. The Bureau, aware it would need assistance, signed contracts with the US Bank Note Company and the American Bank Note Company to print a portion of the coupons and furnish them with engraved dies. Printing began on January 25, 1974.
The Bureau halted their regular currency and postage stamp printing work to focus on printing the coupons. Coupons were printed using intaglio plates in 96 subject sheets. They were printed, perforated, inspected, cut into 16 subject panes, shrink-wrapped and boxed. Three series of coupons, “A” “B” and “C” were produced. “A” coupons were printed from January 25 to February 25, 1974. “B” coupons were printed from March 17 to March 27, 1974. “C” coupons were printed from February 24 to March 20, 1974.
The coupons utilized the same engraving of George Washington as a one dollar bill. Because of this, they were used in lieu of dollar bills in change-making machines by some with fraud on their minds.
Mr. James A. Conlon, Director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, explained this in a letter to Mr. John Y. McCollister, Congressman of the Second District, Nebraska.
“After the experience the Government had with counterfeiting of rationing coupons during the World War II period, it was determined that a repetition of the problem was to be avoided to the greatest extent possible when the Federal Energy Office¹ decided to have the rationing coupons printed during the height of the emergency. Engraved printing is recognized as being the most counterfeit-proof and was therefore, selected. The use of the portrait identical to that on the $1 bill was decided up to provide the public with an available means of validating authentic coupons through direct comparison.”²
Almost five billion coupons were printed in less than four months—an impressive achievement. The cooperation of the Federal Reserve Board and the US Postal Service was essential as these agencies had to agree to reduce their normal demands on the Bureau for currency and postage stamps, respectively.
The embargo ended in March 1974 when Israel began to negotiate with Syria and the Arab nations were convinced that the fighting was over. The gasoline shortage eased and the coupons were no longer needed.
In June 1984 the Energy Department was about to shred and bury 4.8 billion of the gasoline rationing coupons at the Pueblo Army Depot in Pueblo, CO. According to former National Philatelic Collection curator James H. Bruns, the Department of the Treasury contacted John Fleckner, Chief Archivist of the National Museum of American History, to ask if the Smithsonian Institution would like to keep a sample. Fleckner approached Bruns, who agreed. The transfer was made on September 6, 1984 from the Department of Energy’s Idaho office.3 The National Philatelic Collection became the repository of the coupons since these were initially presumed to be rationing stamps like those of World War II. Another multiple of coupons was sent to the National Archives. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing has three multiples and at least three examples are known to be in private collections at this time.
1) The office changed its name to the Federal Energy Administration in 1976.
2) Conlon, James A. personal correspondence, March 26, 1975
3) Bruns, James H. telephone interview, November 12, 2009
Frum, David. How We Got Here: the 70s. Basic Books, 2000.
"How Americans Met the First Great Gasoline Crisis Nearly Forty Years Ago."American Heritage, October 1979.
Brinkley, David. Washington Goes to War. Knopf, 1989.
Bruns, James H. telephone interview, November 12, 2009
Conlon, James A. personal correspondence, March 26, 1975
Frye, Hal R., and Daniel C. Robinson, Gas Rationing Coupon Program, Final Report. Washington, DC: , 1975. Print.
Paul, Gilkes. "Rationing Coupons Sell to Two Collectors." Coin World March 2000: 3. Print.
"Rationing Coupons Shredded." New York Times June 2, 1984, Print.
Rudel, Thomas K. "Social Responses to Commodity Shortages: The 1973-74 Gasoline Crisis." Human Ecology. Vol.8. No. 3, 198. Print.
Simon, William. A Time for Reflection: An Autobiography. Regenery Publishing, 2004.
Written by James O'Donnell