In December 1973, Johnny Carson made a joke during his opening monologue of The Tonight Show about an upcoming toilet paper shortage. While Carson was not the first to comment on the situation, the talk show host’s joke was blamed for causing a nationwide toilet paper shopping spree:
Carson read a real newspaper clipping about a toilet paper shortage on the air… The day after Carson read the clipping (and made a few jokes) about the “toilet paper shortage” people didn’t realize the story had been about commercial toilet paper and there was a surge of panic buying of consumer-grade toilet paper. This resulted in a the stores selling out of the toilet paper they had on the shelves — which of course reinforced the rumor of a toilet paper shortage … I was living in Brooklyn NY when this happened and I remember it being covered on the TV news including the explanation about the difference between commercial and consumer toilet paper, but that wasn’t enough to stop all the buying and hoarding. I can’t recall exactly when it happened.
Carson may have been responsible for causing the panic that created a brief toilet paper shortage, but he was not solely to blame. On 11 December 1973, Harold V. Froelich, a 41-year-old Republican congressman, put out a press release warning the public about a possible toilet paper shortage: “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.”
Froelich issued his statement after receiving complaints from constituents about a shortage of pulp paper. While this posed no immediate threat to America’s supply of toilet paper, the Wisconsin congressman was worried about the potential problem. The story was then picked up by media outlets and eventually landed in Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show monologue one evening, as he told the audience: “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 toilet paper!”:
'There is an acute shortage of toilet paper'
— Johnny Carson, 'Tonight Show,' December 19, 1973 pic.twitter.com/leleaaHVzE
— RetroNewsNow (@RetroNewsNow) December 20, 2017
But 1973 was a time of a shortages (particularly due to the OPEC oil embargo against the U.S.), and Carson’s audience found the joke more frightening than funny. In the following weeks, stores were flooded with customers looking to buy up the last remaining rolls of toilet paper. Since stores were not prepared for the sudden rush of sales, many shoppers found themselves staring at empty shelves, which reinforced the idea that America was truly running out of toilet paper.
On 27 December 1973, the St. Petersburg Times reported that several stores had started rationing supplies of toilet paper:
Toilet paper has become the Suncoast’s latest shortage as shoppers are finding themselves faced with empty supermarket shelves and rationing. Other paper products, such as paper towels, napkins and bags, are also increasingly in short supply, but toilet paper stocks have been hit the hardest.A Times check of 10 stores Wednesday found that only three were selling toilet paper without rationing. Five were limiting customers to two or four rolls each and two stores were sold out. One store also was rationing paper towels, two rolls to a customer.
“Toilet paper is in very critical supply,” said vice president and general manager of Atlantic Enterprises, a Tampa wholesale paper supplier. He said his firm is refusing new customers who want to buy toilet paper.
“If people wouldn’t hoard and get so excited about this, everything would be okay,” said Mark Hollis, vice president of Publix Super Markets Inc.
He said customers are hoarding toilet paper because of remarks made about a shortage on the Johnny Carson “Tonight Show” last week.
While Carson’s comments became a self-fulfilling prophecy, the comedian did try to convince his viewers that America’s supply of toilet paper was not in danger, observing that “I don’t want to be remembered as the man who created a false toilet paper scare. I just picked up the item from the paper and enlarged it somewhat … there is no shortage.”