Remember When Johnny Carson Caused A National Toilet Paper Shortage?

Culture | March 20, 2020

Tonight Show host Johnny Carson on August 3rd, 1971-- (Photo by: Fred Sabine/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

It was the toilet paper shortage of '73 -- Johnny Carson, Tonight Show host, helped spark a run on bath tissue when he joked about a shortage on the air, and Americans reacted with hysteria over possible disruption of their bathroom ritual. There are many ways everyday life might be disrupted by scarcity, but not being able to clean ourselves seems to be America's worst nightmare, as we have seen in 2020 with the TP shortage caused by coronavirus. Toilet paper and the virus have little to do with each other, but shoppers began to hoard their Charmin and Cottonelle as the news became more and more serious. In 1973, the pattern was different in the details but the result was the same -- bare shelves in stores, and national angst over just what we were going to do if the supply actually ran out.

There Was A Shortage Of A Certain Kind Of Toilet Paper

Johnny Carson, who ignited nationwide panic in 1973. Source: (Paley Matters).

Johnny Carson helped to establish the format of the late-night talk show during his tenure on The Tonight Show: it starts with a monologue, followed by a comedy sketch, and then guest interviews and performances by musicians and comedians. The monologue was comprised of 16-22 one liners. During one particular monologue, on December 19, 1973, Johnny Carson read a newspaper clipping that claimed we were facing a toilet paper shortage and, of course, joked about it. However, the clipping was about commercial-grade, not consumer-grade toilet paper. This joke did not fall flat though, as the public definitely reacted to it, though probably not in the ways he anticipated.

Americans Were Not Surprised By The News

One of the shortages in 1973. Source: (npr.org)

The country was already on edge from the oil shortage. Oil prices had started to climb in the fall and by Christmas, this had led to a rationing of electricity and heat and inevitably gas shortages. There had also been a shortage on paper grocery bags, and some grocery stores posted signs asking customers to reuse their paper bags for that reason. Earlier that year, because of too much rain which wiped out America’s onion crop, there was a shortage of onions. The atmosphere was ripe for fears about toilet paper shortages.

How The Panic Started

Congressman Froelich who accidentally started the shortage. Source: (Wikipedia)

Carson was not solely responsible for the toilet paper frenzy though. On December 11, 1973, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin, Harold. V. Froelich, warned the public of the shortage in a press release, stating that they hoped they wouldn’t have to ration toilet paper.

Froelich had received complaints from constituents about a shortage of pulp paper. Although this particular shortage did not pose a threat to the toilet paper supply, Froelich was concerned enough to alert the press. That press release ended up on Carson’s desk, who brought it to national attention: “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…of toilet paper!”

Dealing With The Panic

Source: (World Atlas)

Of course, panic ensued as Americans rushed out to stock up on this essential and the shortage really did happen. To assuage public fears, Scott paper created videos to show their plants producing toilet paper, but this did not calm the public. Christmas hit in the midst of the chaos, but once Carson returned after his Christmas hiatus, he apologized, holding himself accountable for the incident. Several weeks later, the shelves were completely restocked, and the panic was over.

An International Panic

The current panic is international. Source: (Student Edge)

While the 2020 toilet paper insanity was not caused by a late-night talk show host, it does hold some similarities. Of course, our panic today is just as strange, as Covid-19 is a respiratory illness, which shouldn’t lead to an excessive need for toilet paper. With the crisis, people were advised to stock up on essentials to last them through a couple of weeks. It was akin to the furor that results when there is an impending snowstorm as everyone stocks up on milk and bread. Hearing that we needed to have enough for a few weeks resulted in panic buying, which fed itself as news of diminishing supplies spread. And this isn’t limited to just the U.S. this time; people around the world are hoarding toilet paper.

The Brighter Side

The bidet, an alternative if you can't find toilet paper! Source: (Wikipedia)

We shouldn’t face any supply chain issues with toilet paper either, since the US only imports about 10% of its toilet paper and there are about 150 companies that manufacture it. And there is a bright side for some companies because of this current shortage: bidet sales are up.

Tags: 1970s News | Johnny Carson | The Tonight Show | Toilet Paper

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Cyn Felthousen-Post


Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!