Weird History
159 voters

The Most Bizarre Shortages In History

Updated May 17, 2021 1.1k votes 159 voters 47.6k views14 items

List RulesVote up the shortages you never expected.

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.  

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

    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. 

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    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.

    KFC took out a cheeky ad in the Sun, apologizing for the shortage, and won back some goodwill.

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  • Photo: Divadrerhuf / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
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    In 1973, A Joke By Johnny Carson Resulted In A Toilet Paper Shortage

    Even when the approximate origins of a supply shortage are known, narrowing the event down to a singular cause is typically an exercise in oversimplification. That is not the case, however, with the 1973 toilet paper shortage in the United States - which was the result of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and its opening monologue by host Johnny Carson:

    You know, we’ve got all sorts of shortages these days. But have you heard the latest? I’m not kidding. I saw it in the papers. There’s an acute shortage of toilet paper!

    The country was already experiencing a commercial toilet paper shortage, but Carson’s team of writers took some liberties to craft a few fairly innocent jokes about a general shortage - leading panicked consumers to take him at his word. When TP started flying off the shelves and stores ran out of stock, it only reinforced the narrative that the country was in the midst of a genuine shortage.

    Some stores began rationing, which further heightened tension, until Carson himself took to the airwaves to apologize, saying, “I don’t want to be remembered as the man who created a false toilet paper scare. I just picked up the item from the paper and enlarged it somewhat... there is no shortage.”

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