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We’ve Hoarded Toilet Paper So Many Times Before, Our Coronavirus Panic-Buying Looks Sensible

It’s better than doing it because of a Johnny Carson joke, anyway

The toilet paper shortage is still not over. Many stores are limiting what people can buy, and some have even taken to buying that scratchy, industrial toilet paper that you find in public restrooms, just so they don’t run out. That initial wave of panic buying is still mostly to blame, as CNBC explained that when people feel like things are out of control, they look to take control however they can — in this case, it was by controlling what they wipe their asses with (even if it’s ineffective at the job). 

In the same piece, CNBC also blamed inconsistent messages from our leadership, as well as the sense that “everyone else was doing it,” which often induces people to do things that aren’t necessary. Still, the shortage didn’t occur only because of panic. As WCAX news explained the other day, “Americans are not only buying out of panic, they actually need more. People are no longer going to the restroom at school or work. While we’re home 24/7, toilet paper maker Georgia Pacific estimates we’re using 40 percent more.” 

So while we’re working from home and eating shittier foods, we’re shitting more, hence we need more toilet paper, which is actually downright reasonable — at least, more reasonable than most of the other reasons for toilet paper shortages in American history. Such as…

1942: Americans Scared — But Unfortunately, Not Shitless — During Wartime

Our first toilet paper shortage in American history took place during World War II, and while war shortages were common back then, the fact that this was our very first shortage is a bit surprising since toilet paper was invented in 1857. But toilet paper didn’t catch on right away, in part because it still had splinters in it right up until 1935, and because people used to use things like the Sears catalogue to wipe their asses. A shortage during World War II, then, should make perfect sense, since many things were scarce, but in reality, it was just a case of straight-up panic-buying.

As the Hartford Courant reported on February 10, 1942, “Reports of a shortage in toilet paper and other disposable paper tissues which have caused frenzied buying of these articles were branded false. … If there is a temporary shortage, it is directly attributable to abnormal purchases of such products by consumers.” The rumors, it seems, were born because of the war department’s efforts to recycle paper during wartime. The government had asked the public to save waste paper, which stirred fears of a paper shortage. There was no danger of a shortage though, as consumer toilet paper was all made from fresh trees — just like it is today (which is why it’s so bad for our planet). 

It’s also important to point out that this was in early February 1942, just two months after Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war a few days later. The war effort was new in the U.S. and anxiety was high, so rumors led to panic. This would also set the stage for several other toilet paper shortages to come, including, in part, our present one, where people think there will be a shortage, and because of that, a shortage is created. 

1945: Seattle is Shit-Out-of-Luck

In February 1945, Seattle experienced America’s first actual toilet paper shortage, when supplies to the region began running low thanks to a population explosion there, due to our wartime industrial efforts. Much like our current situation, merchants began to limit the amount of toilet paper customers could buy, so people began to mail toilet paper to loved ones in Seattle.

1946: Our Boys Are Home (And They All Gotta Shit)

About six months after the end of World War II, a toilet paper shortage hit nationwide, which at first stumped the government as to its cause. “The government knows there’s a toilet paper shortage in some areas, but there’s no agreement on the cause or what to do about it,” The Shreveport Journal reported in April 1946. In the piece, it’s assumed that the shortage had to do with a post-war population migration, as people were moving away from the wartime industrial centers, but routes for toilet paper hadn’t kept up. Additionally, an increase in vacationing to areas like Florida may have caused the shortage in the Southeast, which was suffering from the worst of the scarcity.

These factors were eventually determined to be only part of the problem, though, as later reports from 1946 explained that a union dispute had tied up the ship The Mello Franco at a port in Peru for months, leading to a lumber shortage here in America. Additionally, Scott toilet paper had one of its factories blow up in 1946, leading to a 60 percent decrease in output at a time when they dominated the industry. The shortage got so bad in 1946 that it even extended into Canada, with The Ottawa Journal reporting in August of that year that “manufacturers described the toilet paper shortage in Ottawa as ‘desperate’ and one of them blamed American tourists who have a shortage of their own and may have taken the opportunity to stock up.” 

While there were some lingering effects of the shortage still felt in 1947, for the most part it was over by then. Up until that point in American history, the shortage of 1946 was the worst we’d ever had, and another generation would pass until we felt anything like it again.

1971: Striking Leads to Scraping

In 1971, another union dispute led to a shortage of toilet paper, this time felt only in the state of Hawaii. As laborers at the Dillingham Shipyard in Honolulu were holding out for a pay raise, Hawaiians were getting so short on supply that the government ended up selling its supply of industrial toilet paper to the public until the dispute was resolved. 

1973: Johnny on the Hot Seat

This one’s probably America’s dumbest toilet paper shortage. On December 10, 1973, Harold Froehlich, a Republican member of the House of Representatives, warned that toilet paper shortages could happen because of a shortage of paper pulp and an increase in our exports of pulp. This caused a minor stir, but things wouldn’t really take off until after December 19th. That night, Johnny Carson joked on The Tonight Show about people buying up toilet paper, and thanks to Carson, a minor concern turned into a nationwide panic. 

Toilet paper immediately began disappearing all across the country and panic set in as, once again, an imagined shortage turned into an actual shortage. A month after the joke, Walter Cronkite took to the airwaves to report, “The Scott Paper Company, citing panic buying on the retail level, said today it is implementing an allocation system for the national distribution of toilet tissue. A Scott spokesman said unfounded rumors of a shortage has caused excessive demand at retail outlets.” At the time, Cronkite was considered “the most trusted man in America,” but he was contradicting perhaps the only other man who could rival that trust. As a spokesman for the toilet paper industry said at the time, “Johnny Carson has joked about it several times, and everybody believes Johnny Carson.”

Eventually, Carson sought to address the problem himself, joking on January 16, 1974, “I don’t want to be remembered as the man who created a false toilet paper scare [and] there is no great shortage,” before stuffing the paper he was reading from into his jacket, indicating that he was going to use it to wipe later. While this seems to have calmed some of the panic, it still took months to recover from the rush, and the shortage of 1974 lingered in some places all the way until September of that year — if only Carnac could have foreseen that. 

1993: The Shortage That Wasn’t

In February 1989, the supermarket conspiracy tabloid the Weekly World News predicted that in 1993, “a shortage of toilet paper will lead to rationing and riots.” This, of course, didn’t happen, though I’m still holding out that Batboy is actually real.

1995: Capitol Punishment

There have been numerous cases of acute toilet paper shortages throughout American history — especially in government buildings and in universities — and most of these are caused by an organization that’s failed to pay a bill to whoever supplies their toiletries. In 1995, the worst of these acute shortages hit Washington D.C., when most of the government buildings in the city were without toilet paper because the city had an unpaid tab of $1 million to its supplier. In a comment that probably should have been vetted beforehand, then-mayor of D.C. Marion Barry said that while he wouldn’t call the situation a crisis, he admitted that the city was in “troubled waters.”

2020: Coronapocalypse Crapshoot

In our present situation, it’s still a bit of a gamble as to whether or not our grocery stores are supplied with toilet paper, and most of those that are stocked have taken to limiting the amount people can buy. While I know we’ll get through this present crisis, perhaps nothing can say it better than this quote from the waning days of World War II, when an uncredited poet wrote in the pages of The Eugene Guard of Eugene, Oregon:

War’s End

Mad with the fear of a silence, that echoed in thunder my tread,
Alone on the crest of the world, I counted the bones of the dead.

They are doing just that today over in Europe. Take a deep breath and a good look around, then give thanks you live in a land of peace and plenty; a land where — in spite of a bacon and a toilet paper shortage — you can find more opportunities to the square inch than anywhere else in the civilized world.

Comforting words from a different time — though seriously, if there ends up being a 2020 bacon shortage I’m taking to the fucking streets.