Toward the end of World War I, sugar shortage rumors swirled in the United States, despite the country’s careful rationing. In the 1910s, sugar wasn’t something for treats and coffee. Residential refrigerators had just been invented in 1913 and were a luxury appliance, so home canning remained a viable method of making and storing homemade preserves and canned fruit. Breads, custards, many bean dishes, iced tea, lemonade…all common foods of the day and all required sugar.
The Sugar Hoarding of 1917 (also called the Sugar Shortage of 1917, the Sugar Famine of 1919, and other variations) struck Americans a hard psychological blow. Already food-conscious from rationing, Americans trusted their efforts ultimately saved lives. For those with family or friends serving overseas, it was a tangible, daily sacrifice that served to unite the country.
In 1917, the US Food Administration allotted each family two pounds of sugar—roughly four cups. You could make three dozen cookies OR a few loaves of white bread OR two small cakes OR two pitchers of lemonade…then you’d have to wait until next month. If you wanted to can jelly at home, the ratio of fruit juice to sugar was roughly 4:3—four cups made just over a quart of jelly a month. Not much.
Both before and after the country’s rationing, rumors of the decreased supply of sugar burned through newspapers and homes like wildfire. The rumors began, as conspiracy theories usually do, as outright lies or misunderstandings. Newspapers printed the rumors because people read it, and people repeated it because they feared it. This was the here and now. The war’s violence might erupt on the other side of the globe, but their familiar diet could now become a casualty if they didn’t act.
As always happens in times of rumors and fear, they ignored assurances from importers, retailers, and officials, even if these assurances were clearly demonstrated. They swarmed grocery stores and wholesale distributors, buying sugar by the sack, often at inflated prices and with a threat of violence. As the hoarding continued, the rumors became reality. The country actually suffered a sugar shortage, not from the chaos overseas, but from the chaos at home. This cyclical melee continued from months to years. Armed guards soon protected the sugar supply chain as though it were ordnance.
One eruption made national headlines in September of 1919, long after World War I’s end. “….Thousands assembled at the [Indianapolis] Piggly Wiggly store, in the Arcade building on East Washington Street and made determined efforts to get their mite of the 17,500 pounds placed on emergency sale there…” (The Indianapolis Star, Sept. 4, 1919). The mob eventually surrounded the mayor’s office, demanding access to the sugar. The mayor eventually caved, selling it in 10-pound bags that day and the next, but warned bulk sugar would never come directly into the city again.
The results of the sugar rumors were more than angry consumer mobs and confused officials. Investigations into the source of these “shortages” concluded with causes ranging from silly to sinister. Price fixing, German agents, oversupplies to troops, industrial ignorance, price gouging—investigators proposed all these, but none reached a consensus. Herbert C. Hoover, US Food Administrator (and future president) claimed he held “…evidence of well-planned German propaganda to cause unrest among housewives. This propaganda is taking form in the numerous food shortages which are reported” (New Castle Herald, 11/21/1917).
As wartime hysteria dwindled, so did the widespread hoarding of sugar and, to no surprise, the supply chain righted itself. While the logic of the mass panic was wanting, psychologists consider it a common and sometimes dangerous response to extreme circumstances.
Images and horror stories of sugar shortages in newspapers often led to reactionary hoarding (I better get some sugar before THEY take it all). Hoarding is a way to exert control during the uncontrollable (I can’t control what’s going on in Europe, but I can control how much sugar I have). Sugar is also an easy commodity to hoard. It comes in small, easy-to-carry packages, has an extremely long shelf life, and isn’t wasted (Fifty pounds of sugar is a lot, but it will keep, and eventually I’ll use it).
Thankfully, those days are behind us. With today’s strong leadership, quality mass communication, and a well-educated public, the odds of such a crazed stampede happening again are very slim. Almost nonexistent, really.