When America Didn’t Have a Square to Spare

More often than not, studying history can make you appreciate the time we live in. Sure, there’s the occasional daydream about what it might have been like to be alive in past eras, but usually that idea gets squashed pretty quickly when it comes to either a) oppression/war/pestilence or b) modern hygienic conveniences.

Like toilet paper.

Before Joseph Gayetty created the first toilet paper — sheets of paper that pulled from a box like Kleenex — in 1857, Americans were, uh, attending to business with all kinds of materials: catalog pages, leaves, corncobs, shells, moss, really whatever could be found closest by. As people started to put bathrooms inside the house, brothers Clarence and E. Irvin Scott created the rolled toilet paper we see today in 1890. But unlike their other paper products, the Scott brothers refused to put the Scott name on toilet paper until 1902; they were too ashamed of the ick factor, despite its commercial success.

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Well, toilet paper may have been a late bloomer, but make it Queen of Genovia and call it Mia Thermopolis because it became popular real fast. Americans loved it, naturally. They loved it so much that they could no longer imagine life without it.

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Until they had to.

The 1970s had rocked America with fuel and energy shortages, and young Congressman Harold Froelich (R-WI) became concerned that this might affect the American people’s most favorite bathroom amenity, ole TP. There was little evidence of this actually happening, but the country’s psyche was fragile, always fearful of another shortage. Froelich put out a press release on Dec. 11, 1973 in complete seriousness:

“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.”

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Heh. Touch every American’s butts.

So, the press release goes out, but no one cares because no one reads press releases (The 1970s! They’re just like us) until Johnny Carson’s late night show writers get a hold of it, probably because it sounded funny. Johnny Carson, beloved television host, tells 20 million Americans that a toilet paper shortage is coming.

And 1973 America couldn’t take a joke.

No way, the country said – we’re not going back to corncobs and Sears Roebuck pages.

So a real toilet paper shortage begins.

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People rushed out to stores buying every roll of toilet paper off the shelves and hoarding it, until the nightmare scenario described in Froelich’s press release became reality. Carson went back on the air and announced it had all been in jest and that there was no shortage of TP, but as we know, fake news is hard to recant. It was even harder for Carson, since he actually had created a shortage. Try convincing people that you were JOKING, GOD when the shelves are empty at the supermarket.

Scott Paper even made a video of their factory in production, trying to convince panicked hordes that they had nothing to worry about. It didn’t work.

Eventually, a few weeks passed and the shelves were restocked and the panic subsided, but as a nation we all learned a valuable lesson: some things just can’t be joked about. Toilet paper, a very modern invention that we’ve only had for a century yet refuse to even consider living without, is one of them – as evidenced in this bone-chilling clip from the 1990s documentary, Seinfeld:

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