the glorious volcanic cone diamond head
Reading Time: 6 minutes Diamond Head. It loomed over everything like a god. It got that name because crystals near its top gleam like diamonds in the light sometimes. Where I went to school, I could easily see it every day. (mar1865, CC-SA.)
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Hi! We were talking in comments the other day about panic buying. Today, for our inaugural Chat Post, I wanted to share one of my very earliest memories. I was just a wee little toddler back in 1973. And I remember going through the 1973 Toilet Paper Panic in Honolulu, Hawaii. Let me tell you about it!

the glorious volcanic cone diamond head
Diamond Head. In my child’s eyes, it rose above everything like a god. It got that name because crystals on the beach near it (the “headland”) gleam like diamonds in the light sometimes. Where I went to school, I could easily see it every day. (mar1865, CC-SA.)

Honolulu, 1973.

Oh, Hawaii was wonderful. My family moved there when I was just a baby, right after my sister was born. It might have been in 1972. We moved there because my bio-father convinced Mom that he’d found a great job out there. Hooboy, that turned out not to be true. Oops. But he joined the military soon after, so it worked out — at least till she kicked him out for good.

Despite that familial instability, I have a lot of happy memories of Hawaii. Sure, we were desperately poor and living in a total slum (at the time — it has gentrified like whoa since then). But we were just a hopscotch jump away from Waikiki Beach!

I knew we were poor, but I definitely didn’t realize just how desperate and precarious our situation was. Mom did her best to give us a happy life full of love and emotional support. Hawaii’s warm air and flowing water took care of the rest.

I didn’t hear about quite a few of the bad things happening. I remember an episode of the race-relations issues that African-Americans experienced as a bare fraction of the makeup of the state, but not a lot about other difficulties.

This, though, I remember.

A Buying Panic.

One day my mom mentioned (in age-appropriate language, of course) a toilet paper shortage at the store. I asked why. Mom said, in her Balamer accent, “Because people are stoopit sometimes.” She refused to go to the store to join the mobs trying to buy huge supplies of toilet paper. We had plenty already. She’d laid in a goodly supply.

I didn’t understand this exchange much, but I admired her for being brave and not stoopit. Maybe it’s true: “Mother is the name for God on the lips and hearts of all children. Mine definitely was for me.

Years and years and years later, I learned what had happened.

Maybe those Hawaiians weren’t being quite so stoopit after all. Maybe they had a reason to be skittish about toilet paper shortages — and maybe they had way more reason for fear than folks elsewhere in America did.

How the Panic Started.

In October 1973, America experienced an oil shortage. It was serious. Part of it involved OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) actually starting an embargo against the United States. OPEC did it to punish the United States, which had sided with Israel after Egypt and Syria had attacked them.

Nowadays, we call this shortage “the 1973 Oil Crisis.” It lasted until early 1974.

Gas station lines extended for blocks. The cars’ drivers struggled to get their rations of gas. Often, they were only allowed to get gas on certain days of the week.

We were already stressed to the teeth with shortages. But the situation not only could get worse, it did.

On December 11, 1973, a newbie US Representative, a Republican named Harold V. Froehlich, announced (largely without good reason; it sounds like he had badly misunderstood some news from Japan about their pulp paper supplies):

“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.”

Then, on December 19, 1973, Johnny Carson came out onstage at his nightly show for his usual opening monologue and glibly joked about there being a toilet paper shortage looming.

“Absolute Madness Ensued.”

People watched a lot of network TV back then. And Johnny Carson ruled the late-night TV world.

So people heard Johnny Carson say that there was a shortage on toilet paper, and they rushed right out to BUY ALL THE TOILET PAPER. Stores got totally cleaned out of their supplies within days. Many stores implemented rationing.

And in Hawaii, that fear might have held a lot more power.

Hawaiians were acutely aware of how dependent they were on imports from the mainland. The 1971 West Coast Dock Strike had hit them really hard. It had shut down all the state’s ports, and it lasted 99 days. During that time, they actually had a toilet paper shortage. A lot of other stuff ran short, too, like rice and paper towels, but toilet paper worried them most. Hawaiians got inventive to ensure they got what they needed.

So they probably didn’t take a lot of prodding to participate in this round of panic buying.

Did Johnny Carson Cause the Panic?

Some places actually credit Carson for causing the panic-buying madness to follow, but really, I agree with Snopes: if anything, he only lit the match to a pile of kindling.

Oh, and Harold Froehlich lost his next election. So he only served one term in office, from 1973 to 1975. He ended up becoming a circuit court judge instead, finally retiring in 2011. As far as I can tell, his entire term in Congressional office is remembered for only one thing: the toilet paper panic he’d helped to cause.

For his part, Johnny Carson tried to help Americans realize there wasn’t a shortage after all. He apologized for his role in the fiasco. He flat-out told his audience that there was no shortage.

What really helped to calm the panic was time, though. Over time, store shelves got restocked as usual because there wasn’t actually a shortage and never had been. Americans finally noticed that, and calmed down.

In Hawaii, though, to this day apparently there’s still older Aunties who keep a “toilet paper closet” — a closet stuffed full of rolls of toilet paper.

You know. Just in case.

And Now.

It’s hard to know what will happen with this Covid-19 situation. I won’t say it’s stoopit to buy lots of it or not buy, not yet. I’m not super-worried, though, and I’m not ready to stock a “toilet paper closet” of my very own. I’ve bought extra, but not a ridiculous amount.

That said:

I will keep an eye on the news and listen to trustworthy reports, and hope my trust in them is not misplaced.

Right now, the wisdom from those sources seems to be that the country’s toilet-paper supply is still strong.

The LA Times tells us:

For now, factories are focused on just keeping their existing lines running at full capacity. Retailers, even those who have imposed toilet paper limits per customer, are clamoring for more product, to the point of short-circuiting the normal distribution routes to send trucks straight to factories to replenish supplies.

Canada’s supply is fine too, so far, according to CTVNews. From what I can tell, so far supply isn’t affected at all. Production plants already run 24/7, so they can’t really ramp up production.

But by the same token, they haven’t seen a production slowdown either.

Why Toilet Paper?

I liked this interview from SacBee about just why people keep focusing on toilet paper for their panic buying.

Mary Alvord, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, thinks that yes, sure, panic buying can help people feel like they’re a bit more in control in scary situations. It’s just like extreme prepping that way. More than that, though, people may focus on toilet paper for a chain of related reasons:

  • The idea of running out of toilet paper is hugely unpleasant and distressing for most folks.
  • You gotta admit, toilet paper has a very prominent place in our self-care routines.
  • People want to be “clean and presentable and social and not smelling bad.”

About 90% of the toilet paper sold in America comes from that news site’s stomping grounds. And it doesn’t sound like any of the companies there are having trouble meeting the need.

Everybody poops. And pretty much everybody uses toilet paper. But it’s not like we’re gonna poop significantly more in the next few months than we normally do.

So as long as supply continues as it is, we should be okay. I hope. Stay safe — and wash your hands, friends.

NEXT UP: The lawsuits swirling around The Secret. See you tomorrow!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...