A History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46

5 6


In the main part of this report (Sections III to VI) shortages of thirty-seven commodities are dealt with in some detail. Section III shows the proportions of all housewives who tried to buy and who bought these commodities at different periods from April 1943 to January 1945. In Sections IV and V some of these results are analysed by regions and by economic groups, and Section VI deals with reasons for failure to buy, and for dissatisfaction with the articles bought. It is perhaps useful at the outset to give a summary of the results and to state the conclusions reached.

Have you tried to buy - in the last four weeks? Did you succeed?

(Average of all periods studied

% all Tried
Housewives Bought
Those who bought as % of those who tried to buy
Tin Kettles 9 5 63
Other Kettles 14 2 11
Frying pans 5 2 44
Saucepans 26 7 26
* Pails 7 5 61
Mixing Bowls 10 3 27
* Soft Brooms 9 4 41
Scrubbing Brushes 26 8 30
Cups, mugs, beakers 27 16 60
* Tea-pots 8 5 63
* Plates 9 5 63
* Large plates 7 5 62
* Small plates 8 3 38
Wollen Blankets 7 1 17
Flannelette Sheets 13 2 15
* Cotton or Linen Sheets 16 1 8
Pillow cases 10 3 31
Cot blankets 2 1 35
* Towels or towelling 10 7 74
* Drying cloths 6 3 63
Needles 13 9 71
Mending wool 32 25 75
Toothbrushes 17 11 64

* These items were not included in all the inquiries made from April 1943 to Jan. 1945.

One would, of course, expect to find wide differences in the proportions trying to buy the different commodities studied, some being more durable and needing less frequent replacement than others even in normal times. For instance mending wool, which is continually being used up, is bought more frequently than kitchen utensils.

It will be seen that on an average more than 25% of housewives per month were trying to buy saucepans, scrubbing brushes and cups according to their replies to this question. The proportions seem high at first sight, but when it is considered that two thirds or more of those looking for saucepans and scrubbing brushes were unsuccessful the high figure is less surprising. Housewives making unsuccessful attempts might be expected to try again and thus the normal demand is swollen by shortage.

With cups the situations is rather different, 60% of those trying to buy cups were on the average successful. The proportion trying to buy shows a marked decline over the whole period studied and other evidence suggests that the need for cups was not as acute as the need for some of the other items. It appears that some housewives gave up trying when they found that only the white undecorated ware was available.

The demand for all the sorts of kitchen utensils studied was no doubt abnormally high, substantial proportions of those trying to buy being unsuccessful. The proportion failing to buy kettles made of other materials than tin is particularly high.

The same sort of situation is found with household linen. The proportions of those trying to buy bedding who succeeded are in general lower than the corresponding proportions for hardware and crockery. Cotton or linen sheets seem to have been the worst shortage here. The fact that clothing coupons are required for towels and drying cloths would no doubt influence the results for these items.

It may be noted here that the percentages trying to buy the various sorts of bed linen increased over the whole period studied although the proportion of all housewives buying bed linen remained about the same throughout. Reactions to the shortage of bedding are in contrast to reactions to the shortage of cups. The cup shortage was less severe in that more of those trying to buy were successful. In spite of the fact that some 40% on the average were unsuccessful the percentage trying to buy declined. But it seems that housewives persisted in their attempts to buy bed linen whilst the chance against getting any was very high. It is probable that housewives’ stocks of cups were in excess of their needs when the shortage started, whereas it is less likely that many housewives would have large stocks of bed linen, and thus shortage of bed linen would cause more serious inconvenience than shortage of cups.

The reasons given in Section VI of this report for failure to buy and for dissatisfaction with articles bought throw some light on the nature of the different shortages.

The items of hardware studied seem to have been in very short supply, the great majority of housewives who tried to buy saying that they could find none at all in the shops.

Household linen was available to a much greater extent but many housewives found the price was too high for them. Complaints about the prices of cotton or linen sheets and pillow-slips are particularly frequent.

Many were deterred from buying cups, mug or beakers, on the other hand because they disliked the only types that were available.


Group Analyses

Analyses by region show that the demand for kettles made of other materials than tin was particularly high in Scotland and the North of England where coal-ranges are used for cooking more frequently and where the water is softer than in the South. Scrubbing brushes were also more in demand in the North than in the South. The proportions of all housewives in the different regions buying these items were however about the same. The results suggest that the supplies available in different regions were more nearly proportionate to the populations of the regions than to the demand.

A similar situation is found in the case of sheets. Flannelette sheets are wanted by greater proportions in the North than the South, and the reverse is true of cotton or linen sheets. Differences in the proportions of housewives succeeding in buying the two sorts of sheets in different regions however are small in relation to the differences in the demand.

The most noticeable result of analyses by economic groups is that the lower economic group tend to show higher proportions trying to buy, no doubt because cheaper articles in general need more frequent replacement, and because the stocks of housewives in the lower economic group would probably be smaller when shortages began. The proportion of all housewives succeeding in buying in the two economic groups do not however differ very much. Consequently higher proportions of those who tried in the higher than in the lower economic group were successful. It is clear that shortages are harder in their effect on the poor than on the rich.

The table below shows in summary the results of the same questions asked about various items of clothing. In this case housewives were answering not only for themselves but also for other members of their families.

Have you tried to buy – in the last four weeks? Did you succeed?

(Average of all periods studied)

% all Tried
Household Bought
Those who bought as % those who tried to buy
Women's outdoor shoes 23 17 77
* Women's overalls 5 4 82
* Corsets 17 8 47
Brassieres 7 4 58
Men's boots or shoes 12 11 92
* Working trousers 4 3 75
* Working shirts 4 3 75
* Odd jackets 2 1 60
* Men's overalls 4 4 90
* Children's outdoor shoes 22 19 86
* Children's socks or hose 16 14 90
Infants' leather shoes 8 7 82
Infants' carrying shawls 1 1 76
Baby wool 5 4 68

* Not included in all enquiries.

Since the demand for clothing was restricted by rationing one might expect the proportion buying to be higher in relation to the proportion trying to buy than was the case with other articles.

The majority of those trying to buy most of the items of clothing considered were successful. Corsets are an exception. Only about half of those trying to buy them did so.

The percentage trying to buy corsets and women’s shoes increased during the whole period studied. There appears to have been a slight corresponding increase in the proportion able to buy. The results suggest that supplies were slightly more plentiful in 1944 than in 1943. This increase is small however in relation to the increase in demand. There was also some increase in the percentage trying to buy brassieres during 1944, but no corresponding increases is apparent in the proportion buying them.

It may be noted that the figures for clothing reflect to some extent the issue of clothing coupons, being in some cases high at the beginning of the coupon period and low towards the end of it.

There are no very marked increases or decreases in the proportion trying to buy and buying the items of men’s and children’s clothing studied over the periods for which one they were considered.

The only noticeable difference found between regions is that the proportions trying to buy and buying shoes (men’s, women’s and children’s) were higher in Scotland then elsewhere.

Difference between the two economic groups are slight

The above is a very brief summary of the results obtained by these inquiries and many of the factors having a bearing on the situations described have not been mentioned in it. There is some discussion of these in the main part of this report. Much of it however is necessarily conjectural

The inquiries were carried out with the proportional and immediate purpose of giving a month by month measure, or barometer, of the extent to which different shortage were affecting the public and without any idea of studying in a general way the effects of shortages on purchasing habits. In this report some attempt has been made to regard the subject of shortage from the latter point of view, but the data are too limited for any definite conclusions to be reached. It is possible to suggest explanations of some of the trends observed, and this has been done, but further work would be necessary to show whether or not these explanations are the correct ones.

The information collected could have been very much more valuable from a general point of view. As a study of the effects shortages have on the behaviour of consumers, if there had been available information about normal purchasing habits. For instance if the proportion of housewives trying to buy saucepans per month during years in which no shortage existed were known, the results given here could be compared with these figures and the influence that short supply had on the demand could be assessed. Also nothing is known about the extent of unsuccessful attempts to purchase articles in normal times. It seems probable that people might normally make two or three attempts to buy some sorts of clothing before they succeeded in finding what they wanted. The same may be true of other classes of commodities to varying degrees.

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