Toilet Paper Shortages and ‘Nothing’ Cake

Some people in Newport, Oregon are calling 9-1-1 when they run out of toilet paper and one acquaintance tells us his elderly father is urging him to hoard whiskey and cigarettes to use for barter in an emergency. But at my house we’ve resolved to keep calm and carry on during the coronavirus pandemic, panic buying and shortages.

One way we’re doing this is to “evoke the Blitz spirit” or the national resolve displayed by the British people during the bombing by German forces during World War II.

We hunkered down one night last week and watched Mrs. Miniver, the 1942 Greer Garson movie about how a narcissistic English family obsessed with buying things like fashionable hats and fancy cars transformed into true heroes on the domestic front. We also watched the touching 2016 movie Their Finest, about British scriptwriters during World War II who were making a propaganda film while the Blitz rages around them.

The most instructive guide for living through the current crisis though was the 1971 book How We Lived Then: A History of Everyday Life during the Second World War by BBC producer Norman Longmate. The book is based on the personal recollections of 1,000 people, mainly women, and sure enough, one chapter entitled “Under the Counter” covered the shortage of toilet paper.

“By 1944, when it was raised in the House of Commons, one shortage which affected everyone was the lack of toilet rolls,” Longmate wrote. “In offices out-of-date files were raided to provide a substitute. ‘We never went anywhere without something that could be used as toilet paper,’” one woman remembered.

empty shelvesSoap was rationed, a shortage “welcomed by small boys,” Longmate said, along with lipstick, perfume, and hair dye. Rationing, hoarding and the breakdown of grocery distribution resulted in long lines in stores and a shortage of “every necessity.”  The “Nothing Cake,” a concoction of flour, custard powder and dried egg, came to symbolize the difficulties that families faced due to wartime shortages.

Women’s magazines urged their readers to “remain calm and resourceful” and Longmate noted: “The Kitchen Front was the only one where Great Britain never lost a battle.”

Today, some are tweeting about the “blitz spirit,” but not in an uplifting way.

“People go on about the blitz spirit, but in 1940 they did not have videos beamed into their homes of people panic buying toilet roll,” one man tweeted.

That may be true, but I find comfort and inspiration in the actions of the people on that Home Front 80 years ago, even though I’m not yet at the point of raiding my out-of-date files or making Nothing Cake.

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