It seemed impossible that such a precious commodity could be in such short supply. The nation had endured great challenges, knowing that more days of sacrifice lay ahead. Even so, no one expected a toilet paper shortage in the United States of America. Frantic customers flocked to the stores, desperate to stock up on the increasingly-scarce necessity, while businesses struggled to keep any brand of bathroom tissue on the shelves for more than a few minutes.
This may sound like the recent toilet paper shortage of the COVID-19 pandemic, but these events actually took place nearly fifty years earlier. The great toilet paper shortage of 1973 left no one laughing, but its origins trace to a joke.
The United States was entering a period of economic uncertainty in 1973. A stock market crash in February of that year, coupled with growing inflation started off a decade-long period of “Stagflation.” A country that had been accustomed to a booming economy was preparing itself for scarcity.
On December 11, 1973, Congressman Harold V. Froelich issued a press release, warning that “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.” Inasmuch as there was no imminent danger of toilet paper shortage, few people paid much attention to Froelich’s warnings for about a week. Then it caught the attention of someone who, despite the congressman’s observations, thought that it could be a laughing matter.
On December 19, 1973, Johnny Carson, host of the wildly-popular The Tonight Show, included a reference to the potential toilet paper shortage in his opening monologue (watch it below).
Carson said, “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!”
The words of jest from the late night comedian had a much greater impact than the sober warnings of Congressman Froelich. Millions of Americans rushed to their neighborhood grocery stores and bought every available roll of toilet paper. “I heard it on the news, so I brought 15 extra rolls,” one customer told The New York Times. “For my baby shower,” said another, “I told my party guests to bring toilet paper.” In the chaos, company officers and industry leaders told the public to remain calm; store owners ordered astronomical quantities of toilet paper, and set limits of two rolls per customer. Even with these measures, the shelves remained bare. Shopkeepers ordered fresh supplies, but no sooner did they arrive than they were immediately snatched up by customers who were convinced the end had come.
The toilet paper scare lasted for four months, spinning off into its own black market for the coveted commodity. Carson, who thought the whole thing would have been a good joke, wasn’t laughing for long. He issued an apology on his show, saying, “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.”
In other words, when it came to toilet paper humor, Johnny Carson found himself to be the butt of the joke.
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