One of the most curiously intriguing aspects of the COVID-19 outbreak has been the run on toilet paper. I lived through previous shortages, both serious (such as when gasoline ran low during the Energy Crisis of the 1970s) and silly (like the shelf-emptying hysteria surrounding the Cabbage Patch Kids Craze at Christmastime 1983). But nothing compares to the recent frenzy over toilet paper. I never knew people were so obsessively concerned about their derriere hygiene until now.
But believe it or not, hoarding caused America to run low on toilet paper almost 50 years earlier — and it was because of a joke. This is the story of the toilet paper shortage that wasn’t.
To understand how this self-inflicted crisis began, you must first recall what home entertainment was like in 1973. In that Paleolithic era before cable, livestreaming, and video on demand, watching TV meant you had a choice of just three channels. The conclusion of each broadcast day, right after the late local news, belonged to just one man.
Johnny Carson was the undisputed king of late-night TV. From 1962 until his retirement in 1992, his Tonight Show owned the airwaves. (I would venture to guess a significant number of people born during those years were conceived while his program played in the background.) Before hosts such as David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Jimmy Fallon were ever heard of, Carson was a household name.
The supposed shortage started innocently enough and came from —where else?— Congress. Wisconsin Rep. Harold Froehlich’s constituents had been complaining to him about a shortage of pulp paper. Then, as now, the Badger State is the country’s leading paper producer. The congressman wanted to call attention to the problem. So, he issued a press release on December 11, 1973 (full disclosure: that was also the author’s 13th birthday). The release warned, “The U.S. may face a serious shortage of toilet paper within a few months,” even hinting that rationing might become necessary.
That caught the attention of the media, who put the story in their newspapers, which is how it caught the attention of Carson’s show writers. They produced the opening monologue he delivered at the start of each broadcast. Carson joked about whatever happened to be in the news that day, which got the audience in a good mood and ready to listen the upcoming celebrity interviews.
But there was a problem. The writers misread the news stories, mistakenly thinking they said a toilet paper shortage was actually unfolding, not looming. So Thursday night, December 19, Carson told millions of people watching at home, “You know, we’ve got all sorts of shortages these days. But have you heard the latest? I’m not kidding. I saw it in the papers. There’s an acute shortage of toilet paper.”
With those simple words, the stampede was on. Hordes of shoppers descended on unsuspecting supermarkets the next morning. Never mind that fully stocked shelves should have made them question the validity of the reported “shortage.” Fear doesn’t pause to think. In practically no time, hoarding created a shortage where one hadn’t existed.
By December 27, a Florida newspaper reported stores in St. Petersburg were actually limiting how many rolls each customer could buy at one time. (Sound familiar?)
When Carson learned what happened, and of his role in it, he was deeply mortified. His show was on hiatus for the Christmas holiday, and when it resumed in January 1974, he delivered a heartfelt apology. (A classy thing to do in my eyes, by the way. Can you imagine any of today’s talk show hosts doing that?)
A dozen years would pass before Ronald Reagan introduced people to an old Russian proverb: “Trust, but verify.” It was good advice when dealing with the Soviets on nuclear disarmament. Turns out, it works well with claims that toilet paper is in short supply, too.
J. Mark Powell (@JMarkPowell) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He’s VP of communications at Ivory Tusk Consulting, a South Carolina-based agency. A former broadcast journalist and government communicator, his “Holy Cow! History” column is available at jmarkpowell.com.
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