December 1, 2010  |  Collection & Exhibitions, Counter Space
Rabbit, Rabbit

One of a series of WWII propaganda posters in MoMA's collection encouraging the British home front to raise rabbits at home on a diet of kitchen scraps...and then eat them. Poster designed by Frederick H. K. Henrion (British, 1914–1990), c. 1941

Everyone likes rabbits. Their fluffy tails. Their twitchy noses. From Peter Rabbit to Roger Rabbit, Bugs Bunny to the Easter Bunny, Watership Down to David Lynch’s surreal 2002 series Rabbits, the creatures have been anthropomorphized constantly in literature, film, and popular culture. Because they are so widely appealing, we feel extremely uncomfortable when we see rabbits encounter cooking pots, like in Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero, or at the hands of Glenn Close as manic bunny boiler in Fatal Attraction. Small wonder then that during World War II the British Government had to persuade reluctant consumers about the nutritional and money-saving benefits of raising rabbits for food.

Two posters designed by Frederick H. K. Henrion, c. 1941

There are three rabbit posters (above) from this very campaign now on view in Counter Space. They are displayed in a area focusing on the wartime kitchen, part of a large group of WWII propaganda posters for the British War Office/Ministry of Food. We have noticed that visitors seem drawn to these works of graphic design, which also include Abram Games’s famous Grow Your Own Food poster depicting a so-called victory garden. But the rabbits are where people linger—pointing and posing for pictures, sometimes smiling but often showing real surprise, pity, or aversion.

Though not a mainstream protein source in the US, rabbits—domesticated animals famous for their reproductive capabilities—are not a surprising choice as a practical food source. (In recent years, many articles have addressed the “other other white meat,” providing recipes and highlighting rabbits’ part in sustainable/local/do-it-yourself food movements.) As the poster above/left explains, rabbits are easy to keep as part of a domestic food cycle, consuming lawn mowings and kitchen scraps. They are also relatively clean, and quiet. The poster above/right provides suggestions for ways to complete the cycle.

Left: "A typical middle class English family's food rations for a week sitting on the worktop of the kitchen cabinet." 1945. Source: Google/LIFE Photo Archive. Photograph by Bob Landry. Right: “Young girl butcher in town of Plymouth, hanging up rabbits which have just come in from the market, more people in Britain are eating rabbit to supplement their limited meat ration." Plymouth, England. 1941. Source: Google/LIFE Photo Archive. Photograph by David E. Scherman

During World War II, posters like these gave engaging and informative graphic expression to a very real crisis. In Britain, food rationing began in 1940, with redeemable tokens issued through ration books. (For some nonessential foods, like sweets, rationing continued through 1953.) National health, critical to national strength, was a major focus of government attention. In Britain this was the concern of the Ministry of Food, which was created immediately after war was declared in 1939. Pamphlets, radio broadcasts, and posters aimed to help families make the most of their food rations, in part by overcoming squeamishness and the stigmatization of rabbit as a poverty food. Just as wartime designers and manufacturers were forced to creatively make use of non-rationed materials, like glass, families adjusted to raising and consuming non-rationed rabbit meat.

The rabbit campaign was not limited to Britain. A January 1943 release by the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service, beginning with the appeal “Meet the meat shortage,” explained the importance and pragmatism of rabbit consumption in the U.S.:

“With food as vital now as bullets, the Service is attempting to stimulate the increased production of rabbit meat to replace meats which are now short or will be included in the rationing category. Since they have no objectionable features, rabbits may be kept in the city backyard as well as on the farm, in fact, wherever poultry raising is permitted. Their hutches can be constructed of scrap lumber, used poultry wire, crates, and like material that can be obtained at little or no cost. Clean table scraps, garden waste, lawn clippings, palatable weeds, and small limbs trimmed from fruit trees may be utilized to supplement their regular rations.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service even operated a Rabbit Experiment Station in Fontana, California, which publicized for emulation the raising of food-rabbits overseas (“England has about a quarter million producing does; in Germany there are between 15 and 20 million…while the Italian householder is required to maintain at least one doe”). The Department of Agriculture produced leaflets with rabbit recipes, while Americans were assured that “the meat of the domestic rabbit is pearly white, fine-grained, nutritious, palatable, and may be served throughout the year.”

Poster for the exhibition Off the Ration, held at the Regent’s Park Zoo in London during World War II, at the entrance to a London Underground station. Photograph by Peter Ray, from the circulating MoMA exhibition New Posters from England (1943–44)

LIFE magazine contributed to the cause with a 1943 “war living” article titled “Rabbits: Raising Them for Meat Is Now a Helpful Patriotic Hobby.” The opening sentence stated, bluntly, “Domestic rabbits are one of the few pets which can be enjoyed dead or alive.” In the U.S., commercial rabbit-raising had already begun to pick up steam before the war, during the Depression. (Popular Science estimated $5 million in revenue from this hobby-turned-industry.)

Rabbits were also the subject of organized events: in the U.S., breeder shows grew in popularity, joining overseas gatherings like Britain’s War Time Rabbit Show at the Bethnal Green Men’s Institute (December 30, 1940) and public “Off the Ration” exhibitions, such as the one advertised at an Underground station in the poster seen to the left.

While rationing may seem a distant extreme to many of us who are able to enjoy the vast array of food publicly available today, the subject of our rabbit posters remains relevant. Public health concerns, often diet-related, continue to increase, especially in the U.S. And frugality and nutrition have become key global issues, heightened by economic recession. Activists like Chef Jamie Oliver are already looking back to wartime rationing for lessons on healthy and affordable eating, while the media continues to question ingrained reservations about eating rabbit. As a result, we are happy to be showing in Counter Space these striking rabbit posters, which, we believe, have not been displayed since they came to the Museum during World War II.

For more on the history of rationing, see Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity by Amy Bentley (University of Illinois Press, 1998) and Austerity in Britain: Rationing, Controls, and Consumption, 1939–1955 by Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska (Oxford University Press, 2000).