Part of our responsibilities at your Vanishing Texana Museum is to curate the artifacts from the history of our community. Additionally, we also seek to preserve our current history for those that will be looking back at us 100 years from now. Certainly they will seek to understand our experience with the current pandemic and our reaction to it. We admit to struggling with how to explain, in the face of a worldwide killer disease, the first item 300 million of us chose to hoard, was toilet paper.
Toilet paper is believed to have made its first appearance in China around 590 AD when it was ruled that certain types of paper documents, like poetry, could not be used for cleansing. For centuries a variety of materials were used, but it took an American to invent a paper specifically designed for toiletry. In 1857, Joseph Gayetty introduced the world’s first commercially packaged toilet paper. It came in single sheets infused with aloe and was intended to reduce the pain associated with hemorrhoids. Each sheet was embossed with Gayetty’s name which had to provide his workers and competitors with a bowl full of jokes.
Although it was New Yorker Seth Wheeler who received the first patent for a toilet paper dispenser, it was the Scott Brothers who, in 1880, successfully marketed paper rolls to be used on a dispenser similar to what we use today. As plumbing began to move into the home, paper, such as that used in the Sears Catalog, was not flushable and so demand for a better product swirled around the industry.
Not wanting to fall behind their competitors, in 1928, the Hoberg Paper Company of Green Bay, WI rolled out a much softer paper product. According to company lore, someone said the rolls of toilet paper and their elegant, ladylike packaging were “charming” and thus Charmin toilet paper was born. The feminine charm of the packaging helped Americans get over the discomfort of speaking about bodily functions. Still, manufacturing of toilet paper was no simple process and as late as 1930, the competitive advantage of Northern Tissue was that their product was “splinter free!”
The first experience with panic buying that many of us recall was the gas shortage of the early 1970’s. In response to America’s support of Israel during the Yom Kippur war, the Arab nations formed a coalition called OPEC. They limited the amount of petroleum available in the market. Prices shot up and supplies dwindled. Long lines of car formed outside of gas stations. Purchases could only be made based on the last number (odd or even) of your license plate. The shortage of gasoline lead to shortages of many other products people used every day.
In November, 1973, several news agencies reported (falsely) that there was a tissue shortage in Japan. A few weeks later, US Congressman Harold Froelich uncovered a document that indicated the government’s National Buying Center had fallen far short of securing bids to provide toilet paper for our military as well as governmental buildings. He announced 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.”
As happens today, words like “may” and “potentially” were lost in translation and the shortage was reported as a truth. Television news aired footage from the Scott Paper Company of toilet paper rolls shooting off the production line. The basis was set for panic buying and it was a late night talk show host who provided the spark.
Johnny Carson cracked a joke about toilet paper on the Tonight Show. “You know, we’ve got all sorts of shortages these days,” he told 20 million viewers. “But have you heard the latest? I’m not kidding. I saw it in the papers. There’s a shortage of toilet paper!” For four long months afterwards, toilet paper became a rare commodity. It was bartered and traded, given as Christmas gifts, and a black market even emerged before the whole ordeal subsided in February of 1974. In the aftermath, Johnny Carson received the brunt of the blame for propagating the shortage myth and even issued an apology on his show. “I don’t want to be remembered as the man who created a false toilet paper scare,” he said. “I just picked up the item from the paper and enlarged it somewhat. There is no shortage.”
Unfortunately for Mr. Carson, this wouldn’t be his last encounter with the toilet industry. In 1976, he sued a porta-potty company for using the name, “Here’s Johnny!”
We’ve set aside a roll of toilet paper with a manufacturing date of March, 2020 to be added to the museum’s collection. That was the easy part. The more challenging issue is explaining why!