Watch: The Great Toilet Paper Panic of 1973

Brian Gersten presents a short documentary about the time Johnny Carson created a run on grocery stores for bathroom tissue.

great toilet paper panic
The Atlantic

Need something light and amusing to watch in these crazy times? Don’t worry, it’s still relevant enough that you won’t feel like you’re trying to avoid reality. As the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic escalates in the U.S., there’s plenty of people trying to find historical precedence or similarities. Karina Longworth created a short bonus episode of the podcast You Must Remember This about theaters closing during the 1918 flu crisis. Now The Atlantic has released a short documentary about the last time we had a shortage of toilet paper.

Before Americans were feeling the crunch of the virus as a health concern or a serious financial concern (with the stock market crashing, businesses closing, mass layoffs, etc.), the big news as self-isolation and social distancing was beginning to be recommended was the toilet paper panic. Early on, everyone was being asked to stock up on hand sanitizer, which escalated to include the hoarding of the stuff, plus cleaning supplies, bottled water, and yes, bathroom tissue. There were jokes and memes and, seriously, though, empty aisles.

Is the, er, wiping out of toilet paper from supermarkets and online retailers all about the shortage itself? Has the phenomenon of the TP scare led to further hoarding of the stuff? Probably. That’s how these things happen, whether there’s validity to the concerns or not. Just watch Brian Gersten‘s partially animated documentary short The Great Toilet Paper Scare, which sounds like something holding a mirror up to current events but is in fact about a scare involving TP almost 50 years ago.

In 1973, as the energy crisis created a shortage of oil and gasoline in this country, a congressman from Wisconsin declared the possibility of a toilet paper shortage. A headline about the claim led to some jokes made in the monologue of The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, and people believed it was a serious issue. Late-night talk shows back then didn’t even need a video to go viral the next day. Everyone watched Carson back then, before cable or video games or the internet or any other home entertainment alternatives to network TV.

The Great Toilet Paper Scare is a minor take on some trivia but its intentions are to show not just a parallel situation of the past. There’s a message here about misinformation, not just on rumors but escalations and misdirections and other means of spreading “fake news,” whether on purpose or ignorantly or just to get a laugh. That’s not as relevant at the moment if twisted against the coronavirus concerns, which are very real. And while hoarding and price gouging take the matter to its worst, the worries about not having enough sanitizer, soap, food, or toilet paper are warranted. Fortunately, TP will be available again very soon.

Watch The Great Toilet Paper Scare:

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.