Through a comedy of errors, this mostly forgotten piece of history concerns Johnny Carson, toilet paper and millions of fearful Americans.
With the recent COVID-19 pandemic, an unusual commodity has been flying off the shelves at record rates – toilet paper. People are flocking to wherever a business sells toilet paper and stripping the shelves of every roll at such enormous rates, businesses can’t keep the item on the shelves. But this phenomenon is not the first time the United States has gone through a toilet paper shortage. In 1973, The Toilet Paper Crisis was thought to be one of the nation’s most unusual crisis to ever go down in history. But, as you know, history always seems to repeat itself.
It all started on December 19, 1973, with an opening monologue made on the late-night American talk show, The Tonight Show, where host Johnny Carson stated, “You know, we’ve got all sorts of shortages these days,” Johnny Carson told his faithful late-night television audience. “But have you heard the latest? I’m not kidding. I saw it in the paper. There’s a shortage of toilet paper.” That one statement created and incited a public pandemic the United States has never seen. American’s quickly rushed out and bought up every piece of toilet paper they could find. Supermarkets tried to ration the items but it didn’t work. By noon the next day, all the nation’s supermarkets were sold out of toilet paper.
Most Americans had already developed a “shortage psychology” brought on by shortages of gasoline, electricity and even onions! In 1973, the world was experiencing intense economic stagnation. Inflation had a significant impact on people’s lives around the world and caused many problems with the price of gas, food and utilities. Much of this crisis was caused by the Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) restricting the flow of oil to countries supporting Israel as part of the Yom Kippur War. Due to the restrictions, the price of oil increased by 200% and caused the beginning of the recession in Europe.
OPEC accounted for an average of two-thirds of American oil imports during the 1970s. A massive nationwide gas shortage and panic followed. Gas stations served by appointment only to regular customers or had closed altogether. Business and towns were shutting off electricity to save energy and some towns even banned Christmas lights and neon signs to cope with the crisis. New speed limits were posted and carpooling services ramped up. In addition to all this chaos, the United States was also dealing with the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam War and the famous court case of Roe v. Wade.
But where did Johnny get his information from to cause such a national crisis? Fears of possible toilet paper shortages began earlier in November when news wires and agencies published articles about the current toilet paper shortage occurring in Japan. At the same time, Rep. Harold Forehlich from Wisconsin was receiving complaints of a shortage of pulp paper due to companies increasing paper exports to avoid federal price controls. Rep. Forehlich issued a news release stating, “The Government Printing Office is facing a serious shortage of paper.” But the news release was completely ignored by the news media.
Then it was discovered that the federal government’s National Buying Center had fallen short in obtaining a bid to provide boxes of toilet tissue to supply the country’s bureaucrats and soldiers. By the beginning of December, Rep. Forehlich issued another press release stating, “The United States may face a serious shortage of toilet paper within a few months. I hope we don’t have to ration toilet tissue. A toilet paper shortage is no laughing matter. It is a problem that will touch every American.”
While Froehlich was pondering the seriousness of the situation, the media picked up the statement exaggerating the comment by omitting the possibility of the “potential or “maybe”. The story became a media circus and television stations were airing footage from one of the largest producers of toilet tissue, Scott Paper Company. The shortage warning was completely misinterpreted and became more of a rumor than fact. The Tonight Show writers were turning out jokes as fast as Carson could tell them which added to the panic-induced audience and ignited the spark for full-blown madness.
After all the toilet paper was purchased, next went the facial tissues in large and small boxes. Then paper napkins, cocktail-sized, luncheon sized and dinner-sized. Finally, all the paper towels that hung by the roll in the kitchen was now positioned on the back of the toilet. Carson was blamed for the toilet paper shortage and tried to issue an apology to his more than 20 million viewers. Carson stated on his show, “I don’t want to be remembered as the man who created a false toilet paper scare. I just picked up the item from the paper and enlarged it somewhat….there is no shortage.”
Even though the paper industry officials stated to television crews to stay calm and there is no shortage, the damage had already been done. Consumers witnessed other shoppers wheeling out cases of toilet tissue which led to the toilet paper buying binge. Scott Paper Company called the shortage temporary and blamed it on panic buying and television jokes.
“Johnny Carson has joked about it several times and everybody believes Johnny Carson,” stated an industry spokesman. The toilet paper shortage lasted for four long months. Toilet paper was bartered and traded and a black market even emerged before the whole ordeal subsided in February 1974. The American consumer realized that there had never been a shortage but had artificially been created by a pop culture frenzy.
“Even as word spread about the end of the toilet paper shortage, dozen of consumers were already expressing concern over other shortages. Rumor in the supermarket aisles has it that there are new shortages in mustard, chili sauce, vegetable oil, cheese, cat food, salmon, birdseed, raisins, toilet seats and yellow tennis balls.” —The New York Times, February 3, 1974.
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