Yesterday morning over at the blog Nebraska Energy Observer, NEO’s in-house guest writer, Audre Meyers, wrote a short, fun piece about prepping, “The Neo made me do it!,” in which she extolled the virtues of preparing ahead of time for disasters, rather then getting caught up in the frenzied mobs of panicked shoppers. She wrote about some various and sundry items she needed to top off, including the increasingly-precious toilet paper, because “there are some things I simply refuse to do without!”
With the obligatory hat-tips squared away, let’s dive into this early 1970s TP shortage—one that mirrors our own mania for clean bums. What is it about toilet paper—and the threat that it will disappear—that drives Americans to hysterics?
As for the 1973 shortage, it all developed as a result of a misunderstanding—and a congressman pandering to his constituents. Congressman Harold V. Froelich of Wisconsin’s 8th District, a “heavily-forested district” that depended upon the paper industry. There were complaints from the paper industry that sales of pulp were down, so Congressman Froelich issued a press release stating that the Government Printing Office was facing a shortage of paper.
When that failed to boost paper sales, Froelich released another press release on 11 December 1973 arguing that the nation could face a serious toilet paper shortage. This time, Americans listened, especially after late-night legend Johnny Carson joked about the release on his show.
In the early 1970s, Americans faced a series of shortages, primarily a gasoline shortage due to OPEC’s oil embargo against the United States and artificial price ceilings on the oil. The two combined resulted in long lines at the pump and skyrocketing gas prices (around $3/gallon, which would be expensive today; imagine what that would work out to in 1973). So the threat of a toilet paper shortage—that most intimate of personal hygiene products—seemed entirely plausible.
Of course, the entire scare was ginned up by the media (Carson himself would later apologize for inadvertently contributing to the panic) and a congressman in cahoots with the paper industry (Froelich would lose his reelection bid in 1974, though that was likely due to the general walloping Republicans received post-Watergate, not because of his role in manufacturing a scare). Nevertheless, it resulted in several months of shortages, until Americans saw shelves being restocked. The panic subsided around February 1974.
So, why are we so obsessed with toilet paper? I’ve read several commentators who have pondered the same thing. In the event of major disruptions to supply chains, why wouldn’t you buy dry goods with a long shelf life, and meat for the freezer? Sure, toilet paper is nice to have—I certainly don’t want to wipe my butt with anything else—but there are dozens of potential substitutes.
Z Man surmised in “Be Prepared” that toilet paper is symbolic:
This is probably why some people panic and buy ridiculous things like toilet paper and bottled water before storms and now before the plague. The emergency triggers something in people. The items they buy are symbolic. At some level, people know they are dependent on a system that they don’t understand very well, or trust all that much, to be there when it counts. The panic buying is a reaction to the sudden reminder that we are not as prepared to make it very long on our own.
Perhaps. I’ve heard others (whose names, unfortunately, I cannot recall at this very moment) argue that toilet paper represents a certain level of civilization. That also seems plausible, and fits with Z Man’s analysis that TP is “symbolic”—it represents our advanced degree of civilization here in the West. We’re not going to wipe our cracks with leaves or poop outdoors, by God!
Nor should we. But you can go down to Dollar General and get 500 of their cheap napkins for maybe $3. They’re sturdy enough to get the job done, but flimsy enough that they won’t clog sewer lines the way paper towels would. You can also use flushable Wet Wipes.
That’s probably what makes this toilet paper situation so fascinating—and disturbing. Americans aren’t thinking. Of course, it’s easy not to think in a panic; you just want to get what’s yours so you can retreat to comfort, knowing that at least you and your family possess the cottony white totem of civilization.
Perhaps that’s the deeper concern with a topic that is, otherwise, mostly scatological: we’re just scrambling to hold onto the vestiges of a civilization we don’t understand or appreciate. But like a roll of toilet paper, it’s rapidly getting flushed down the drain.