Weird History
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The Most Bizarre Shortages In History

March 30, 2020 24.0k views14 items

Amid the COVID-19 outbreak of 2020, it shouldn’t come as news to anyone that markets will occasionally run short of something, and not just the staples like food, water, and toilet paper - sometimes it’s a lot stranger than that. The 21st century has already witnessed a kimchi shortage, a hazelnut shortage, and the brief disappearance of all Twinkies, and that’s just a sampling of the many items humanity has temporarily run out of in the wake of recent mitigating circumstances.

These shortages can come in many forms and be incited by wildly different events. The world is simply running out of certain products, like helium for party balloons, which has led to an ongoing dwindling of availability that will probably never be reversed. Other shortages, however - like a memorable incident in which Russia ran out of vodka for an entire day - are a lot sillier, though not without their own degree of seriousness.

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  • In 1946, A Shortage Of Brushes To Paint Homes In Australia Led To ‘Operation Pig Bristle’

    A lot of military missions have silly-sounding code names, but “Operation Pig Bristle” truly lives up to its strange title. In 1946, Australia found itself in a housing boom but suffering from an extreme shortage of paintbrushes with which to paint all those new homes - which led to the RAAF’s No. 38 Squadron being given a surprisingly dangerous mission to rectify the issue.

    With China descending into a civil conflict, as well as being largely unmapped and difficult to access by air, the RAAF sent three planes on several missions to transport 25 tons of pig bristles - an important component in paintbrushes - back to Australia from Chungking over the course of two weeks. The mission involved one stretch of flying 1,100 kilometers from Hong Kong to Chungking uninterrupted. Operation Pig Bristle was a success, and the housing boom continued.  

  • In 1958 And Again In The Modern Era, Helium Shortages Deflated Balloon Availability

    The world is simply running out of helium, and has been for some time - and there’s a lot more at stake than birthday balloons. The first major shortage occurred in 1958, and was notable because it necessitated the balloons at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade being filled with air and toted around on cranes.

    More serious shortages have occurred over the first two decades of the 21st century, with three major events grabbing headlines, most recently in 2019. And it’s a problem that doesn’t appear to be going away, with helium currently being processed at only 14 different natural gas refineries worldwide - and with most of those facilities falling behind in their ability to produce the substance. That’s bad news for birthday party planners, as well as those who use fiber optics, MRI machines, and airbags, all of which require helium.

  • In The 1500s, Britain Ran Out Of Firewood

    The firewood shortage that rocked Britain in the 16th century isn’t a very mysterious one, but instead a simple case of deforestation. With an increase in demand for the other uses of wood products - namely ship-building, paper production, and building construction - the Brits started cutting down more trees than their limited forests could regrow in a timely fashion, leading to a firewood crisis that soon affected much of Europe.

    At the time, firewood was of significantly greater importance to the average person than it is today, with the average British citizen being almost entirely reliant on it to heat their home. This shortage led to many deciding to take their chances in one of the new North American colonies where timber was still abundant, and there are some who credit the firewood shortage with the eventual birth of the United States of America.

  • During World War II, Women Had To Improvise Stockings When Nylon Was Needed For Military Equipment Like Parachutes

    Nylon stockings hit the scene at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and became an instant sensation, with millions of sales made over the next couple of years - until the United States entered WWII in 1941 and nylons became yet another casualty. All nylon was set aside for the production of parachutes, ropes, netting, and other essential goods, and stockings were suddenly in short supply. Substitutes like so-called “liquid hosiery” just didn’t do the trick.

    The demand became so intense that a nylon underground market developed for the duration of the conflict. When rationing ended in 1945, the response was so dramatic that “nylon riots” broke out across the country, with consumers desperate to get their hands on a new pair of hose.