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TV URBAN LEGEND: Johnny Carson accidentally caused a toilet-paper shortage in 1973.
After the destruction of Hurricane Sandy last year, upstate New Jersey and southeast New York (New York City in particular) found themselves dealing with a massive gas shortage. A combination of oil shipments being delayed due to the storm, oil refineries being shut down due to a loss of power, gas stations themselves not having power and a sharp increase in demand saw roughly 70 percent of the service stations in the area having no fuel for consumers. That soon led to situations where cars were lined up for miles waiting just to get gasoline. People had to become instant experts on miles per gallon to determine whether they had enough gas to get gas without running out of whatever they had left! New Jersey soon began gas rationing based on license plate numbers (those with licenses ending in an odd number could buy gas on Day X and people with even numbers could buy gas on Day Y). New York City quickly followed suit, but the damage was already done. As it turned out, one of the biggest problems was the issue of panic buying — people buying more than they needed because they were worried that they might not be able to get gas in the future. There was a 65-percent increase in gas purchases in the area before the storm even hit. This concept of panic buying is a familiar experience to people in the area who were around during the 1970s, where there was a legitimate oil shortage in 1973 due to the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) instituting an oil embargo on the United States. The long gas lines seen after Hurricane Sandy were a familiar sight to gas buyers of 1973. The atmosphere was a justifiably tense one and ripe for overreaction. So when famed talk show host Johnny Carson made a joke about a toilet-paper shortage, well, you need to read it to believe it …
While the 1973 gas crisis was a legitimate shortage, most other times when a so-called “shortage” occurs, it’s no more than rumor run amok. A good example was earlier this year in the week leading up to the Super Bowl when there were rumors of a chicken-wing shortage. This was not the case. So if rumors like that could get started today, imagine what it was like during such a tense time as the 1973 Oil Crisis?
It all started with a well-meaning congressman from Wisconsin. After initially issuing a statement in mid-November 1973 about his concerns about a possible paper shortage, on Dec. 11, Rep. Harold Froehlich released a second statement warning there could be a toilet-paper shortage in 1974. Citing a shortage of paper pulp and an increase in U.S. exports of pulp, Froehlich pointed to a source within the General Services Administration that said the agency tried to make an order to fill toilet-paper supplies for government buildings for the first trimester of 1974 and that so far was roughly 50 percent short of its goal. From other sources, Froehlich mentioned fears that all sorts of paper products might be in short supply in 1974. Interestingly enough, he specifically said the situation was “no laughing matter.” However, even at the time, that’s exactly what a number of representatives from various hotel chains did do, laugh it off. A Marriott spokesperson replied to an inquiry about a proposed shortage with, “Are you putting me on?”
So that was that. A congressman says he thinks there could a shortage on toilet paper later on in 1974. Or that could have been that, except that The Associated Press reported on the topic. In the next week, as newspapers across the country picked up on the story, the whole “expected” aspect of the story began to be downplayed, particularly in an article in a Philadelphia newspaper, so already there were some instances of shoppers trying to stockpile toilet paper in that city. Eventually, however, one of the articles (I believe it was the Philadelphia one, but I don’t know for sure) made its way to Los Angeles, where the staff of The Tonight Show was always on the lookout for any interesting articles they could mine for jokes for legendary host Johnny Carson. And on Dec. 19, 1973, during the opening monologue, Carson joked, “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 a shortage of toilet paper.”
Almost instantaneously, audience reaction made it so a shortage actually did occur. Shoppers across the country headed to their local supermarkets and began buying toilet paper in bulk. Store owners then began to increase their toilet-paper orders dramatically. The at-hand supply was not enough to meet this sharp increase in demand and when stores did not receive their initial orders (one store ordered 20 cases and received three instead), they began to stockpile their supply, fostering the belief that there was a shortage. In Florida, for instance, the majority of supermarkets were limiting toilet paper purchases to two to four rolls each. Some stores began price-gouging (as prices for toilet paper almost doubled in some areas). A representative for one small paper company noted, “Toilet paper is in very critical supply” while a spokesman for another suggested that panic was the driving force, stating, “If people wouldn’t hoard and get so excited about this, everything would be OK.” Carson went on the air the next night to apologize, but by this time, there was an actual shortage! Nearly a month later, in January 1974, Scott Paper Company, one of the world’s largest producers of toilet paper, had to begin allocating their toilet-paper supplies. A spokesperson explained, “We had adequate output to meet the requirements of our customers, but because of abnormal purchasing, our inventories have been depleted, principally in toilet paper, and if women will use up their home inventories, we can get back to normal.”
By February 1974, things did get back to normal. One paper company executive later admitted that a major problem was they suffered from a “credibility gap.” Consumers were just predisposed to not trust them when they assured them that everything was OK with their supply. It was hard not to when you see everyone around you buying in bulk and stores having bare shelves.
Reflecting on the situation, Carson stated, “I don’t want to be remembered as the man who created a fake toilet paper scare. I just picked up the item from the paper and enlarged on it somewhat and made some jokes as to what they could do about it. There’s no shortage.”
Sorry, Johnny, we do still remember it!
The legend is…
Thanks to Andrew Malcolm, among various other newspaper reports on the shortage, for an excellent piece he did in 1974 on the event, and to reader John P. for the suggestion!
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Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!