The year was 1973. The country was in a recession, and an embargo on oil coming out of the Mideast meant long lines for gas, coupled with outright shortages as gas stations were literally drained dry. In that mix of economic distress and frustration came a scare that rose to a frenzy in December.
The story started with a Republican congressman from Wisconsin, Harold Froelich. In November of that year, news outlets reported a shortage of toilet tissue in Japan. At the same time, Froelich put out a report on the paper supplies chain, since his district covered an area of the forestry industry. His report noted that industry leaders were complaining of a disruption in the stream of paper orders. As a result, Froelich warned that the Government Printing Office could face “a serious shortage of paper.” His report was largely ignored.
One month later, Froelich discovered that Congress had dragged its feet on renewing paper contracts for the government — supplies to the troops and agencies — that included toilet paper. In mid-December, he released another, more strongly worded statement that the potential paper shortage could reach beyond the government.
“The U.S. may face a serious shortage of toilet paper within a few months…we hope we don’t have to ration toilet tissue…a toilet paper shortage is no laughing matter. It is a problem that will potentially touch every American.”
That got the media’s attention. Reports in newspapers and on TV of a possible toilet paper shortage were understood to mean imminent and definite rather than potential and possible. Toilet tissue manufacturers produced commercials of their production lines running full tilt to assure Americans that there was no disruption in the making and shipping of toilet paper.
Then, Johnny Carson, the country’s leading late night TV host, cracked a joke about it on his TV show. Evidently, his 20 million viewers didn’t see the joke about a shortage as funny, and a panic ensued. Toilet paper was wiped from the shelves of markets from coast to coast, and a real shortage emerged as people hoarded as much as they could acquire.
It took four months for people to come to their senses, despite newspaper and TV reports reassuring people that there was no shortage of either paper or toilet paper. In February of 1974, the frenzy ended. A few weeks later, Johnny Carson issued an on-air apology, telling his viewers that, “I don’t want to be remembered as the man who created a false toilet paper scare,” and added, “… there is no shortage.”
Fast forward to our current situation, and, again, we have seen people clearing the shelves of toilet paper and many other items, as stay at home orders went into effect in every state. WalMart reported this week that its stores had sold the equivalent of a roll for every man, woman and child in the United States. Once again news outlets report that there is no shortage, but there is a lag in the distribution chain as factory and delivery workers get sick themselves, and the limitations of contact and movement affects the distribution of such items. Still, most markets report weekly deliveries, which are quickly scooped up.
The 1994 episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s TV sitcom, The Stall, coined the phrase, “not a square to spare.” The character Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) was sitting in a bathroom stall and asked the woman in the next stall for toilet paper when she ran out. The woman replied that she didn’t have any to give her.
Let’s hope, as this current health crisis continues its march into cities and towns in every state, that cooler heads will prevail and people will follow orders to stay home. At the same time, let’s hope the hoarding of toilet paper ends as quickly as it started. Boomers can remember when there was not a square to spare. Let’s wipe out hoarding, boomers! Remember what the song told us:
C’mon people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody: don’t get together
But try to spare a square
How about you, boomers? Do you remember the toilet paper shortage scare of 1973? How many rolls are you storing right now?