Many of us have been taking ourselves to the shops over the last few weeks to stock up a little more than usual, with fears growing in relation to the spread of the Coronavirus and the potential of increasing shortages of basic supplies.

Shoppers at Burton Road Co-op will have been confronted by the notice: ‘Customer information. Due to seeing higher demand than usual we’ve decided to put a restriction of three units per person in place to protect availability for all our customers on the following categories’. The notice continues with a list of commodities: ‘Paperware – including tissues, toilet rolls and kitchen roll’, as well as hand sanitiser, anti-bacterial soap, and anti-bacterial hand and surface wipes.

Rationing is closely associated with the Second World War Home Front, and the austerity years that followed, and indeed this will be within the memory of many still alive today. However, the need to ration was also a necessity just over a century ago, during the crisis of the First World War. In fact, around the country, co-operative stores were among the first retail outlets to start controlling supplies. Furthermore, leading co-operative representatives were some of the keenest in pressing government to introduce national rationing schemes.

The online archive for the Lincolnshire Co-operative gives an insight into how rationing developed through 1914-18. Panic buying broke out in the opening months, certainly, and co-operative stores were quick to start limiting supplies to their customers in an as equitable way as possible.

Shortages became more and more widespread, but certain commodities attracted higher levels of concern. Flour and bread supplies were a particular worry, in the same way that in the present pasta and rice have been among the more sought-after items among consumers. Less of a challenge today, but certainly so during the Great War, was sugar, as a sweetener in so much domestic food preparation. The same was the case for heating for the home, in the form of coal supplies for the hearth and stove.

Some of the shortages of the early First World War years might be less easy to guess now. Personal hygiene, health and cleaning products did not appear to be among those highlighted by the local co-operative society.

Availability of packaging paper and string, however, did become a difficulty early on, and customers were urged to return their bags and pieces of string to the store. Shops were not the supermarkets of today, with their open shelves holding generally pre-packed commodities, and with queues leading up to staffed or ‘self-service’ checkouts. Instead, orders were ‘made up’ by weight or volume into packages, and collected or delivered.

Early on in the 14-18 war home deliveries had to be cancelled as well, as the army requisitioned greater numbers of draught horses. Customers had no other choice but to go to their local store, and indeed were asked to spread the timing of their visits, rather than all heading for peak times. One tip still relevant today – from personal experience.

‘We have had to meet difficult and hitherto unknown problems’, the Lincoln Co-operative Society wrote to its members and customers in October 1914, ‘prompt measures were necessary’.

In his next article Dr Jackson will be examining how government health advice has, or in this case hasn’t, changed in the last 100 years.

*This article was originally published in The Lincolnite on the 17th of March 2020

3rd April 2020