A shortage of infant formula is the latest chapter in our recent saga of supply chain disruptions and rising prices.
Early 20th century Baltimore witnessed a number of dire shortages, often referred to as “famines,” for everything from chewing gum to ice. And inflation was often a repeated theme, too; it rose above 17% in 1917, the year the U.S. entered World War I.
The Sun reported on multiple shortages and price hikes that year. In November 1917, Northern cities faced a “salt famine” amid supply shortages related to the war in Europe. The price of produce became so high that Baltimore grocers threatened to boycott the growers of potatoes and onions unless they went down. Eggs and meats were completely out of reach to low-income residents.
“Everyone is familiar with the gradual increase in the prices of foodstuffs,” said one Sun article on the topic.
To help understand the relationship between product shortages and price surges during World War I, The Baltimore Sun this week interviewed historian Jonathan Rees, author of “Refrigeration Nation: A History of Ice, Appliances, and Enterprise in America,” published by Johns Hopkins University Press.
Rees, a professor of history at Colorado State University Pueblo, said the shortages and price rises of that earlier period have differing causes.
“Now, you have a shortage of supply and a shortage of workers in production and transportation,” he said. “It’s hard to get things from the point of production to consumers.”
During the first world war, however, the war effort caused massive disruptions to European agriculture that had huge consequences for the rest of the world.
“Nobody in Europe could grow anything,” Rees said. With European armies mobilizing, “there’s nobody to bring the crops in.”
As a result, American food became “absolutely essential” to feeding the rest of the world. At the same time, the U.S. was rationing food supplies as it entered the European conflict.
In Baltimore, food prices were so high in 1917 that the city’s Board of Estimates discussed buying produce from local farmers to sell at public curb markets at cost. According to an article in The Sun, city leaders believed that they could thus alleviate the high prices consumers were paying for food, an issue that the article called “one of the most serious situations that has confronted the city in years.” Improvised markets were set up at two locations in Baltimore.
Poor families were subsisting on rice, hominy and cornmeal, which took the place of bread and potatoes, according to an article in The Sun.
Other shortages had direct impacts on the food supply. A 1918 ice shortage, The Sun reported, left many residents with nothing to keep their refrigerated meats cool. Local officials warned that it might be necessary to ban ice cream manufacturing.
Such a situation, Rees said, was related in part to wartime supply issues. Ammonia, which is used to make ice, was diverted to make gunpowder for the war effort. At the same time, ice manufacturing was controlled by monopolies such as the American Ice Company, which frequently jacked up prices when demand was strong.
Food wholesalers, too, were accused of price gouging, to the point that a 1917 grand jury in Baltimore vowed to indict anyone holding on to foodstuffs to raise prices.
Owing to patriotic sentiment during the war, Americans tended to accept the food shortages and high prices more readily than people do today, Rees said. Under the leadership of future president Herbert Hoover, the U.S. Food Administration launched a colorfully illustrated propaganda campaign urging people to conserve for the good of the country. In response to those calls, Baltimore hoteliers launched a weekly “Beefless Tuesday” practice to conserve meat.
Although the causes of today’s food and materials shortages are very different from those in 1917, the effects are similar.
In both cases, Rees said, “the supply is very patchy, and prices can get very high.” Another aspect is the issue’s global nature, he said. “It’s a global problem in World War I, and it’s a global problem now.”
But reflecting on past shortages can remind modern consumers how interconnected our global supply chains are — and what a relatively recent development that is.
“Our comfort is dependent on forces beyond our control,” Rees said. “It’s true now, and it’s true then. We don’t think that way because the system has been providing everything we want for so long, but it’s still a very complicated system.”