Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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Podcasting Since January 2008

The Great Toilet Paper Shortage – Podcast #11

The following is an excerpt from my second book, Lindbergh’s Artificial Heart: More Stories From The Flip Side of History.

There have been shortages of many things throughout history – oil, rubber, coffee, medicine, and so on.  Yet, one of the most interesting shortages, the shortage of toilet paper, was one that should never have occurred.

Before telling this unusual story, let’s first take a quick look at the history of toilet paper.

Obviously, toilet paper has not been around forever.  We can be pretty sure that the caveman did not stop at his local Mega-superstore to pick up a case pack of Charmin. It is currently believed that the original material used for cleaning (to put it politely) was leaves and sticks.

Of course, where you lived helped determine the material of choice.  Mussel shells were very popular in coastal regions prior to toilet paper’s popularity.  If you were lucky enough to be raised on the Hawaiian islands, you may have used good old coconut shells.  If you were born into royalty, like Louis XIV, you would have used wool or lace for added comfort.

In ancient Rome, all public toilets had a sponge attached to the end of a stick that was soaked in a bucket of brine (salty water).  The rich used wool and rosewater.

The material of choice among colonial America was corncobs.  When daily newspapers became commonplace in the 1700’s, paper became the material of choice.  (I guess that one could say that Gutenberg’s printing press caused the toilet paper revolution.)  Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773) wrote in a letter to his son that one should always carry with him a cheap copy of the Latin poets.  This would provide him with something educational to read while on the pot, as well as having a good use for each page after reading it.  This piece of advice lead to a major problem in England: The landscape was littered with paper because they didn’t have modern sewers to take the stuff away from sight.

In the late 19th century, the Sears catalog became popular in rural America.  People simply hung it up on a nail and had a free supply of 100’s of pages of absorbent, uncoated paper.  Corncobs were still holding as a strong second place contender, however.  Use of the Sears catalog declined in the 1930’s because it was then printed on glossy, clay-coated paper.  Many people complained to Sears about this glossy paper.  (Can you imagine writing a letter to Sears: Dear Sir, I want to register a complaint about your new glossy catalog paper.  It is no longer soft and absorbent…)

The first actual paper produced for wiping was in England in 1880.  They were individual squares sold in boxes, not rolls.  This paper was very coarse, the type the British prefer today.  Americans like the soft, fluffy type, which was introduced in 1907.  The original American product was sort of like crepe paper, if you remember that stuff from kindergarten.

The first perforated toilet paper on a roll was invented by the Albany Perforated Wrapping Paper Co.
The first perforated toilet paper on a roll was invented by the Albany Perforated Wrapping Paper Co. (1886-1888) Archive.org image.

To make this background information complete, we need some statistics.  I should warn you that these statistics are a bit grotesque and are based only on a sample population of 106 people.

Here we go:

  • The average tear is 5.90 sheets of TP.
  • 44% wipe from front to back from behind their backs.
  • 60% look at the paper after they wipe.
  • 42% fold, 33% crumple, 8% do both fold and crumple, 6% wrap it around their hands.
  • 50% say that they have wiped with leaves.
  • 8% have wiped with their hands.
  • 2% have wiped with money!

Which finally brings us back to our lead story – The Great Toilet Paper Shortage!

It actually all started as a joke. Johnny Carson was doing his typical NBC Tonight Show monologue on December 19, 1973.

Heeeere’s Johnnnnnny….

Of course, Johnny, like most talk show hosts, had a staff that helped write his monologue.  His writers had heard earlier in the day about a Wisconsin congressman named Harold Froehlich.  Froelich claimed that the federal government was falling behind in getting bids to supply toilet paper and that “The United States may face a serious shortage of toilet tissue within a few months”.

Johnny Carson Jokes About The Recent Toilet Paper Shortage – 12/19/1973

His writers decided to include a joke based on this quote in Carson’s monologue.  He said “You know what’s disappearing from the supermarket shelves? Toilet paper.  There’s an acute shortage of toilet paper in the United States.”

Too bad they couldn’t see the consequence of this statement.  You may not be aware if you are young, but the early 1970’s was a time of shortages, oil in particular.  The next morning, many of the 20 million television viewers ran to the supermarket and bought all the toilet paper they could find.  By noon, most of the stores were out of stock!  Stores tried to ration the stuff, but they couldn’t keep up with demand.

Johnny Carson went on the air several nights later and explained that there was no shortage and apologized for scaring the public.  Unfortunately, people saw all the empty shelves in the stores, so the stampede continued.

Scott Paper showed video of their plants in full production to the public and asked them to stay calm, there was no shortage.  The video was of little help.  The panic fed itself and continued.

They finally got the shelves restocked three weeks later and the shortage was over.  It is the only time in American history that the consumer actually created a major shortage.  (I don’t think that the “shortage” of Barbie or Power Ranger dolls at Christmas time could be classified as a real shortage!)

And to think that it all started as a joke.

Useless?  Useful?  I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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