Weird History
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The Most Bizarre Shortages In History

March 30, 2020 28.4k 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 2010, When The Cost Of Cabbage Skyrocketed, South Korea Suffered A Shortage Of Kimchi

    In 2010, a bad growing season in China led to a worldwide shortage of napa cabbage. It was a particular problem for South Korea, where napa cabbage is an integral ingredient in the country's national side dish: kimchi. 

    Made with a spiced and fermented cabbage, kimchi is such a staple in South Korea that many citizens eat it daily, so this shortage hit hard. As kimchi prices skyrocketed - leading some to dub it “geum-chi,” or “gold-chi” - the government stepped in to suspend import duties on cabbage. Others experimented in making kimchi with other ingredients, though this typically didn’t prove satisfactory.

  • During The American Revolution, Paper Was So Scarce That Mill Workers Could Be Exempt From Military Duty

    During The American Revolution, Paper Was So Scarce That Mill Workers Could Be Exempt From Military Duty
    Photo: Henry Graham Ashmead / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    During the American Revolution, as the use of paper in newspapers, books, and elsewhere ramped up significantly, shortages of paper became commonplace. When the Stamp Act of 1765 required that all material published within the colonies be printed on stamped paper, thus increasing the already inflated cost of paper, it was just one more reason to declare independence.

    Paper shortages became an everyday issue that was not taken lightly. Having previously imported much of their paper from Europe, Americans were left to produce their own. Several states poured funds into the expansion of the industry, and some introduced rules by which trained paper makers and mill workers could be exempt from military duty - if they kept their brand-new nation rolling in sweet parchment. 

  • In 2018, KFC Ran Out Of Chicken In The UK

    When your company name (well, before it became known only by an acronym) has the word “chicken” in it, running out of the bird in question can be a major problem - as it was for KFC in the United Kingdom in 2018. The shortage was entirely internal - the result of KFC UK & Ireland switching delivery contracts to DHL, leading to mass delays in chicken shipment and the temporary closure of 600 restaurants.

    As KFC tweeted out to its UK customers at the time, “The chicken crossed the road, just not to our restaurants." The company also mentioned that “The Colonel is working on it,” and indeed he must have been - as the shortage only lasted a short while and soon KFC was back on its feet, though not without eating its fair share of criticism in the process.

  • In The 1800s, Medical Schools In Scotland Faced A Shortage Of Legally Sourced Cadavers

    Legislation in 1823 dramatically reduced the number of legal executions in Britain, which is largely considered a positive - unless one was in the field of medical research. The law at the time ruled that medical students were allowed to work only with the cadavers of those who had been executed, so fewer executions quickly led to a shortage of available cadavers - and some gruesomely creative solutions to fill that need.

    With medical schools offering ever-increasing amounts for cadavers - with few questions asked - several enterprising individuals took to robbing graves and selling the cadavers. When demand grew for fresher specimens, however, prospective cadaver-sellers turned to outright slaying to keep the supply strong. Two particularly infamous individuals, William Burke and William Hare, suffocated at least 16 people over the course of two years and sold their cadavers for approximately 10 pounds each. 

    When they were caught, Hare rolled over on Burke, and Burke was sentenced to hang - after which his body was given to the Edinburgh Medical School for anatomical research in one of history’s most fitting punishments.