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A Short History of Hoarding During Times of Crisis

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Dante Alighieri was a 14th-century poet born in the Republic of Florence in today’s Italy. “The Inferno” is the first part of his epic poem, Divine Comedy. Dante writes the first known reference to acts of hoarding in literature in this epic poem. “The Inferno” guides Dante through the habitat of fallen angels, and he places several popes there for their corrupt actions and excessive indulgences. It is seen today as social commentary of his era. (1)

Here too, I saw a nation of lost souls,
far more than were above: they strained their
chests against enormous weights, and with mad howls
rolled them at one another. Then in haste
they rolled them back, one party shouting out:
“Why do you hoard?” and the other: “Why do you waste?”
“Hoarding and squandering wasted all their light
and brought them screaming to this brawl of wraiths.
You need no words of mine to grasp their plight.”

From: “The Inferno” by Dante Alighieri (2)

The Revolutionary War Food Rioters

Between 1776 and 1779, historical records show 30 instances of food riots during the beginning of our Revolutionary War. Store owners engaged in price gouging and hoards of citizens gathered to intimidate them. In some cases, people commandeered limited commodities like sugar, tea, and bread. The people who objected to price gouging were known as food rioters. Some of these food riots induced more riots as word of mouth spread from regions and cities to other regions. (3)

The Civil War

Americans in the Northeast hoarded coins during the Civil War. The U.S. had produced many types of coins. The hoarding of coins led merchants to coin their own Civil War Tokens. Merchants in the Northeast and the Midwest issued over 10,000 types of tokens due to the scarcity of one-cent coins. Some store owners minted tokens with patriotic themes. Others issued tokens with advertisements. (4)

The South fared much worse during the Civil War when it came to food supplies. In Salisbury, North Carolina, in 1863, between 50 and 75 women carried axes and hatchets to the railroad depot and a few stores. They believed the railroad agent and the merchants were hoarding flour and keeping it hidden to sell later at a higher price. The railroad agent lied and told them he didn’t have any flour. The women didn’t believe him. They rushed the depot where they found ten barrels of flour and no doubt took the barrels with them. (5)

Over in Richmond, Virginia, that same year, women surged into the streets with axes shouting, “bread or blood”. Flour prices had risen ten times during the last two years. The women seized flour, a wagon of beef, and 500 pounds of bacon. (6)

World War I

America did not suffer much during WWI. Canada struggled to feed her soldiers and citizens. England, at one point in 1917, had only 2 weeks worth of food for her soldiers and citizens. England depended heavily on imported food from Canada and the U.S.

English soldier’s daily rations consisted of 20 oz bread, 3 oz jam or dried fruit, 8 oz fresh or 2 oz dried vegetables, 4 oz butter or margarine, 1/2 oz salt, 1/36 oz pepper, and 1/20 oz mustard (The Northern Times, 4 March, 1918).

Hoarding food was punishable in a court of law in England. The press revealed the names of the people who were summoned to court for hoarding food. The English public took a dim view of hoarding offenders. The authorities also considered imprisonment a just sentence for hoarding.

A wealthy woman, Mrs. Jesse Klaber, in Kent, England, received nine summons for food hoarding. The police found almost one ton of food in her store cupboard. The court convicted and fined her ten pounds for each summons and costs on the food she had hoarded (The Maitland Weekly Mercury, 4 March, 1918). (7)

1918 Flu Epidemic

Panic-buying Americans flooded the stores during this epidemic to buy up everything they thought they needed. All social gatherings ceased, schools closed, church services canceled, and people held no meetings of any kind. This epidemic changed the outcome of WWI. (8, 9)

Modern Hoarding

World War II

Less than one month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, The U.S. began its rationing programs. Tires were the first item to be rationed. The U.S. only allowed doctors, nurses, owners of buses, and owners of some delivery trucks and farm tractors to buy new tires. Everyone else had to patch or retread old tires. People could only get new tires, no matter who they were, through the local rationing boards. 

People tried to anticipate what goods would be on the rationing lists in advance and stock up on them. Whiskey and cigarettes did not make the rationing list. Author John Jeffries writes that 20% of American businesses were involved in black market activities. reports that studies estimate that 25% of all purchases made during WWII were illegal.

By Executive Order 8734 on April 11, 1941, President Roosevelt created the Office of Price Administration and Civilian Supply (OPA) which became an independent agency in January 1942. The U.S. federal government was no dummy when it came to the despicable behavior of people hoarding during times of war and crisis long before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

“The Emergency Price Control Act (January 30, 1942) established the purposes of the agency as follows: to stabilize prices and rents and prevent unwarranted increases in them; to prevent profiteering, hoarding and speculation; to assure that defense appropriations were not dissipated by excessive prices; to protect those with fixed incomes from undue impairment of their living standards; to assist in securing adequate production; and to prevent a post-emergency collapse of values."

Volunteers formed the workforce of the OPA. One-hundred-thousand volunteers worked in approximately 5,600 OPA offices. This board operated from 1941 to 1947. Every citizen and even babies received ration points. When citizens bought rationed items they were required to turn in their ration points along with their money. A pound of bacon cost 30 cents and 7 ration points in 1943. (10, 11, 12, 13)

Public Relations and Hoarding in World War II


The Portland* OPA office tried to stop the hoarding behavior with some good old PR which did not do any good in 1943. An exasperated Portland OPA volunteer wrote:

“First, it’s unpatriotic, and public opinion would make the would-be hoarders very unhappy. Second, you will have to report your preset goods on hand when you get your ration cards. Third, you can’t possibly anticipate in advance exactly where shortages will develop. Just as a case in point, the greatest single run on a single item handled by department stores was the rush for all-wool men’s clothing last spring. Yet, today [a year later] it is still plentiful.” (14)

From: Timpson, Texas Newspaper, 1942

Don’t Hoard! Hoarding keeps weapons from our fighting men...Here’s why. It takes men, machines, and materials to make even a tack--or a handkerchief--or a razor blade. It takes farms, farmers, important raw materials to produce those extra foods you store in your pantry...It takes trucks, ships, railroads to move these goods to where you buy them...All these are needed to win this war...Remember, hoarding--buying more than you need--helps no one but the enemy! (15)

Johnny Carson Once Created a Toilet Paper Shortage

Johnny Carson, the Tonight Show’s third host beginning in 1962, caused a toilet paper shortage in 1973, the same year that an OPEC oil embargo caused oil prices to soar. On December 19, 1973, Johnny told his viewers, “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!”

As it turned out, Johnny was not completely responsible. Johnny had read a news report, and then used it in his monologue. Wisconsin U.S. Congressman Harold Froelich represented a district with the paper industry being a large employer at that time. Harold heard complaints about a shortage of pulp paper in his district and issued a press release that read in part, "The U.S. may face a shortage of toilet paper within a few months...we hope we don’t have to ration toilet tissue...a toilet paper shortage is no laughing matter. It is a problem that will potentially touch every American".

The news media picked up the story, and Johnny simply used it in his nightly monologue jokes. The shortage of pulp paper was actually only going to affect commercial toilet paper supplies, not consumer supplies. The Scott Paper Company and Johnny tried to convince people to quit panic-buying toilet paper and other paper goods which, like the OPA PR campaigns in WWII, did not do any good. The 1973-74 toilet paper shortage lasted for four months. (15, 16)

Panic Buying and Emotion and Crises

When the general public becomes terrified by what the world throws at them, they allow the emotion of fear to take over. It does not matter if there is a real or an imagined shortage. Fear motivates panic buying. Panic buying causes people to feel in control and calm. Well-adjusted people let panic buying control them in order to find control in an uncontrollable world. (17)

* The source does not say whether this office was in Maine or Washington state.

Johhny Carson, December 19,1973



2. Translator: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

3. The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series, Vol. LI, No. 1, 1 January, 1994.











14. Timpson Daily Times. Vol. 41, No. 108, Ed. 1 Monday, June 1, 1942. p 2.





1. Civil War Merchant Minted Token

2. Richmond, Virginia, Flour Riot

3. World War II Rationing Offices

4.OPA Gasoline Coupon Form

5. OPA Public Relations Cartoon

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