As early as 1915, it became clear that the Viennese population could not be supplied with sufficient amounts of food. The logistics supply chain had ceased functioning. A centralized regulatory agency was supposed to solve the problem. The German Empire again provided a large-scale and admirable model. „Organization“ was the magic word that electrified the people, another key word was „Approvisionierung“ (supply on all levels). In comparison to Germany, Austria was late to introduce varied measures for rationing, and hesitated to introduce ration cards for bread, fat, petroleum, potatoes, or clothing. Gradually, however, Vienna, too, had to adopt these rationing policies, and as such was an early example for the Habsburg monarchy.
Price limits had a boomerang effect
Immediately after the beginning of the war, price limits for goods were set; this however proved to have a boomerang effect. The products were then quickly taken off the official market and sold on the black market. To guarantee the supply of basic products, rationing was demanded and needed. An additional way of regulating supply was the division into districts („Rayonierung“): The purchase of food was connected to certain shops and days. „Who would have believed that the state and city governments would penetrate so deeply into the private life of individuals so that it is regulated on what days one can eat meat, when the use of fat is forbidden, what amounts of the various food products one is allowed to eat“, wrote the Arbeiter-Zeitung (Workers’ Newspaper).
The use of ration cards helped achieve a fairer distribution of goods but it did not solve all problems. Despite the ration cards there was no guarantee that one could indeed get a hold of food und coal. The supply was too unstable. Complaints that certain city districts were disadvantaged occupied the meetings of the city deputies commission (“Obmännerkonferenz”). Because the food supply could not be completely guaranteed, the Viennese population lived from hand to mouth.
The city as intermediary between demand and supply
Huge warehouses close to the Danube river were supposed to alleviate the situation. In cooperation with the central authorities, the city gave itself a new role and bought products in large quantities, mediating between the market supply and the demands and needs of the population during the different seasons. Beyond that, the city and the government extended the social welfare efforts and activities: war kitchen, rent control, war gardening, relief for the less well-off.
After taking stock of the flour and corn inventory in February 1915, the ration card for bread was introduced in April 1915. Teachers were the ones who had to manage the issuing of the cards in the various districts. In April 1916, the ration cards for sugar were distributed to the population; this was followed by milk ration cards for children under the age of two in May 1916. From July 1916 on, it was coffee, and from September 1916 on, fat and butter had to be bought with ration cards. In December 1916, the distribution of flour was restricted to certain shops. A few months later, ration cards for petroleum, candles, soap, potatoes, coal and meat were introduced.
A further instrument for regulating supply were officially certified purchase cards which were supposed to regulate the distribution of particular allotments of goods. Specific societal groups like pregnant women and infants who had difficulties accessing the supply market received additional cards. The less well-off participated in special purchase programs, for example welfare meat, cheese, cabbage, rice, wood or dried vegetables. Due to the diversification of these welfare programs the city was forced to establish a complex bureaucratic system. For example, 200,000 households and 700,000 inhabitants were registered to receive purchase cards.
The administration of these programs became even more complex when it had to include temporary residents of the city as well. Not doing so, would have caused social unrest and upheaval in the city. In December 1917, a total of 90,000 “vacation cards” were handed to soldiers on leave from the front in Vienna. In addition, temporary refugees had to be fed as well.